"What would happen," asks author and speaker Brian McLaren, "if we could promise the people in our community, 'Listen if you become part of this community we will help you. A year from now you'll be a more loving person'?"
The method of United Methodism has always been about a way of life, learning to live and love as Jesus teaches. John Wesley talked about it as "universal love filling the heart, and governing the life."
In this podcast episode, McLaren talks about his new study Way of Life and the book upon which it is based, The Great Spiritual Migration. Along the way we also talk about Wesleyan small groups, handling criticism, and more.
- Brian McLaren's website — brianmclaren.net
- Way of Life study: Leader Guide | Participant Guide | DVD
- Other books by Brian McLaren
- Brian McLaren's blog
Popular Wesleyan way of life resources on UMC.org
- The method of United Methodism: a 3-part series by Joe Iovino
- Get Your Spirit In Shape: Everyday Disciples podcast episode with leaders from United Methodist Discipleship Ministries talking about the importance of Covenant Discipleship groups today.
- Wesleyan Small Groups for Today: a 4-part series by Joe Iovino
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This episode was originally released Nov. 15, 2017.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is author and speaker Brian McLaren who has a new study out based on his book The Great Spiritual Migration called Way of Life.
Brian McLaren: The Methodists have a leg up in this because that’s what the ‘method’ was—the method of learning to live a way of life.
Joe: He asks…
Brian: What would happen if we could promise the people in our community, listen, if you become part of this community we will help you, and a year from now you’ll be a more loving person?
Joe: …and affirms what the United Methodist Church is doing.
Brian: There’s a good chance that in this century malaria is going to be either wiped out or controlled. And Methodists, through your organizing, are playing a key role in that happening.
Joe: Brian and I also talk about Wesleyan small groups, how to handle criticism, and so much more. This is a wonderful conversation.
On the phone
Joe: Brian McLaren, I am so thrilled to have you on Get Your Spirit in Shape today.
Brian: Thanks for having me and what a great title for a podcast.
Joe: I am thrilled to talk to you. I just want you to know, as we get started, that one of your books—I looked today and I think it’s like a decade old now—Everything Must Change was an important book in my spiritual journey. So it’s really fun to have this opportunity to talk to someone who has helped to shape me, and I just wanted to say thank you for that.
Brian: That’s great to know. That’s very encouraging.
Joe: But today I want to talk about your new Bible study called Way of Life and your book that it’s based on, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian. As we get started can you tell me about that study?
Brian: Sure. Well, first I should say I was so grateful when Abingdon approached us about this because the first year that Great Spiritual Migration came out, a lot of congregations used it. Then Abingdon came along and said, ‘You know, we think there are a lot of congregations, especially Methodist congregations, that would really benefit if we created a 4-week kind of kit.’ So we created them with a video introduction that could be used in a class or a small group setting, and then really good readers’ guides that would give them some reflection to do on their own during the week, and a leader’s guide to help lead this 4-week experience. So that’s what we created.
One of the things that was the most fun about doing it was I came to Nashville and we had three amazing young United Methodist clergy who came together. We sat around a table and talked about the big ideas of the book, and that’s what became those four videos. So it’s fun; it’s conversational. If people have time to read the book, it works great. But we all know that a lot of people don’t read the whole book, and so it works great for those folks, too.
Joe: What’s your hope for people who participate in the study or who read the book?
Brian: You know, I think more and more people have reached the conclusion that church, as we know it, is in trouble. Younger people are dropping out, so the average age of many of our congregations is going up. And the effect of this is that more and more people are anxious about what’s going to be the future for their congregation.
I’m honored to speak to clergy and visit churches of all different denominations around the country. So, my hope is that people will go through this 4-week study and at the end they’ll say, You know what? There really can be a future for our congregation, and here are some of the ways that we can start working on that. So that’s my deepest hope.
Joe: I just finished your book, The Great Spiritual Migration and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In it you talk about the Christian faith as needing to make this move from where we are to something new. That language of migration is not new language. It’s something that you’re saying is deep within our tradition as Christians.
Brian: That’s right. You know, it’s so crazy that we got this idea embedded in our heads that church as—you know, the stereotype of church as a little building with wooden pews and a piano and/or organ up front, and that we show up at a certain time on a Sunday morning—that that’s the way Christianity has always been. But the fact is, our faith has been adaptive. It started with a 30-year-old guy walking, going through the countryside of Palestine with probably what we would call a youth group. I’m guessing if Jesus was 30, most of the people who followed him were under 30. And, going through the land and having all kinds of what we would call “experiential learning” experiences and doing good everywhere they went.
