Home > Brian's Blogs, Emerging Church Movement > An Evening with Brian McLaren

An Evening with Brian McLaren

Last night Jeff V. and I went to Spring Arbor to hear a lecture by Brian McLaren.  He was his normal self: funny, engaging, provocative, and challenging.  I was with him on almost everything he said.  The only thing that bothered me was something he didn’t say.

Brian’s lecture was based upon his book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.  This is one McLaren book that I have not read, so my summary of his talk may not fit the book exactly.  Basically, Brian wanted to discuss two points: 1) what are the greatest problems in the world today and 2) what does Jesus have to say about these problems?

The Greatest Problems in the World

One of Brian’s greatest concerns is that the church is not interacting with the world’s greatest problems.  The church is often focused on issues such as worship style, women preachers, and tongues, but the rest of the world could care less about these issues.  Rather, the world is primarily concerned about issues such as poverty, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS, war and terrorism.  Brian laments that the church is often disconnected from the world.  He has a point.

Brian believes that all of the world’s issues revolve around four main points:

  1. Prosperity.  This includes everything we need to survive: food, money, resources, etc.
  2. Security.  This includes our desire to protect our prosperity.
  3. Equity. Governments exist in order to help keep things equitable.
  4. Ecosystem.  The ability of the environment to provide our resources.

These four issues lead to the world’s greatest problems:

  1. The problem of the planet.  Our increased prosperity is leading to increased consumption which leads to a depletion of the world’s resources.
  2. The problem of prosperity.  Due to limited resources and an increasing gap between rich and poor (both within nations and between nations), people fight over prosperity.
  3. The problem of peace.  Because of the conflict over prosperity, individuals and nations fight for their own security, which increases the conflict.
  4. The problem of purpose.  All of these crises have caused us to lose our true purpose (this is where Jesus comes in, see below).

It was interesting to listen to President Obama’s address to the nation after hearing McLaren’s address to Spring Arbor.  What did Obama talk about?  The environment (the problem of the planet), wealth (the problem of prosperity), and equity (the problem of peace).  There is no question that the entire world is focusing on the issues that Brian mentioned.  Agree with them or not, this is the focus of the world today.

How Does Jesus Address These Problems

Jesus addresses these problems primarily by challenging  his followers to change how they interact with the world.  Most people interact with the world through one of four “framing stories”:

  1. Dominion.  When people are in power, they will do everything they can to keep power, including oppressing their opponents.  Brian believes the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day acted this way.
  2. Revolution.  When people aren’t in power, they are always struggling for power.  Therefore, they view the world through a lens of revolution.  Brian believes that the zealots in Jesus’ day and the political party out of power in our day act this way.
  3. Purification.  Some people believe that the world needs purified to make it right.  “If only everyone would live this way, things would be okay…”  Brian believes that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day and some of the hard Christian-right in our day act this way.
  4. Isolation.  Some people give up on trying to change the world so they isolate themselves.  Brian believes that the Essenes of Jesus’ day acted this way.

Jesus’ challenge, according to Brian, is to abandon these four framing stories and replace them with the framing story of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God calls us to live lives of sacrifice, humility, concern for others, etc.  This, Brian believes, changes the way we think about prosperity (we will want to share it), security (we won’t try to keep others out), equity (we’ll strive for it), and the environment (we’ll nurture it as God’s vice-regents).

During his discussion of the kingdom of God Brian provided an interesting comparison between ancient writings praising Caesar Augustus and Colossians 1:15-20.  It was amazing how similar the terms were (lord, good news, savior, image of God, etc).  Brian used this to make his point that the early Christians viewed Jesus as the true alternative to what this world offers.   Unlike Augustus who shed other people’s blood to make peace, Christ sheds his own blood to make peace.

I’m not sure how you feel about all of this, but I was interested.  I think he has hit on some important points and, for the most part, it was very Christ-centered.  There is only one omission, how does Christ really make a difference?  How is the kingdom of God truly advanced in this world?

On this point, Brian was quite silent.  He understands Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God, but he didn’t articulate how that vision comes into fruition.

I wanted to press him a little so I asked him a question about how we combine what he is saying with the fact that the kingdom of God is centered on JESUS.  In other words, I agree that we need to love and serve the Muslims in the 10/40 window, but we also need to tell them about Jesus Christ.  Isn’t this kingdom work as well?  He didn’t really answer the question.  Rather, he said that the Holy Spirit would convict the world.  Furthermore, he said that most Buddhists and Muslims he knows are not against Jesus, they are against Christianity (translation: the institutional church).  I didn’t ask a follow-up, but I’m not so sure about that last point.

My Conclusion

I walked away from the night thinking that Brian has a challenging message about what the kingdom of God looks like today.  I agree that life in the kingdom of God is less concerned about prosperity.  I agree that life in the kingdom of God does not build fences to protect itself and keep others out.  I agree that the kingdom of God is concerned about equality amongst everyone because we are all created in God’s image.  I agree that we need to be more humble, sacrificial, and serving.

However, I don’t believe it is possible to live this way without the Holy Spirit.  And I don’t believe it is possible to possess the Holy Spirit with out faith in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, faith in Jesus Christ is the one thing that can actually make all of this come true.  When a person places their faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit begins to transform that person into the type of person McLaren was describing.

So to Brian McLaren I say “Yes, but…”  Yes that is the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of God is impossible without individuals placing their faith in Jesus Christ, repenting of their sin, and living through the power of the Holy Spirit.

