The Common Good

Evangelical Author Puts Progressive Spin On Traditional Faith

Date: September 10, 2006

Lyndsay Moseley was no longer inspired by the evangelical Christian faith of her youth. As an environmental activist, she believed that it offered little spiritual support for her work and was overly focused on opposing abortion and gay marriage.

Then the 27-year-old District resident discovered Brian D. McLaren of Laurel, one of contemporary Christianity's hottest authors and founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in upper Montgomery County.

"He always talks about the environment as a priority when he talks about the church being relevant to the world," Moseley said. "He's leading a [spiritual] conversation that needs to happen," one that "I've been hungry for."

McLaren has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in an increasingly active group of progressive evangelicals who are challenging the theological orthodoxy and political dominance of the religious right. He also is an intellectual guru of "emerging church," a grass-roots movement among young evangelicals exploring new models of living out their Christian faith.

Progressives, who range from 11 to 36 percent of all evangelicals, according to various polls, are still overshadowed by the Christian right among evangelicals. But the steady popularity of McLaren's books over the past eight years signals an expanding diversity of thought in this important political constituency.

McLaren, 50, offers an evangelical vision that emphasizes tolerance and social justice. He contends that people can follow Jesus's way without becoming Christian. In the latest of his eight books, "The Secret Message of Jesus," which has sold 55,000 copies since its April release, he argues that Christians should be more concerned about creating a just "Kingdom of God" on earth than about getting into heaven.

Along with such other progressive evangelicals as Washington-based anti-poverty activist Jim Wallis and educator Tony Campolo, McLaren is openly critical of the conservative political agenda favored by many evangelicals.

"When we present Jesus as a pro-war, anti-poor, anti-homosexual, anti-environment, pro-nuclear weapons authority figure draped in an American flag, I think we are making a travesty of the portrait of Jesus we find in the gospels," McLaren said in a recent interview.

Scot McKnight, a professor of religious studies at Chicago's North Park University who has studied McLaren's career, said that "he wants there to be greater cooperation among Christians, and he thinks evangelical Christians have aligned themselves too closely with the Republican Party. He wants to see Christians . . . pursue what is right, regardless of the political party's platform."

What makes McLaren's ideas attractive to progressive evangelicals appalls the more numerous conservatives. Noting that he fails to condemn homosexuality, one conservative Web site called him "A True Son of Lucifer" for ignoring "absolute biblical truth." And last year, Baptists in Kentucky revoked a speaking invitation after McLaren said that followers of Jesus might not be the only ones to gain salvation.

"If you have some person or movement coming along calling into question the non-negotiables of Christianity, then those who espouse Christianity find such a challenge dangerous," said Donald A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, who has criticized McLaren's theology.

Though a "creative, sparkly writer," added Carson, McLaren has "got so many things wrong in his analysis that his work is not going to last that long."

Modernizing the Message

"Emerging church" is a loose network of mostly young evangelicals who believe the Christian message needs to be made more relevant in a time of rapid technological and societal change, particularly to those who've never been part of any church. Participants refer to their interaction as a "conversation," much of which takes place on the Internet at sites such as http://www.emergentvillage.com and blogs such as pomomusings.com.

"We are questioning a lot of presuppositions of conventional Christians: What should a church look like? How do we really understand Scripture in a modern context?" said Tony Jones, the conversation's national coordinator. "To conservatives, we seem like relativists, and to liberals, we seem like Jesus freaks."

The movement has no membership rolls, set beliefs or creed; liturgical diversity is encouraged. There is no way to know how many congregations are putting "emerging church" ideas into practice, Jones said. But "thousands of churches and pastors are . . . listening in, coming to hear Brian and reading my weekly e-mails."

McLaren said the name "emerging church" came out of a 2001 discussion he had with Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis, about "why the megachurches were not attracting young people." The reasons, experts said, were becoming evident in the 1990s: dissatisfaction with the rightward drift in evangelical politics; worship styles so contemporary and casual they had no spiritual uplift; a lack of emphasis on social justice; and a theology that some say reduced Christianity to a recipe.