So, at the heart of things, I think, to be a Christian is to be part of that movement that Jesus started—the movement of the Spirit. And our churches are going to be best when they’re not stuck in the mud and not trying to be what they’ve always been—you know, do things the way they’ve always done them—but actually be part of that movement and that, I think, opens us up to a bright future.
Joe: In the book you talk about these 3 migrations that need to happen. I’d like to explore some of those with you if that’s okay?
Brian: That’s great.
Joe: The first one you talk about is the ‘spiritual migration.’ Tell me a little bit about that. What do you mean by a ‘spiritual migration?’
Brian: Well, this one really hit me hard because I grew up a fundamentalist. And for us Christianity boiled down to a series of statements. If you affirmed those statements you were a good Christian, and if you didn’t, then you weren’t. What was weird for me growing up…. You know, I’m in my 60s; so I actually came of age in the 1960s. And I realized, when I was a kid that you can hold all those doctrines and you can be a racist; you can be a white supremacist; you can be, you know, you can be a pretty nasty person. All that matters is a set of beliefs and we’re really missing something.
Of course, Methodists have understood this, at least if they were listening to John Wesley, because Wesley was about a method which was about a way of life. So with the re-discovery of our faith as a way of life, that to me is that first and most essential migration.
Joe: You bring up Wesley, and that’s really funny, because reading this chapter I started to reflect a lot on Wesley because you talk about turning the church into, I think you call it, “a school of love.” Wesley talked a lot about love filling our hearts and governing our lives. But let’s talk a little bit more about what you mean by the church becoming a “school of love.”
Brian: Well, if we were to embrace this idea that what this thing is really about is the formation of Christ-like people—people who live the way of Jesus in their daily lives—and at the heart of the way of Jesus is learning to love God; learning to love ourselves; and learning to love our neighbors which include strangers, outsiders, outcasts, and even enemies. And I think in today’s world we quickly have to add, and love the earth because if we don’t love the earth we’re all in a lot of trouble.
So that life of love…. What would happen if we could promise the people in our community, ‘Listen, if you become part of this community we will help you; a year from now you’ll be a more loving person. You’ll be a more loving person to your family and neighbors and friends and to outsiders and outcasts and enemies. You’ll be a more…. You’ll experience deeper love for God and for yourself.’ That’s what a school of love would do. And that, to me….
I think we all know this. We can get into what I call a check-list mentality where we think, ‘Okay, we had the prelude; okay, we had the opening prayer; okay, we had the Scripture reading; we had the sermon; we had…’ And we get done with that checklist and we go home and wait for another week to come do it again. And whether we’re becoming more loving people has never even crossed our minds. And so that’s what we’re looking for there.
Joe: And that’s what you mean about the difference between beliefs and faith. Beliefs are just kind of agreeing with something, but faith is really living into it.
Brian: Faith is really living into it and faith really is about a way of life based on trust. So, if we trust that Jesus was right, that love is really what matters, then we organize our lives, we arrange our lives around becoming more loving people. And of course, again, this is where the Methodists have a leg up in this because that’s what the ‘method’—the method of learning to live a way of life. But sadly, it can happen to Methodists just like it can happen to Catholics and Baptists and Lutherans and anybody else. We can get into this kind of check-list mentality and forget why we’re really here.
Joe: So, can you tell me practically how it would look? How would it look different to be one who’s living a life of love rather than just in the beliefs mentality?
Brian: Well, I think that’s something that each congregation…it would be pretty exciting for them to say, Oh, let’s figure that out. But let me give you maybe 3 specific ways that I see this happening. First, in the way that we teach and raise our children. I’ve a friend who’s a math educator. She has a PhD in math education. And it turns out we know a whole lot about how to teach math. We know that you don’t learn math by reading books about math or singing songs about math, or listening to lectures about math. We know you learn math by actually doing math problems and applying that to real life. And we even know there are games that you can play, and in the playing of the game you internalize math concepts. So we know what a 4-year-old child is capable of learning in math and what an 8-year-old child…. What if we took that same kind of approach to teaching our children so that we were to say, ‘Listen, we’re a church; that means that we teach people how to love. So we’ve got this little baby who was just born, and by the time this baby is 4 here’s what we hope he or she can do, and has experienced. By the time they’re 8 and 12 and 16, and by the time we send them off to college we want them to be a skilled person in love. And we know what we’re trying to teach. And we know the most effective ways to teach it.’
