Progressive Baptists are crucial to promoting a Christianity free of power politics, white supremacy and the idolization of Donald Trump, according to theologian, author and speaker Brian McLaren.
“It’s all too plain that white evangelicals, white Catholics and Southern Baptists currently wield enormous political power,” said McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian.
Hearing alternative voices – and especially Baptist voices – preaching a different gospel sends a powerful message to a culture that was suspicious of the church even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the political and social turmoil sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last month.
I’ve become concerned that if the church has a resurgence without being purged of its racism, we’re making the world a worse place.
“Even just having the courage to say ‘I’m a Baptist and I see things differently’” could positively impact the future of the church, McLaren said.
“Younger generations of white Christians are growing up and if their only choice is Jerry Falwell (Jr.) and Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham, the vast majority of them will want nothing to do with Christianity.”
McLaren spoke with Baptist News Global about his assessment of the future of the church in light of recent events. His comments are included here, edited for brevity.
How have these months and weeks reshaped your ministry focus?
All of my public speaking is canceled for the time being. Some of it has transferred to online – I’m Zooming constantly. It has been in some ways a highly stressful time even though my schedule is a lot freer than it usually is.
Have the pandemic and the ongoing social and racial unrest reshaped your assessment of where the church and Christianity are headed?
Yes, definitely. A lot of my life has been devoted to helping the church adapt to changing times, survive and hopefully thrive in a new cultural and historic context. But as I have become more sensitized to the relationship between the white Christian church and white supremacy, I’ve become concerned that if the church has a resurgence without being purged of its racism, we’re making the world a worse place. So, I am now simultaneously concerned about the church’s survival, or its decline. If it survives and is linked with racism and authoritarianism, we have one kind of problem. And if it is marginalized and discredited and abandoned, we have another kind of problem.
And Baptists play a key role in this – obviously Southern Baptists because of their numbers and their close relationship with the Republican party and the current president. So, I see the world as more complex and paradoxical than I saw it before.
What are some of the signs that this is unfolding?
Let me say something on the positive side. I have been so impressed with the adaptability of thousands of our congregations to adjust to a period of months without being able meet personally. If you had put it up to deacon boards and elder boards around the country to vote on whether they would be willing to not meet for a period of time and experiment with going online, very few if any would have voted to do this. But necessity required it and people showed amazing adaptability and resilience. It tells me what the church is capable of. It’s a reminder to us that we have more agility than we previously realized.
This would be a powerful time for churches to rediscover their identity as God’s agents of peace and transformation and justice in this world
But the coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic, is a symptom of a larger problem. And that is we live in a globally interconnected world, yet many of our churches were formed in an era of nationalism. Many Christians are not ready yet, emotionally and intellectually, to adjust to a globalized world and they are yearning to go back to a world they are more familiar with.
How is this impacting the relevance of the church in people’s lives?
There’s a paradox there. There are certain ways that the church has increased its relevance. Churches around the country are providing food for people, they are supporting health care workers and have realized that their job is not only to serve their members but that they have a mission to the communities in which God has placed them. Wherever that is happening, that increases the church’s relevance. Even the simple act of becoming more digitally savvy can increase the church’s relevance.
But when churches have shown themselves to be more concerned about their self-interest – being able to gather people in person so they can collect an offering – the church shows itself as one of the most selfish organizations on the planet, one of the least disciplined, and it shows itself to be pandering to self-interest.
What can churches do to stay focused on mission in this context?
There’s been a movement over the past 30 years called missional Christianity. The idea is that God isn’t interested in getting us out of the world and into heaven, God is interested in getting into us and through us into the world. If God has a mission not just for the church, but for the world, this would be a powerful time for churches to rediscover their identity as God’s agents of peace and transformation and justice in this world and to rediscover the Gospel not as an evacuation plan but as a transformation plan. That, to me, is a starting point.
Are causes such as LGBTQ inclusivity or creation care fading into the background at this time?
Our theological arguments are not just arguments about God and the Bible, they are also arguments about how we want to live. So, when we have arguments about LGBTQ inclusion, on a very practical level we are arguing about how we want to treat each other. And when we have arguments about fossil fuels and preservation of species and climate change, we are having a deeper argument about how we want to live with the Earth. Ultimately, how we live with each other and how we live with the Earth, to me, are deeply spiritual questions, deeply rooted in scripture and they are never going away.
Are there biblical passages especially helpful today?
If I could recommend two scriptures for deep reflection, it would be Acts chapter 16, which is the story of the gospel coming to Philippi, and then the book of Philippians. If you read Acts 16 you see it not just as the story of the Philippian jailer, but one of the things you notice is that Paul begins his ministry with women and in fact goes to the most vulnerable person in Philippi, which is an exploited young woman – a slave woman. And when they preach the gospel there, it’s not a gospel of how to go to heaven after you die, it’s the gospel of the liberating power of Jesus Christ.
The abandonment of character as a political standard is tragic and regrettable and we will reap what we have sewn.
And then we come to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and it begins with a call for us to have the mind of Christ, which is the mind that does not seek self-interest but the interest of others. And right now, when the world looks at religion, it sees organizations all too often seeking their own self-preservation at the expense of the wellbeing of their neighbors. That’s what’s been happening with churches that are willing to meet, infect one another with the virus and bring that virus to their families and friends. Stories about this are unfolding around the world.
Is it ever helpful to compare President Trump to biblical figures, good or evil?
The way that Pentecostals, especially, but also many evangelicals, have used the (King) Cyrus motif to legitimize everything Donald Trump does, is so spiritually dangerous. That same logic could have been used to justify Hitler, Mussolini or Jim Jones, for that matter. It’s cultic thinking and deeply, deeply dangerous. How we use scripture to inform our political involvement is a fascinating and important and profound question. But one thing’s for sure: picking a Bible verse and using it to offer either a blanket condemnation or a blanket endorsement of anybody is a pretty pathetic way to start.
And I would like to add one thing: I think evangelicals and Baptists were closer to the truth 30 years ago when they used to say that character counts. I think the abandonment of character as a political standard is tragic and regrettable and we will reap what we have sown.