The Value of Listening to Brian McLaren

John ArmstrongEmergent Church

Pastor and author Brian McLaren is a controversial guy. It seems evangelicals either love him or hate him. There is little neutrality at work when his name comes up. If a person has read him, or perhaps heard him, they have already formed an opinion. And many who have never heard him, or read him, also have strong opinions. These particular kinds of opinions are usually based upon what someone else, whom these folk highly respect, has said about Brian. (One such speaker spent fifty minutes trashing Brian and then concluded his seminar by showing why it was important to do this since he wanted to warn people about my errors! He then proceeded to take several of my published comments completely out of context in order to show why I was a relativist and someone who no longer properly believed in the category of absolute truth.) Labels are tossed about freely (“liberal,” “postmodern,” or “relativist” all come to mind) and strong conclusions are drawn before the dust has settled. The first category of response allows for some kind of meaningful discussion. I am interested in engaging that discourse openly. The second is impossible, being blind prejudice in almost every case. It is simple and observable fact that multitudes would rather follow a herd led by their guy than discuss those things that make them uncomfortable.

I have read a great deal of Brian’s written work. I have also spent some time chatting with him in private. Our journal, ACT 3 Review, did a fairly long critique of Brian’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004) in issue 14:3. (This issue is still available for those who wish to order it at  Brian also added a rather long and well-written response to the three reviews we published. This entire interchange of ideas showed me that Brian is a truly gracious and humble Christian man. He is also a penetrating writer who sees things that most of us do not see. He is, in a few words, a strongly prophetic voice. This guarantees that he will be disliked by many, especially if they have a horse in a particular evangelical race. You can almost guarantee where you will be asked to speak or publish these days by how you respond to Brian McLaren. Trash him and one group will love you. Love him and you are in trouble with that very same group. And among those who love Brian’s work there is a tendency to defend him at all costs, something that he does not promote from what I have read or heard from him. 

Brian recently spoke to the General Synod of my own church (Reformed Church in America) in Iowa. In a Saturday evening address he offered examples of evangelism in today’s society. Said Brian, “One of the things we have to do in our churches is to give people permission to talk naturally about our faith. Jesus came not with the language of argument but with the language of news. How can we rediscover our own message not as an argument, but as a story?”

This is vintage Brian McLaren and the kind of emergent language that we are more and more accustomed to hear in our time. It is also quite biblical in my estimation. How can anyone seriously doubt the truth of his question? Neither Brian, nor I, would want to argue that there are no arguments involved in holding to orthodoxy. But these kinds of arguments are not the gospel itself. The gospel is good news. It is always a story before there is ever an argument. I believe the church in the West needs to rediscover this truth before we loose an entire generation that needs to know our story before they can ever understand why there must be an argument once there is a defining story about reality.

This whole debate is clearly about apologetics, which is why my apologetics classes read and discuss Brian’s work. But it is also about epistemology. How do we know what we know and what kind of certainty can we have because we believe the apostolic story of Jesus? And how do we actually engage real lost people with this good news? Brian’s voice is needed and I, for one at least, will continue to listen to him and profit by his insights. I am sure that I will not always agree with Brian (he holds to several doctrinal and socio-political ideas that I resolutely reject) but I am also sure that he will continue to help me reflect better on how to think and live as an orthodox Christian in the new millennium. I also believe that our own prophets are generally without honor among their own people. Evangelicals will undoubtedly go on debating Brian’s work but they should make sure that they honestly ask, “What is God saying to us through the message of this refreshingly warm and gracious man?”