By Jesse Carey
December 5, 2016
Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.
A shift has been happening within Christianity.
The way people are talking about, practicing and thinking about the religion of Jesus is changing.
You can see the evidence in the numbers. A generation is leaving the Church at a record pace. And many of those who are staying are taking up causes that have been neglected by large swaths of their parents’ generation of believers: The justice gospel has overtaken the prosperity gospel. Preachers and thinkers are asking questions instead of just outlining the answers. Millennials are leaving the Church not because they have a problem with Jesus, but because they feel like many of the churches they grew up in don’t accurately reflect His message as they know it.
“I think often they’re dropping out for very good reasons,” says author and pastor Brian McLaren. “They’re not dropping out saying, ‘I want to become a more vicious, angry, hateful, immoral, irresponsible person.’ They’re dropping out saying, ‘I don’t want to be part of a community that hates people of other religions, or makes me more judgmental than I otherwise would have been, or that tells me not to be compassionate to people unless they’re of my background.”
People aren’t just rethinking Christianity. They are rethinking the entire message of Jesus.
Nowhere has this spiritual migration been more apparent than among millennials, a generation that has seen thousands leave organized faith in favor of claiming “none” on lists of religions. But there may be something behind the rise of the nones.
Without going as far as claiming no faith, many Christians are re-imagining what it means to be a believer in the first place.
“We’ve all inherited a Christian faith that is a mixture of beautiful resources from the Gospel and cultural baggage and some of that cultural baggage is very, very significant,” McLaren says. “I think part of what we’re facing now is that this baggage has worked for us in past centuries, but it has now become a problem, and we have to be willing to disentangle the heart of our faith from these elements of baggage.”
This shift to a new kind of faith is corporate, in that it’s reshaping Christianity as a whole, but it’s not organized. It’s not the work of an institution.
Something very personal is happening to young Christians around the world. And once it takes hold in a person, it changes everything.
A Personal Shift
McLaren is one of the most influential—and controversial—names in modern Christianity. His books A New Kind of Christian and Generous Orthodoxy fueled the “emerging church” movement a decade ago that led to theological debates and rifts across evangelicalism. To his critics, he is a “dangerous” teacher, willing to pose questions that challenge the fundamentals of evangelicalism; to his fans, he’s a revolutionary.
His writings have made him a sort of intellectual mentor to leaders like Rob Bell, and he counts intellectuals including Malcolm Gladwell—who recently referred to him as “one of the greatest preachers of our time”—as fans.
McLaren sees this shift because, in many ways, he’s helped create it.
He’s also lived it and experienced it firsthand.
For him, this shift began following a conversation more than two decades ago.
“I was a pastor in my late 30s, and I remember one conversation where I realized that for Jesus, the Gospel is not, Here’s how to go to heaven when you die,” he explains. “For Jesus, the Gospel is, The Kingdom of God is at hand. I had no idea what that meant, and I remember leaving that conversation thinking, ‘I’m a pastor and I’m about to rethink the whole essence of what the Gospel is!’”
Eventually, McLaren realized that all of the things he saw as problematic about how modern Christianity was practiced—from its politicalization, focus on rules, tendencies to wage culture wars, denominational divisions—were symptoms of a bigger issue: We’ve gotten the core of the Gospel wrong. We’ve shifted away from its essence.
“I just tried to kind of go back to the beginning and learn in fresh ways,” he explains.
One of his great realizations was that the Gospel wasn’t just about escaping hell; it was about creating a kingdom here on earth. There were deep, personal implications for this “fresh” perspective:
“Is our understanding of the Gospel terribly faulty when it is seen primarily as a message of self preservation?” he asks rhetorically. “Maybe all along, the Gospel was actually a call to us to move beyond selfish concerns. Maybe what repentance means is to repent from only being worried about your individual well-being.”
The shift started happening when he applied this new understanding to Jesus’ actual teachings. Suddenly, the Gospel he’d read for his entire life took on new meanings:
“I personally think the core of the Gospel is not, Here’s how to go to heaven when you die and avoid hell, but, Here’s how to join God in God’s Kingdom coming and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven,” he says. “I do think a lot of us come to faith because of personal need. Whether it’s fear of hell or a need for deliverance from addiction or a need for community, we come out of a sense of need and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“But once our needs are met, then we face the question: Are we actually going to become followers of Christ? And if we’re interested in really becoming followers or disciples or students of Jesus then his way is a way of concern for others not self-interest only.”
McLaren says that the first step in the process of making this shift personally—from a Christian whose worldview is distorted by cultural baggage to one who sees the Gospel in fresh ways—is to be willing to ask questions. Even if these are “dangerous” ones that seem to challenge ideas we’ve been taught not to question.
It’s being willing to search for the real truth of the Gospel above our idea of being “right” by cultural standards.
