Along with food at the GA Breakfast on Monday morning, General Assembly commissioners and advisory delegates were treated to a generous helping of Brian McClaren, the author, activist, and public theologian who talked to them about the future of the church—one that he sees as more hopeful for mainline Protestantism than many predict.
Following his presentation, McLaren spent a few minutes with this reporter.
In response to a question about what he thinks the PC(USA) does best, McLaren said, “In an Episcopal structure, bishops make decisions and then people fight about it for a decade. In the Presbyterian structure, people fight for a decade and then they make decisions.”
He continued, “There is a process of struggle and debate that then leads to decisions. There’s always fallout. I think you all are in the process of making important decisions and then moving on to live with those decisions. I think the graciousness by which the denomination has allowed people who dissent to leave has been admirable. I think there’s been a strong desire to keep people together, but not to trap them against their will. It’s hard to imagine doing any better than that.”
McLaren acknowledged the budgetary constraints that many churches are experiencing today, but rather than seeing that as simply a problem, he looks at as an opportunity to think creatively.
“You have to do less sometimes or you have to have fewer people, but if you only have constraint without creativity you decline,” McClaren said. “The only thing that pulls you out of decline is creativity. The assumption that the future will be different from the past is a painful conclusion to reach, but once you accept it, again it unleashes creativity.
One of the reasons for optimism, he says, is the quality of young leaders he sees … and just as significant as where they will lead is where they have come from.
“In my travels, the young Presbyterians I meet are some of the highest quality leaders anyone can ask for. And a lot of them were not born Presbyterian,” McClaren said. “They were born Assemblies of God or Baptist, and they were drawn to the Presbyterian church because of its intellectual openness, its respect for diversity … and I think they are going to bring great promise and resources.”
He said that he also meets a large number of young Roman Catholics who have left the church they were born into due to a lack of listening and transparency from those in the church.
“This is why I think mainline Protestants have such an incredibly important role. Right now it’s the … experimental, open, and innovative wing of the Christian religion,” he said.
Part of McClaren’s strength as a writer and speaker is his ability to tell a good story—to connect in an engaging manner the points he wishes to make.
“Every word … every doctrine has a story behind it. Every argument has a story behind it. And to engage in an argument or proclaim a doctrine without knowing its story is a little bit like trying to work with a person without knowing his or her story,” he said. “And one of the great things about knowing the story of something is that it lets you know that the present moment isn’t the end of the story—that change can happen from this point going forward. So it seems to me that stories are inherently hope-producing.”
“[Stories] remind us that the future can be different because we’re paying attention to change over time,” said McLaren.