Brian McLaren came to town recently and spoke about one of my favorite topics: “A New Way of Being Church.”
His lecture was a part of the Ohio Ministries Convocation 2013, held Jan. 29 at Sylvania United Methodist Church.
McLaren has been speaking about "new ways" for much of his career. One of his most popular books, "A New Kind of Christian" (2001), has been widely read by young evangelicals who are questioning their orthodox tradition and creating new postmodern communities.
Some progressives also like McLaren because he champions what we have been saying all along about justice and mercy, while pushing us to claim Jesus more boldly and to find common ground with our evangelical brothers and sisters.
In his Sylvania lecture, McLaren made one simple statement about the church over and over: "The future is going to be different than the past."
I found myself writing down those words with a chuckle. Don’t we all realize this? One would have to be blind, deaf and mute not to know that the future is going to be different than the past, right?
But McLaren drove the point home in not so many words: Churches that do not change will die. They will not attract young people. Their members will be dead and buried. It is simple logic.
His message was not completely “doom and gloom,” however. McLaren offered hope. He directed us to, of all places, a really smart guy named Otto Scharmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scharmer studies frameworks for leadership and change. Scharmer writes: “We live in an era of intense conflict and massive institutional failures, a time of painful endings and of hopeful beginnings. It is a time that feels as if something profound is shifting and dying while something else, as the [late] playwright and Czech president, Václav Havel, put it, 'wants to be born.’"
McLaren explained that Scharmer’s work calls for rethinking an entire system from scratch.
In a church system, for example, we have to let go of everything we have known in the past. We have to let ourselves simply “be” before we can let the new church come into being. The future will be different from the past. We cannot see the future until we die to the past.
He used a wonderful example of how, in 2001, the U.S. Postal Service did not see e-mail as a threat. The Postal Service leaders were so wrong. By 2012, the U.S. Postal Service was in serious financial trouble and began to say that it might need to expand into other businesses because e-mail had had such an effect on communications.
“In the church, we have to ask ourselves: Are we in the envelope, paper, stamp, mailbox, and post office business?," McLaren said.
He then wrapped up his lecture by hinting as some of the ways church leaders might begin to learn how to prepare for our new future.
“Change happens when movement leaders and institutional leaders collaborate,” he said. That is, the leaders of dying institutions need to learn from those who are leading great social change movements right now. For example, the church that neglects the power of social media will be dead in 20 years. Personally, I would venture to say it is probably already on life support but does not know it.
The future is going to be different than the past. Something profound is shifting and dying while something else wants to be born. Many of our beloved and faithful churches and faith communities are closing. They have served us well. The future for followers of Jesus and other people of faith looks different.
As a church planter, I am grateful for the freedom to create something that is completely new and different -- or, as McLaren called it, “A New Way of Being Church.”
Otto Scharmer invites us rethink our whole system so that something new can come into being. I think I remember the Apostle Paul once saying that we become a new creation when we follow the way of Jesus. In order to be relevant in this 21st century, it appears that our churches, like ourselves, will need to be changed completely, from the inside out.