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A New Christian Convergence

A New Christian Convergence

Brian McLaren writes on the Patheos “Future of Mainline Protestantism” blog of his thoughts on the future of Christianity.

My general hunch is that in the short run, the most conservative streams of Christianity — in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox settings alike — will constrict, tighten up, batten the hatches, raise the boundary fences, demand greater doctrinal, political, and behavioral conformity, and monitor boundaries with increased vigilance. Doing so will increase commitment (and anxiety) among the “true believers,” but it will also drive away their younger, more educated, and less isolated members.

While fearing that many will reject anything “church”, McLaren hopes that those driven away will join an emerging coalition of organizations and networks that are “..developing both personal relationships and concrete plans for missional collaboration — especially on behalf of the poor, peace, and the planet.” He identifies four main religious sources:

Progressive Evangelicals who are squeezed out of constricting evangelical settings.

Progressive Roman Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) who are squeezed out of their constricting settings.

Missional mainliners who are rediscovering their Christian faith more as a missional spiritual movement, and less as a revered and favored religious institution.

Social justice-oriented Pentecostals and Evangelicals — from the minority churches in the West and from the majority churches of the global South, especially the second- and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education.


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C. Wingate

How did McLaren become the victim of anything (other than male pattern baldness)? He retired from preaching at Cedar Ridge in order to spend more time one writing and speaking, not because he was ejected; their website still claims him as a founder and member.


Murdoch, I loved that story! Thank you. I checked out their website and they seem to be going great there at All Souls.

Regarding Rev. McLaren, I think he’s a good writer, but I wonder if his book-&-article are stating the obvious (no insult intended to Rev. McLaren). That he places the parties in nice catagories is not so much predicitve but telling us what we already know?

God bless All Souls!!!!

Kevin McGrane

Kurt Wiesner

Murdoch Matthew:

Thank you for taking the time to share this. Very powerful.

Murdoch Matthew

All Souls UU Church in Tulsa has been going through some of this consolidation and growth. A 2007 article tells how All Souls took in a black Pentecostal bishop and the remnants of his congregation when he became too liberal for his denomination.

At 1,800 members and growing, All Souls is the largest congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association. A year ago, some 200 Pentecostal Universalist Christians—most of them African American—began attending the 88-year-old overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class church en masse.

To understand this scene, you’ve got to go back to the late 1990s and the vertiginous fall from grace of Bishop Carlton Pearson. Charming, engaging, self-deprecating, never holier than thou, and very funny, Pearson—-an African American Pentecostal—-had founded one of Tulsa’s most prominent megachurches. He had risen rapidly through the national power structure of evangelical Christendom. Then Pearson got a divine revelation, as he tells it. Watching a news report one night in the spring of 1996, he was getting worked up about the genocide in Rwanda. His assumption was that the victims were bound for hell, persecuted yet unsaved. Feeling angry at God, and guilty that he himself wasn’t doing anything about it, he recalls, he fell into a sort of reproachful prayer: “God, I don’t know how you can sit on your throne there in heaven and let those poor people drop to the ground hungry, heartbroken, and lost, and just randomly suck them into hell.”

He heard God answer, “We’re not sucking those dear people into hell. Can’t you see they’re already there—in the hell you have created for them and continue to create for yourselves and others all over the planet? We redeemed and reconciled all of humanity at Calvary.”

Everything Pearson thought he knew was true started unraveling, as he began to realize: The whole world is already saved, whether they know it or not—not just professed Christians in good standing, but Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, gay people. There is no hell after you die. And he didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself.

Branded a heretic in a formal tribunal by the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, he has lost almost everything: thousands of members; his close-knit staff; his building; use of his church’s name; rights to sermons, books, audio, and video; and lots of money. Worse than all that, he says, the venom he has felt from conservative Christians has been “much deeper, much more adamant, and more ferocious” than any racism he ever encountered. This past year he and his remaining “wilderness wanderers,” as he calls them, have arrived at a place that feels like home: All Souls Unitarian Church.

In a gracious, older part of town, All Souls Unitarian Church was doing great. In 2000 the church called the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar as senior minister, at age 32, after just one year’s experience as an associate minister in Boston. Lavanhar has his own kind of charisma—warm and passionate, articulate and intent on his vision of what’s right, but always listening closely and watching out for others’ needs.

