One of the emerging church’s foremost figures, Brian McLaren, challenged Anglicans earlier this week to speak the Gospel into the world’s ever-changing cultures.
McLaren said he had come to the Anglican Communion’s once-a-decade Lambeth Conference to speak to the more than 600 bishops and their spouses “on behalf of the people who never show up in your church, … who are never part of your community, the multitude of people who have been created in the image of God, but who have never known the redeeming of the Spirit of God through the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
He argued that religion had “orphaned” emerging culture such as materialism and technological development, and failed to answer questions raised by the “hurricane of change” in the modern world.
McLaren went on to present his view of evangelism in what he defined as the pre-modern, modern and emerging worlds. He said that evangelism in parts of the world that are experiencing a shift from pre-modern to modern may seem “effortless,” but churches in the modern world are “static and declining” and “evangelism is hard to come by.”
“You might say that evangelism is almost non-existent because the Christian faith is, to be very frank, almost non-existent,” he told the audience, gathered at the University of Kent, in Canterbury.
McLaren, who was previously voted one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential evangelicals and is one of the more controversial emerging church figures, also told the bishops that they needed to ditch “internal institutional maintenance” and focus instead on the “outward mission” of making disciples among all people. That, he said, was “our only hope of saving the church from division, diversion, implosion, irrelevance and triviality.”
McLaren remained positive about the “wonderful” and “creative” ways that Anglicans are making disciples around the world, including the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions initiative to develop new ways of being church.
He also offered a fresh perspective on the challenges confronting the Anglican Communion right now, saying they could become a “great asset” to the Church if they realized “we’re in a different place, different contexts and we have different challenges.”
“The fact that you are a global communion means that you are forced to realize that different cultures are dealing with different struggles,” he said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”
He encouraged the bishops to use Lambeth as an opportunity to enter the emerging, post-modern world as disciples of Christ and change history.
"What new, unimagined capacity could be stirred up in the church if we re-discovered and re-prioritized our outward mission to be the hands and feet and eyes and ears, the presence of Jesus Christ to a world in desperate need? What would happen if we turned that outward mission into the good news of hope?" McLaren asked the bishops.
Going further, he challenged them to consider what kind of Gospel newcomers to the church were likely to hear.
“Will it be the gospel of evacuation (to heaven after death) or will it be Jesus’ Gospel, the Gospel of the kingdom of God, the message that brings reconciliation, hope, transformation and engagement?”
McLaren exhorted bishops to take a “missiological” and culturally sensitive view of homosexuality, an issue that has divided the Church particularly since the U.S. Episcopal Church’s consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
“To deal with this issue of human sexuality in some places in the world is very different than in other places in the world,” he said. “If you are deeply, deeply committed to making followers of Jesus Christ, you have to be conscious of those settings and the real challenge is the person in [one] setting to be conscious of the difficulties of the person in [the other] setting.”
McLaren's comments come as the archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan affirmed the authority of Scripture on Tuesday.
"The culture does not change the Bible; the Bible changes the culture. Cultures that do not approve of the Bible are left out of the Church’s life," the Most Rev. Dr. Daniel Deng Bul said.
This year, Anglican leaders are approaching Lambeth differently, moving away from legislation and toward more conversation as they try to better understand one another amid divisions. Discussions will center on highly debated issues including biblical authority, human sexuality and Anglican identity.