Many thanks to Siew Foong, the research secretary of the NECF Research Commission for preparing the questions for this interview and Brian McLaren for sharing his thoughts and motivations with us.
What are the emerging trends that you have observed within the Christian world community? Are they threats to Christians’ spiritual health at large and how?
I was in 20 different countries last year, and many more in recent years. Of course, each culture is unique, and each context brings specific challenges and opportunities. But what has struck me in my travels more than anything else is the similarity of our struggles around the world. In one way, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Christian faith has gone global in three main waves. First, the Catholic wave brought Roman Catholicism from Europe to many parts of the world. The Protestant wave followed, quite often in areas previously evangelised by Catholics. Next came the Pentecostal wave which is still advancing. All these forms of Christianity are Euro-American, while the Protestant forms are more or less modernist.
By modernist I mean that they reflect the values and assumptions and ways of modern Western civilisation – ways of organising information and people; conducting inquiry and argument; educating, motivating, and so on.
What I see happening around the world could be summarised like this: Where pre-modern people are entering the modern world, Christianity is thriving and growing. Where people are living in modernity, Christianity is somewhat stable, or even stagnant. Where modern people are moving into postmodernity, the Church hardly exists.
So that leaves me with two dominant impressions. Firstly, where Christianity is growing most rapidly, it tends to be a form a pentecostalism associated with modernist American televangelism and megachurch methodologies. This form of Christianity has much to commend it, but it has notable weaknesses. It tends to make converts, not disciples. It tends to focus on individual salvation, individual health, and personal prosperity, not personal and global transformation. It is often described as an inch deep and a mile wide, with more hype than substance. Many of us fear that the rapid growth will be followed by a rapid descent into nominalism or even secularism Ė like the seeds in Jesus’ parable.
Secondly, as people move from a set of modern assumption to a postmodern mindset (or in some places, such as in parts of Asia, where a modern Western mindset has never been accepted), we have a crisis of evangelism. Do people have to be converted to a modern Western Euro-American mindset before they can become followers of Christ? Or does the Holy Spirit want to enter people where they are, and begin transforming their lives and cultures from where they are?
These are some of my top concerns – and hopes.
The general perception of the Malaysian Church on the ’emerging church movement’ is heavily shaped by Western critiques, and many see you as a staunch proponent or even a controversial voice in such ‘movement’ (if there is any). Your comments, please. How shall the Malaysian Christian leadership be prepared to respond to such ‘movement’?
Yes, it has been unfortunate that some Christians in the West, especially in the US, have taken a combative stance toward the emergent conversation. I find it sad that in defence of “the truth,” we can misread, misinterpret, and misjudge others in an untruthful way.
I think that the Malaysian Christian leadership should take a “Berean” approach (Acts 17:11) Ė to prayerfully engage in conversation and in light of Scripture. They shouldn’t see the emergent conversation as a finished “programme” ready for “marketing” but as a conversation in its early stages of formation. They shouldn’t see it as another American export, but as a conversation in which they can, if they desire, become active participants. I hope to represent a conversation that is truly global, and a conversation from which Americans have much to learn – perhaps more than anyone.
Please share your idea of ministry and serving. What does it mean by ‘missional’?
The simplest way to explain this is to ask another question, “What is the church for?” If the church is primarily for saving individual souls and protecting them until they can be delivered to heaven, that is certainly a noble purpose. But if the church is to be an agent of Godís mission – of God’s kingdom coming, of His will being done on earth as it in heaven – thatís a very different vision. I don’t believe these visions are contradictory, but the second one includes the good elements in the first. The church exists to form disciples who are agents of the kingdom in every sphere of their lives – family, work, neighbourhood, political, ecological and economic involvement, and so on. Many churches already understand this, but I think this is a special emphasis in the emergent/missional conversation.
It has been observed that church leaders emphasise ‘big,’ ‘wealth’ and ‘number’ as growth, but there is an increasing number of Christians (particularly the youths) who are seemingly restless and probably lost in church. Faithfully attending cell-groups, Bible study, prayer meeting, or church service may be mere rituals for some. They become conformists rather than growing spiritually. What you do think?
