All of us come from a particular context. A sizeable number of people who are drawn to the emerging church and to Brian McLaren’s writings are people who have come from theologically and politically conservative church backgrounds. As I begin this series on Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change I think it is important for me to share with you some of my context.
Many of you know that I’m in the Presbyterian Church, USA, flock. While that has been true for twenty-five years, I was raised within the Wesleyan-Arminian Holiness world of the Church of the Nazarene. There wasn’t a great deal of discussion about politics in my home as I grew up but I would characterize the values I did hear expressed as coming from a New Deal Democrat perspective on the world. Jimmy Carter was elected president when I was a senior in high school, and while my folks never told me how they voted in elections, but it was pretty clear that the Carter election was a good thing.
My dad was a professor and a research scientist. He worked on energy research throughout much of his career. During the summers of my high school years he did internships at Oak Ridge, TN. Energy conservation and resource depletion were topics I grew up hearing much about. In the summer of ’78, I worked with my dad on building his passive solar home. It was outfitted for using solar panels but the panels were a bit too pricy and therefore never installed.
I went to Mid-America Nazarene University for college, but even prior to college I had my doubts about the doctrinal specifics of Nazarenedom. Even more discordant for me was what I perceived to be an obsession with personal piety and obliviousness to broader social issues. From my earliest memories I’ve been curious about society, government, justice, history, and change. Regrettably, aside from a few helpful professors and good friends, that passion was not widely shared. I think the last proverbial straw on the camel’s back for me was the steady parade of Religious Right rising stars brought into our mandatory attendance chapels in 1980, culminating with a visit from Jerry Falwell. I was looking for a new home.
I did encounter some great stuff in college. I initially majored in history but switched to sociology. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Social Construction of Reality, made a big impact on me (as did other of Peter Berger’s works). I was intrigued with his insights into modernity and what would later come to be called postmodernism. David Moberg’s The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern gave me new sociological insight on my own faith heritage. John Howard Yoder, E. F. Shumacker, Arthur Gish, and Ronald Sider were other authors I was exposed to by a couple of professors. Sojourners and The Other Side magazines were regular sources for class discussions in a couple of classes. Francis Schaffer’s work was also intriguing to me. Not because I necessarily agreed with his take on all issues but because he demonstrated that an Evangelical could integrate a broad range of history, philosophy, theology, art, and social sciences responsibly.
After college, I went on to graduate school at Kansas State University to study sociology/demography. Much of the focus at KSU was on the sociological impact of economic development, especially as it related to changes in agriculturally developing nations. I was interested in demography but it did not qualify as an academic focus at that time, so I specialized in social change and supplemented with demography credits. Development, change, social theory, and modernity/postmodernity were recurring themes in my studies.
It was while in graduate school that I was drawn into the Presbyterian world. I won’t give all the details but suffice it to say that I found an environment where I felt my theological issues, and my the concerns I had about the world, could be addressed. The Presbyterian world seemed to fit well with my circumstances. (At least at the congregational level. My education about higher levels of Presbyterianism came years later.) While I never severed from my roots, from the early 1980s on, my world was far more influenced by the world of Mainline Christianity. The friendships I developed at two missional communities (the Potter’s Wheel and Wellspring) in those days were formative as well.
My work life eventually landed me back in Kansas City in the mid-1980s. I worked for the regional United Way as both a research analyst and an allocations specialist. The latter responsibility had me supporting volunteers in their detailed reviews of twelve neighborhood serving organizations that served the poor throughout Kansas City, MO. As I worked with these agencies and reflected on the multitude of services they offered, it quickly dawned on me that central theme to so many of the issues being addressed was the inability of people to generate a steady flow of income. This was when my interest in the economic aspects social problems really began to take hold.
That interest led me to enroll in the MBA program for Economic Development at Eastern University in ’87. The aim of the program was to equip people, both theologically and in terms of business acumen, to aid in microeconomic development in both developing nations and in the US. I had classes with people like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, but also an array of less well known but very experienced professors as well. Some of the greatest epiphanies for me come in an Urban Economics class where my professor John Stapleford did a great job of exposing us to the unintended consequences of so many efforts to address urban problems. From that time forward I have had a very deep suspicion (but not total rejection) of government economic interventions. Over the years I’ve continued to read widely on these issues and my thinking has evolved but I trace the framing of those issues back to those seminal days in MBA school.
My work life since that time has not always been in microeconomic development, but it has tended to stay close to the issues of entrepreneurship and working with small organizations. There has been the development of a network of friends working internationally. Non-professionally, I’ve served with a few different public policy organizations. Probably my most time consuming volunteerism, in recent years, has been my work with the Presbyterian Church, USA, as I’ve been drawn into leadership positions. There are many things to like about the PCUSA but one thing that is routinely a source of concern for me is the use of political progressive ideologies as a litmus test for faithful Christianity by too many Presbyterians. In many ways, it is the flipside of what so many Evangelical Christians express about conservative influences in their own settings.
Part of what initially had me enthused about the emerging church conversation was to see young Evangelicals actively engaging culture and faith. It looked to me like a place where something could emerge that was neither the narrow personal gospel wedded to conservative politics of the Religious Right nor the well-worn Niebuhr-inspired Christian socialism or liberation theology of the Mainline world. The jury is out about where this all leads but my hopes have dimmed considerably of late. This book, and its enthusiastic reception, is just one example of why.
Many emerging church folks have done a lot of work deconstructing the foundationalism and political alliances of the Right. That is only logical as that has been their context. The response by some emerging folks is what I would call apolitical, looking to build community. Others have adopted an Anabaptist separatist approach to political issues. But for those who see a call to political action as part of their discipleship, my perception is that the response is overwhelmingly parallel to the Religious Left politics of Sojourners (of which McLaren is on the board) or to the perspective and tactics prevalent in Mainline denominations. In fact, it has been my observation that many of those in Mainline denominations who are drawn to the emerging church world are drawn because they value the missional critique and feel completely at home with emerging church expressions of social justice issues. Re-examining justice issues is not on the agenda. The critique of liberal foundationalism and progressive politics seem absent to me.
This hopefully gives you some context about where the following posts are coming from.