I am currently in Canberra at the “Australians Beyond the Church” Fresh Expression Conference. It has been a day of travel, dining with a group from the Diocese of Bendigo, getting caught in a downpour on the way back from the restaurant, and the conference starting with a keynote address from Brian McLaren. It’s McLaren who will be the main topic of this reflection.
His basic framework and motivation is that the whole point of the church, and fresh expressions in particular, is not that we might get “Australians Beyond the Church” into the Church, but that we might be able to get the message to those who are beyond. Later on he used the phrase “it’s about saving the world, not recruiting people to save an institution.”
This piqued my interest. Personally speaking, as I have had time to reflect today about the ministry of Connections and my own personal ministry, I’ve been asking myself: “We know how to talk to the church, do we know how to talk to the world?” What is our proclamation, our kerygma?
Brian began his exploration by considering the world through four fundamental global crises. In summary, if the machine of society is made up of an interplay of desires – for prosperity (the desire for more), security (the desire for protection), and equity (the desire for uniformity/equality) – then the fundamental problems relate:
- Prosperity leads us to grow beyond our environmental limits
- Which leads us to an equity problem, a growing rich-poor gap
- Which leads us to a security problem, as some try to eliminate that gap by forceful means.
The fourth problem, the key issue with respect to the church is “The problem of not dealing with the first three.” In McLaren’s view the prosperity-equity-security machine of society is shaped by a “framing story” which is usually religious or ideological. The fourth crisis is wrapped up with the failure of religion to provide an effective framing story. Indeed it is often the opposite in that even Christians have “baptised existing destructive stories.”
At this point I was beginning to wonder if we were heading for a straightforward postmodern championing of a gospel that is shaped around nothing more than the Millennium Developmnet Goals. In fact, I almost twittered that “Brian McLaren has talked for over half an hour without mentioning Jesus.”
But he redeemed himself by explaining the “destructive framing stories” of Jesus’ day and how Jesus subverted those stories with the “good news of the Kingdom of God” which his followers summed up in the declaration “Jesus is Lord.” This Lordship of Christ was about seeing the Kingdom come now, in this world, in the real lives of people. It was about immediate engagement with the new life of God, not the proverbial pie in the sky.
Having read his book, none of this surprised me. But I will admit to a certain amount of unease. McLaren wasn’t saying anything wrong (in fact much of what he said was useful) it was just like there was something missing. I think that tonight, as for the book, that this missing something relates to aspects of the judgement of God and his moral holiness.
For instance, in response to a question he suggested that the evangelism is different to the rich than to the poor. We should evangelise to the rich not on the basis of need, but of opportunity. Not so much “come and be saved from your destitution” but “come and join in.” This runs perilously close to losing the gospel in a works-basis for the rich.
In another instance he dismissed the debate on sexuality as peripheral. I asked a question that was somewhat related to this: Jesus confronted the destructive framing stories with the Kingdom of God and in the process was misunderstood and accused of being just as destructive as the next guy – How then do we “simply do what Jesus did” without also being considered a part of the destructive story? Many different framing stories can seek to address the global crises. Offence and accusations of destructivity will be levied not at the point of agreement (look after the poor) but at the point of disagreement (on sexuality for instance). To ignore sexuality is to ignore the place where the difference in the framing story becomes paramount and obvious.
It is as I said in the book review – the three global problems are fields for people to buy. But where is the treasure of great value, the Kingdom of God resting on Jesus, dying to save, raising to bring new life?
I look forward to tomorrow and the days that follow, mulling more on how do we speak “Jesus is Lord” to the people of North West Tasmania.