“If Jesus had said, ‘By their correct doctrine you shall know them’, we’d be OK. But he didn’t. He said, ‘By their fruit you shall know them,’” he explains. “Or if Paul had said, ‘The only thing that matters is correct doctrine expressing itself in correct behavior,’ we’d be fine. But Paul didn’t say that. He said, ‘The thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.’”
For Christians raised to believe their denomination’s biblical doctrine is the primary foundation of every other belief about faith, this can sound like a risky prospect. But, despite what his critics may suggest, McLaren isn’t simply trying to throw out doctrine in favor of religious universalism. He’s trying to get people to rebuild their idea of Gospel from the ground up.
And that may mean re-laying the foundation.
“I’m certainly not against doctrine, but I think we have painted ourselves into a corner where a certain kind of system of beliefs has given us a shortcut to a kind of moral superiority and moral complacency that is very destructive,” he says.
[The First Step Is] Being willing to search for the real truth of the gospel above our idea of being "right" by cultural standards.
It’s not that the doctrine itself is dangerous. It’s that McLaren believes we become so focused on it that it allows us to develop major moral blind spots, shifting our focus from Jesus to a set of guidelines that reduce His ideas to teaching dogmatic principles.
“Here would be a great example: By those traditional lists of doctrine, you cannot have a lot of people who are considered 100 percent orthodox because they have, for example, a doctrine in inerrancy of Scripture or the five points of Calvinism or whatever it is, but they’re still a racist, they still treat women as inferior, they still are incredibly selfish, they put the interest of their nation above the needs of the orphan or the widow. And nobody ever raises a question because we’ve defined the rules of the game to be ‘Simply say the right statement.’”
For the personal shift to happen, we have to be willing to question these priorities, even if it means questioning the focus of doctrine we’ve built our faith on.
For many, this isn’t easy. And for good reason. “It takes courage because suddenly you ask one question too many and you find out that this community that’s been very warm and nurturing and has sustained you up to this point in your life is ready to kick you out at a moment’s notice for asking one question too many.”
But, despite the risk, making the shift isn’t ultimately about leaving community. It’s about helping to change it.
Re-engaging the Church
In this new way of thinking, the Bible is still the primary means of how we understand God, Jesus and His way. But after we become willing to reunderstand the core principles of faith, the next step is to read the Bible with fresh eyes.
This starts by rethinking about what the Bible even is.
“The Bible isn’t a book that tells you what to think,” McLaren says. “It’s a book that actually challenges you to think, and that’s one of the things that will happen.”
This also involves listening to new voices and joining communities willing to see the Gospel in fresh ways. “We don’t have that much practice in reading the Bible from a different perspective, but thankfully we have more and more people who are modeling it,” he explains. “So that’s one of the other things I would recommend as they start listening to new voices and see how they read the text.”
Despite a skepticism about traditional Christian institutions, McLaren says that it’s important that these shifts don’t involve abandoning community all together.
“Sadly, a lot of them end up joining the ranks of what we might call ‘the spiritual but not religious,’ only because there is no faith community to give them a home.”
However, finding these kinds of communities that challenge each others ideas, point each other in the direction of Jesus and work together to serve others is still key.
Big changes in the Church will happen from inside as well as outside.
“Many people are forming creative new faith communities that are embodying this spiritual migration and they’re making space for people,” he says. “There are a lot of people in existing churches who are deciding to create new space for people and they’re making room for this kind of migration even in more traditional churches. If it continues, what I think will happen is that we’ll find churches reaching across old barriers. I think there’s real value in Christians from diverse backgrounds who are united by this desire to serve the common good.”
Eventually, these collections of believers will be able to inspire big changes. “We have to listen for voices who are willing to critique the status quo, and then we need institutional leaders who have the courage to listen to those voices and align with them whenever their conscience tells them they must.”
The Even Better News
Brian McLaren sees a shift happening because young Christians are reclaiming faith from the traditions and institutions that have, in many cases, distorted it.
Making this shift may not be easy, but the reward is worth it. The reward is Jesus.
“When we ask questions about God and violence, and then we go back and look at Jesus, both His life and His teaching, and especially the meaning of his death, suddenly we realize that Jesus brings us better news than ever,” McLaren says. “We realize that what Jesus reveals to us is a God who would rather suffer torture than torture others. A God who is willing to give God’s own life rather than take lives in revenge. It makes us love and honor and respect Jesus more than ever before.”
McLaren is encouraged about the future of the Church because he doesn’t see a Church hemorrhaging young people who are abandoning the institutions that sustain Christianity. He sees a collection of individuals willing to ask big questions in order to make big changes. Maybe this generation can change things and re-embrace Jesus in new ways.
“Tens of thousands of people are waking up to that realization every day,” he says. “They’re faced with the choice: Do I stay where I am and just keep saying what I’ve been taught even though it doesn’t ring true anymore, or am I going to search for a more honest way of engaging?”
For those who choose the latter, a shift will start to happen. And the news that they will find is even better than ever.
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