I mean it’s embarrassing to say that the Christian religion has been around for 2,000 years and we haven’t yet really developed a curriculum of love. So that would be one. I’ll tell you another one.
Joe: Yeah, sure.
Brian: We know that people learn love more through experience than just through lecture and concepts. So wouldn’t it be interesting if when you join the church, the church would say to you, Listen we’re here to help you become a more loving person. And so every year we offer four activities. This one takes a week. This one takes a weekend. This one takes one night at the month for 5 weeks or something. And we were to say, Here is this many experiences where you’re going to get experiences in learning to love people.
The little congregation I’m part of now… Every year we have a weeklong summer camp for kids with diverse abilities. And we mobilize the whole town to give these kids an amazing experience. It’s great for the kids, but it’s really great for the congregation because the congregation comes out of itself and learns about love through service. That kind of a thing, I think, many churches are already doing it. But it’s almost like an extra add-on. I think we would come to understand that as much more along the centerline of what we’re doing. One last thing I’ll mention.
Brian: If we understood every sermon… We would just say: How does this translate into helping people learn to love God, themselves, their neighbors, and the earth more? If we’re to say, we’re doing this prayer, we’re singing these songs. How do these all contribute? I think it would make us approach liturgy in a much more intentional and meaningful way.
Joe: And I can apply that in my morning devotions as well, right? When I read the Scripture, I read it asking those same questions—How do I love better because of… through these words. Is that….
Brian: Exactly right. Exactly right. And how would it change our spiritual practices? You know, I’m thinking one of the great things Wesley did in the class meetings was, they had a series of questions that everybody answered. And the fact that you knew you were going to answer these same questions every week meant that you started noticing those things. Right? What if we knew that we were gonna be in a group where we were asked this question: When did you have an opportunity to love someone? I’m thinking about the story of the Good Samaritan. Where did you have the opportunity to cross the road? To make contact and show love to somebody in need? If we started telling those stories we would start noticing the opportunities to make more of those stories become real. And that could be a powerful spiritual practice each day to get up and pray, Lord, today I’m gonna have an opportunity to show love to someone; please help me be ready. Please help me to give of myself and seize that moment.
Joe: One of the ways we do the small groups today goes through what they call this rule of discipleship or rule of life that includes exactly those things, living out our lives…living out our faith. And the quote is through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion. But it’s all focused on living it out as Methodist Christians and how we interact with the world around us. What a great…what a great focus.
Brian: It’s a great reason to be a Methodist, being part of the congregation that has you grapple with those kinds of questions.
Joe: Yeah. We’ll also put some links so people can learn more about that application, too. But one of the things that you talk about—and this is a little bit of an aside, but in this one chapter just captured my attention. When I’ve taught congregations about acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion—the word ‘justice’ often hangs people up. I get the most questions on what do we mean by justice. And you inserted a definition of justice from Cornel West; “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I love that definition.
How do you think that plays out in our everyday living? How can we be people who are serving Christ in the area of justice?
Brian: Well, I’ll tell you a quick story about this. I was invited to be a clergy representative in Charlottesville when the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis had their rally. It was an intense experience, one I’ll never forget, and deeply disturbing as you can imagine in many ways. But it was so encouraging to see the clergy there. Anyhow, I was back home and I was driving with an acquaintance of mine. And he started telling me how terrible it was that people are trying to take away ‘our heritage’ (was the word he used) by taking down these statues. And look, whatever people think about statues of Robert E. Lee here’s what I said to him. I said, ‘Hey, let me ask you a question. How do you think it feels in the county where we live’—where I live in Florida, I said, ‘How do you think it feels to be an African American or a Latino or a Native American and when you go to the city courthouse there’s a big statue in front of the city courthouse of Robert E. Lee? Then when you go inside there’s a big painting of Robert E. Lee. How do you think it feels to be black and every time you go to the court you have to walk by that statue and stand in front of that painting? And he said to me, he said, ‘I never even thought of that.’ And you know, I think this is one of the things we help people do. We help them experience and practice compassion. We think of things only from our own vantage point. And we don’t think about how it might affect someone else. So I think that’s one of the ways that we help people. As Cornel West says, That’s where compassion and love and justice fit together. When we say, I want to love people. Well, how does that look in terms of how we organize public spaces? Or how does that work in terms of how we organize healthcare? Or how does that work in terms of how we apportion the national budget. Boy, bringing love to the table in those circumstances becomes really, really important. And here’s what’s really depressing, if Christians don’t do it, who’s gonna do it?
Brian: So that really should be part of our discipleship. It’s the public dimension of discipleship.