  1. February 25, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Brian McLaren, but I appreciate your reflections on the evening. What do you think that he meant when he deflected the question about Jesus and Muslims? It feels like he is trying to avoid a conflict between calling people to believe the exclusive claims of Christ and one of the framing stories or the problem of peace?

  2. February 26, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Todd: Brian is very critical of modern evangelistic practices in his book “More Ready Than You Realize.” To be perfectly honest, I agree with a lot of his criticisms. However, over time Brian seems to have moved even further away from evangelism to the point where there is no longer any proclamation of Jesus Christ, just serving. I love his emphasis on serving and seeking justice, but I think it needs to be combined with proclamation whenever possible.\

    Beyond that, there is some indication that Brian’s theology has moved away from the exclusivity of Christ. Like some others in emergent, following Jesus is not about believing in him but merely in living like him (so that it is possible to follow Christ in life but not believe him).

  3. mikewittmer
    February 27, 2009 at 12:36 am


    This is a thorough summary and on target evaluation. Brian’s message that we can pursue the kingdom without believing in Jesus sounds indistinguishable from classical liberalism. Perhaps Scot McKnight was right when he said that he thinks Brian is the heir of Rauschenbusch.

  4. Yooper
    February 27, 2009 at 9:38 am


    The Church does/has address(ed) the four main issues that McLaren claims have been neglected, but not from the angle that he would prefer. The Church is to be all about Jesus Christ, and it has made an impact. I’m weary of hearing McLaren et al attack the authority of the Word of God and claim that they have what the world has needed for the past 2,000 years.

  5. Andrew Ford
    February 27, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    How do McLaren and others get around the proclamation aspects of Christianity? Does this come back to the idea that some emergents take on: it’s not what you believe, but how you live out what you believe way of faith? So Jesus as Word of God becomes Jesus as Example of God. John 1 would then say: In the beginning was the Example and the Example was with God and the Example was God. How do they get around Jesus being the Word.

    My other question: How close is McLaren to pluralism – many ways to God? I think this is a logical consequence of a “live like Jesus and do not proclaim Jesus” way of thinking. Would he reject a “many ways to God” way of thinking?

  6. February 27, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Andrew – I think Dr. Wittmer will tell you that many in emergent have in fact abandoned the necessity of belief. So, yes, Jesus is the model, standard, and example of life rather than the object of belief. Regarding McLaren and pluralism, it felt very close to that the other night. To claim that other religions do not reject Jesus they only reject Christianity is to misunderstand their beliefs.

    Yooper – You are correct, many churches have done a lot on these issues. Of course, many have not, but it is unfair to say that the Church has done nothing.

  7. Yooper
    March 2, 2009 at 3:17 pm


    I’ve read about other “Everything Must Change…” conferences and am curious, was there a large bucket of soil available to put your hands in and thank God for the earth and to express love for the earth?

    Did McLaren claim that terrorism was a result of poverty and a lashing out at those who unfairly had more than they had?

    Did McLaren make reference to the fact that sin, flesh, and the persistent influence of Satan, are central reasons for any of our global problems?

  8. Ryan Prudhomme
    March 2, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    I had a chance to listen to Kevin DeYoung of Why we’re not emergent by two guys that should be today. He had a line that I thought was shere brilliance. The ECM is very anti law, being all about Jesus. In this instance they want the church and it’s followers to live like Jesus. They haven’t defined Jesus because God is unknowable. However “to live like Jesus with out a theology of Jesus, is to create a new law”. It was and is impossible to live like Jesus not to mention we’re once again focused on actions not on heart conditions and transformed lives.

  9. March 2, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Yooper – no soil and no expression of love for the earth. Actually, this message ended with all of us singing the Lord’s Prayer. Again, his work on Colossians 1:15-20 and the Lord’s Prayer was very nice. It was much more Christ-centered then I have heard about or anticipated. There was a lot to be encouraged by.

    He also didn’t make too much of terrorism if I remember correctly. However, his four greatest problems included the concept that there is a large separation between rich and poor (within nations and between nations) and that this is the cause of a lot of conflict, especially when more weapons of mass destruction are made and sold. Again, he has something here. War and terrorism over prosperity (seeking it or defending it) and inequality is a historical fact.

    ON your last point, not a lot of talk about sin. However, his talk of Jesus changing our inadequate framing stories is close. The Gospel is more than sin management (thank you Dallas Willard!), it is about a “framing story change” so I don’t have too much of a problem with where he went. The problem was his lack of discussion of Christ as Savior and the only path to the correct framing story that bothered me. I mean, it really, really bothered me!

  10. Yooper
    March 3, 2009 at 7:49 am


    What is wrong with using the word “sin”? It is found in the Word of God. Be cautious, McLaren is very good at twisting words and their meanings.

  11. March 3, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Absolutely nothing is wrong with the word sin. I agree with you completely and believe that a theology of sin is essential for the gospel. All I’m saying is that it is possible for sin to be described as a change of allegiance (Jesus uses this metaphor as well). McLaren uses those kinds of metaphors. But, in essence you are correct, McLaren is downplaying a traditional understanding of sin which is not only a violation of relationships between humans but a violation in relationship with God. This is critical and often absent from McLaren.

  12. Kevin
    May 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    McLaren is a false teacher or apostate. Do we really need to immerse ourselves in false teachers to get the mythical “wide view”?? No, Jesus was very narrow. There is no other Name in heaven…..

  1. February 27, 2009 at 12:48 am

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