I think this is a widespread problem globally. People engage in a lot of church activities but donít experience deep transformation. In the end, I believe that the “why” question is more important than the “what” or “how much” questions. Instead of asking: What activities are you involved in? How much prayer or how many hours per week of Bible study? – attractive questions to the modern mind because they are quantifiable – I think we need to ask: Why are we here? Why does the church exist? Why do we gather on Sundays? What are the purposes? Then we can ask: How can we best fulfil those purposes? How can we become the kind of people who live for Godís mission in our world?
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”(Frederick Douglass). Jesus is serious about the spiritual wellbeing of children (Matt. 18:6). However, children ministry is generally not prioritised in many churches. Today we see that we may be losing a generation to the enemy. What do you think about this?
I cannot agree more. There are many levels to this problem, but one level relates to this transition from modern to postmodern. In the modern world, we developed approaches to education that were suitable to the world of industrialism.
Education was like a factory – raw material goes on the conveyor belt and is “processed” through a linear process into the finished product. Chairs were lined up in classes and children listened, took notes, and took tests. But in the post-industrial world, all of these methods are up for re-examination. We are free to reflect, for example, on the way Jesus taught.
Our great opportunity, with both children and adults, is to teach what Jesus taught in the manner that He taught.
While committed to carry out the Great Commission of “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,” the Church today faces great animosity in both the West and the East. The act of evangelising, preaching or social out-reaching has become more sensitive than ever. In your opinion, how should the Church today re-look at the Great Commission?
I’ve written several books on this deeply important question. If I were to focus on three or four points, here are what they’d be:
1. We need to think in terms of forming lifelong disciples rather than simply counting decisions or conversions. Our call is to disciple-making, not decision-counting.
2. Disciple-formation is a process, not simply an event. Of course, as a process, there are many milestones in discipleship – including important ones like baptism. But one of our problems in the conventional approach was that we immediately needed to classify people as “in” or “out.” As we emphasise discipleship, this in-out thinking must be modified, enhanced, moderated. For example, if I take an interest in the game of golf or the sport of cricket, when do I say I’m a golfer or a cricket-player? It would seem presumptuous for me to say so the first time I play. But with experience and practice, eventually I begin to see myself as a golfer or cricket-player. How can we make room in our churches for people in this category Ė what we often call “seekers?”
3. Disciple-formation involves a community and requires relationships in real life. It can’t remove people to an artificial environment (or “non-environment” Ė which is what laboratories and traditional classrooms were, in some ways). It must take place on the road, in the home, at work, in conversation.
4. But for any of this to happen, we need, in a sense, to “convert” our Christians from people who tend to isolate in little Christian enclaves and who may judge and even fear non-Christians, so that they become people who, like Jesus, eat meals with “tax collectors and sinners,” build relationships with friends and neighbours who are not yet in Christ. C. S. Lewis spoke of the gospel as “a good infection,” and we need to get our people out into the general population more – as friends, as neighbours, as lights in darkness and salt in culture – so that our “infection” can gently spread.
Coercion, manipulating, threatening – these are the marks of a desperate and unhealthy movement seeking to scare people into compliance. Neighbourliness, hospitality, genuine conversation, appreciative listening, invitation – these are the marks, I believe, of the early church, and they can characterise our churches too.
Obviously, the shape of these characteristics will vary from Kuala Lumpur to Stockholm to Buenos Aires to Seattle to Kampala, but I think more and more of us are realising that it’s a new era in evangelism. We’ve moved beyond the colonial era where Christianity and Western civilisation spread hand in hand. We’re entering an era in which the way of Jesus is a truly global community coming together in one Spirit, one mission, one purpose, and one gospel, with the possibility of joining Jesus in His mission of bringing good news to all people.
Posted Feb 6 2007 (also published on Berita NECF Jan-Feb 2007 Issue)
For more information on the March 3-4 event go to –> Friends in Conversation 2007: A Quiet Revolution of Hope