"The modern Christian formula of 'I mentally assent to the fact that Jesus died for my sins and therefore I get to live forever in heaven' . . . is entirely cognitive," said Ken Archer, 33, a D.C. software entrepreneur who is studying philosophy at Catholic University. "It's a mathematical formula [that] leaves the rest of our being unfulfilled."

McLaren's 2001 book, "A New Kind of Christian," captured the dissatisfaction. "I felt like someone had read my mind," said Michael Lamson, 31, an evangelical youth pastor in Mercersburg, Pa. Three years later, in "A Generous Orthodoxy," McLaren elaborated his theological outlook, which became a major influence on the "emerging conversation."

"What Brian is contributing is excellent questions that expose the modern roots of our spiritual angst," said Archer, who has had long conversations with McLaren. "He sees the answers coming from others, and he has encouraged thousands of people, including myself, to find the answers."

A Fellowship Expands

Cedar Ridge, the congregation McLaren founded, is a far cry from the religious environment in which he was raised in Rockville. His family belonged to the ultraconservative Plymouth Brethren, which also is the childhood church of activist Wallis and radio celebrity Garrison Keillor.

As someone who loved books, music and science, "I was on the way out from the Christian faith" in his mid-teens, said the balding McLaren, who wears glasses and a closely cropped grey beard.

But that changed with the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, whose anti-establishment spirit attracted him. "I've always had the sense that Jesus's message is not a chaplaincy to the establishment," he said, "but that it is countercultural."

In 1982, while he was teaching English at the University of Maryland, McLaren and his wife, Grace, started a small "fellowship group" in their College Park apartment. "We'd have prayer, I'd do a little Bible study, then we'd have dinner. It was mostly grad students," he recalled.

The group met for several years in homes and school buildings until it ended up at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Beltsville and took the name Cedar Ridge. McLaren left teaching -- and his unfinished doctorate studies -- to be pastor. In the late 1990s, the congregation of about 250 bought a 63-acre farm in Spencerville and moved there in January 1999.

The church now has an average attendance of 600 at Sunday services, and members say a big reason for the growth was McLaren's openness to ideas that are unconventional in evangelical circles.

"I don't see the issue of homosexuality as the simple black-and-white issue that some of my fellow evangelicals make it out to be," said McLaren, who last year was named by Time magazine among the "25 most influential evangelicals in America."

And while not happy about widespread abortions, he added, "to just say 'Okay, let's pass laws about it' seems to me to skip a number of important steps, like honest and open dialogue, persuasion and seeking to remove the conditions that make abortion so prevalent."

McLaren, who never attended seminary or divinity school, said his congregants' questions made him realize that the old answers no longer worked. "I remember thinking these are a different kind of question, and I didn't have good answers," he said. "I went through a real period of doubt . . . about the form of Christianity that I'd inherited. . . . In many ways, that struggle is what gave birth to my first book."

A Bigger Mission

The scent of summer grass hung in the steamy air on a recent Sunday morning as a parade of Toyota and Honda SUVs turned off Route 198 into the bucolic compound of Cedar Ridge. The onetime farm's brick silo stood in front of the new church -- built to look like a barn, complete with loft door. No religious symbols adorned the exterior.

Volunteers stood at the door greeting young families, elderly couples, singles and teenagers with studded ears. In the lobby, coffee and bagels were available. "Make yourself a nametag," invited a sign next to pens and labels.

The sanctuary is a huge open space with folding chairs circling a platform that serves as a pulpit. Behind that is an altar covered in purple cloth with a two-foot-high wooden cross. Behind that is a stage with two electric guitars, a keyboard, drums and tambourines. Two large video screens display words to contemporary hymns. The liturgy, which includes Communion, is casual but reverent.

Beverly Farmer of Silver Spring, a traffic reporter with WUSA (Channel 9), has attended Cedar Ridge for five years. "The big, metal building, the folding chairs, was not my idea of church . . . but it appealed to me," Farmer said. "I felt I was at home."

With McLaren's books drawing increased international attention, he asked to step down last year so he could travel more. Matthew Dyer took over as pastor in February.

But McLaren returned on a Sunday in July to preach on the theme of his latest book. Farmer, who was in the congregation that day, said she misses her former pastor but understands.

"Brian's mission is bigger than just Cedar Ridge," she said. "I know he has more work to do in this world."

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