The only problem: Everybody at this liberal church, with its hearty mix of humanists and theists, was really, really white. There were one or two brave souls of color, a few multiracial adoptive families, and periodically visitors who liked the message and the values but, after a few visits, said, “I’m just not sure my family is going to feel comfortable here.” All Souls just couldn’t seem to reach that critical mass of racial diversity. Lavanhar calls having the new Pentecostal members join his church a gift of grace—-the greatest thing that’s happened, as well as the hardest year, in his ministry.

Integrating Unitarians and Pentecostalists has been tricky:

Lavanhar had to admit, “There is a lot of God language around here.” In fact, as part of its theme-based ministry, each month the entire church focuses on a different Bible story—in open acknowledgement of their spiritual richness, but also because “it’s almost self-defense here in Oklahoma to have some biblical literacy,” Lavanhar said, “and you need that to understand literature and arts no matter where you are.”

But behind the apparent contradiction, he discovered, was a very real pain. Since last September, every week, a steady stream of men and women have come to talk with him about being abused-—emotionally, sexually, or spiritually-—as children in a Christian church. When they heard praise music sung, and saw the upraised hands, the trauma was reignited. Over and over, he has heard his members say, “I came to All Souls to get away from all that.” Each time he asks: What is the “that”?

“In most cases,” Lavanhar wrote in a recent issue of the church newsletter Simple Gifts, “people tell me it was authoritarian leadership, the dogma, the anti-intellectualism, the superstitious and magical thinking, the way women were treated, the homophobia, the guilt, the shame, the judgmentalism, the proselytizing, and the sense that their community was especially privileged with righteousness and truth, and the way that other traditions and ways of thinking were demonized. None of which, I point out, has been brought into All Souls.”

Unitarian Universalist churches do not have a test of belief. There is no creed, but a covenant, a way we behave toward one another. “There is an African American experience of God,” Lavanhar has challenged members, “that has been molded and shaped by slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and persistent racism. Many have an experience of God that involves Jesus. They don’t say it’s the only way. If we can’t accept that experience in our church, then we’re not living by what we say. Our history is filled with people rejected for their religious beliefs. That is something we share with them. We’re on this ship together. It’s full of excitement and possibility and also danger and risk. By living out our covenant and statement of purpose, it has forced us to change. It’s not forsaking Unitarian Universalism. It’s being Unitarian Universalist.”

“If we don’t make this kind of thing work, we’re in jeopardy of becoming a small, parochial church that appeals to just a tiny slice of the NPR audience,” Lavanhar says. “It’s not our message that’s the problem. That’s strong and relevant. If we go ten to twenty years and have not diversified in any significant way, it’s going to seem ridiculous to say all these things we sing and speak about—love, diversity, a unified world, being open-minded, open-hearted. This is about becoming who we say we are. If we do, we will become transformed by that process.”

Gary and I have a connection with All Souls. My cousin is on staff there; we read the Burial Office for my Baptist mother in All Souls Chapel in 2001. We haven’t heard how things have been going since 2009. The story seems of interest here on the Café because All Souls appeals to much the same social class as average Episcopal services; its experience may be relevant. The problem of integrating worshiping cultures is critical. Our neighborhood parish is struggling to include a Spanish congregation; bilingual services don’t seem to work, and the old Anglo congregation is aging. Whence the church? A journey in progress.

Michael Russell

What Charles illuminates is the battle for the Center, not the edges. I consider myself an Anglican Centrist, since the center of Anglicanism can’t be far from Richard Hooker.

I love the irony though. Seven years ago one of our local “orthodox” gave our newly elected Bishop a copy of McClaren’s “Generous Orthodoxy”. Now he is just another old bald white guy who TEC dotes on and the so called “orthodox” priest is gone from TEC. Actually McClaren is now the victim of the constricting spirit he describes. Did he move or did his former devotees not?

I am for assessing people and conversing with them based on the content of their ideas not their pate. McClaren has been as generous a spirit as his book suggested we be.

The Sunday following GC I preached a sermon on how we had taken a stand that “All meant ALL” and believe it or not the “youths” teenage to 40 somethings resonated with that message. So the generous spirit is alive and well across decades of people younger by far than me.

We must refuse to cede the notion that the Anglican Center is something other than the generous spirit of Richard Hooker who took a radical, unilateral, almost singular position in 1586 when he declared that Roman Catholics, even Cardinals and the POPE would receive God’s mercy as long as they connected to Jesus by even the thinnest thread.

That is the Anglican Center.

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