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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Insights from Brian McLaren

For about an hour and a half this afternoon, I had the rare opportunity - along with a number of other colleagues from presbytery and synod leadership - to sit at the feet of Brian McLaren, one of the most compelling voices in the so-called Emerging Church movement.  Here are a few random notes I took, based on his off-the-cuff remarks:

The Baby Boomers left the church, then came back later. The next generation after them left but didn't come back. This is the source of many of our present difficulties.

The Roman Catholic member-attrition numbers are even worse than the mainline Protestants', if new immigrants are excluded. Roman Catholic sociologists studying the situation have confirmed this, and have observed that their institutions as they know them are simply not sustainable in the long term, unless major changes are made.

There is a need for serious theological dialogue about questions such as: "What do we mean by sovereignty?" Some hear that word and think it means "control," as in God micro-managing everything that happens. Can God be sovereign but not in control?

Church is like group aerobics. People join those classes to do a workout they'd never do alone. It's a kind of liturgy. The problem is that, for all too many, church is a bad workout.  There are so many mean people in our churches in leadership roles, who should not be there if we really applied our beliefs consistently.

Liturgical, social-justice, charismatic, evangelical: according to Phyllis Tickle, these are the new divisions within American Christianity. These true dividing lines between Christians laterally cross denominational lines. Those firmly grounded in one of these four traditions will typically have more in common with friends from a another denomination who follow the same tradition than they do with a random person from their own denomination.

We are experiencing both emergence and convergence. We also have divergence from many elements of American culture (which was not true 50 years ago). The culture has its own ethic that is becoming more firmly established all the time, regardless of the teachings of the churches. For example, unless we in the churches affirm that maximizing profits is always the highest goal, we've diverged from the culture.

In Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass says the pendulum is swinging back from "spiritual but not religious," and that these people are now hungry for spiritual andreligious. There are some indications that they're not so much against "organized religion" itself as against religion organized for the wrong purposes.

People are looking for religion to organize for the right purpose: not so much for purposes of self-governance (the old model), as to conduct wholistic mission.

One of the wisest things church leadership consultant Lyle Schaller ever said: "You bring in a new day with new people."

The new day will require welcoming in significant numbers of the erstwhile spiritual-but-not-religious.

The PC(USA)'s new "1,001 New Worshiping Congregations" project will not succeed unless we can make room for the innovations of the newcomers, and unless we can make sure they won't be constantly criticized. We must create safe zones for innovation. Existing churches will need to actually see these innovative communities succeeding before they will begin to emulate their practices.

Innovation: it's not just for Pentecostals anymore.

Few Presbyterians remember that Calvin started writing the Institutes when he was 19. Presbyterians have probably not listened to a 19-year-old ever since.

A California presbytery created what it calls a "polity-free zone." The executive presbyter had to run interference for it, over the objections of some old-timers.

We must be alert and able to reach out to people from other, more conservative denominations who are being pushed out of their churches because they believe essentially the same things we believe.

One of our greatest challenges is to surface our ethos.  Two leading characteristics of our Presbyterian ethos are participatory decision-making and serious biblical scholarship. These are immensely attractive to many refugees from other denominational traditions.

Presbyterian polity is one way of doing participatory decision-making, but it's not the only way.

Religious leaders, working ecumenically, need to become the guardians of the common good in the local community. Politicians of an earlier era may have claimed to do that, but they can do it no longer because the corporations are now calling the shots, through campaign contributions.

You can't confront injustice without making enemies.

Some Episcopal dioceses have successfully transformed their annual diocesan conventions into something that looks rather like revivals. People are glad to attend because they leave energized.

Almost all innovation happens at the margins, not at the center. It's no accident that Jesus came out of Nazareth rather than Jerusalem.

Youth, by definition, are at the margins. We need to pay close attention to the innovations they are championing.

Those in power must use their power to protect those who are trying to innovate.

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