Joe: We’ve been talking about the spiritual migration. Let’s move to the theological migration. Can you give me a summary of what you mean by the theological migration?
Brian: Well, one of the things that’s on the table now… And I think since September 11, 2001 it’s on the table in a way it hasn’t been in a long time. It’s the question of whether we believe God incites violence. And this takes us to a bunch of deeper questions. Does God love some people and hate other people? Does God consider the rights of some people to be more valuable than the rights of other people? And so it raises a deep theological question. Do we think that God is violent? Do we think that God has hostility toward some categories of people?
I’ll just tell you, for some people they’d say, ‘Of course not.’ And other people would say, ‘Of course.’ And this is a conversation we need to have in the Christian faith. I believe, and growing numbers of theologians, pastors and, seminary profs and so on are, I think, coming to the same conviction, that part of what Jesus does for us is Jesus embodies God as nonviolent, which then forces us to have a very grown-up discussion about how we read and interpret the Bible because it’s unavoidable, it’s inescapable. There are passages in the Bible that portray God as violent. There are commands in the Bible that if people were to follow those commands today they would be called crimes against humanity. And one of my great concerns, as someone who has studied a good bit of church history, and not just the church history of our arguments over doctrine, but the church history of what that doctrine led to in terms of enslavement, in terms of colonization, in terms of oppression and harm to literally millions of people. I think it’s time for us to grow up in the way that we read the Bible so that we’ll never use the Bible in that way again, in those harmful ways again. But we will actually let Jesus be the model for us of what God is like.
Joe: Yeah, that was a tough chapter to read, but vitally important that we know about that history. And so we move toward an understanding of God as the liberator, the one who sets us free.
Brian: Yes. And this, I think, is really important. Again, Methodists have such a good advantage because, John Wesley taught the early Methodists that Scripture is really, really important, but so is reason and so is tradition, and so is experience. So we can’t just quote a Bible verse and say that ends the discussion. I think he’s right. And so one way to say it is that more and more Christians are realizing that for us the ultimate word of God is not a book but a person. The ultimate word of God doesn’t come to us as ink on a page, but as flesh and blood in Jesus Christ. That God revealed to us in Jesus never killed anybody, never hated anybody, turned or oppressed or rejected anybody. And for us to take that seriously as we move forward. It’s not an easy step, but it’s really an important step. I think the stakes are so high now in a world of biological/chemical/nuclear weapons, it’s time for us to actually become Christians in a deeper sense.
Joe: Then the third migration, and the final one in the book, is missional—to go from organized religion to an organizing religion. Can you tell me about that?
Brian: Sure. This was an exciting and fun part of the book for me to write because I think that if we get those first two, if we make those first two moves—spiritually/theologically—that will translate itself into action in how we organize and what we do in our churches.
It may be a good way for me to say this, Joe, is I fly in planes a lot, and I’ve had a version of this conversation a bunch of different times where I, get settled on a plane and the guy next to me says, ‘Hey, are you heading home?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, I’m heading away for some work.’ And he’ll say, ‘What kind of work do you do?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’m a writer.’ And he’ll say, ‘What do you write about?’ And I’ll say, ‘I write about God and Jesus and religion and Christianity and faith and violence and all those kinds of things.’ And very often, at that point there’s an uncomfortable moment. I’m thinking of this one guy who said to me, ‘Oh yeah, well, I’m not into organized religion,’ and he very quickly reached for his headphones, you know.
Joe: That was it, huh?
Brian: It ended the conversation. But then I said to him, ‘Hey, when you say you’re against organized religion,’ I said, ‘I’ve devoted my life to organized religion and I know there are a lot of problems with it. What is it about organized religion you don’t like?’ He says, ‘You know, I’ve never really thought about it. It’s just not my cup of tea.’ I asked him a little bit more about that. And he said, ‘Well, one thing’s for sure, religion shouldn’t be organized to protect pedophile priests and make sleazy televangelists rich.’ It ended up we had an interesting conversation on the flight that day, because this is what a lot of people see when they look at religion. They say that religion is organized to protect religious people. And it’s not organized enough for the common good.
What would it look like if our religious life was really organized for the common good? You know, again Methodists are in a wonderful situation in this. There’s a good chance that in this century malaria is going to be either wiped out or controlled. And Methodists, through your organizing, are playing a key role in that happening. And you know, this is where life gets exciting. What could we do if we got organized not only within our denominations, but across denominations to work together for the common good? What could we do about racism if we really got serious about addressing racism? What could we do about the environment and the huge shift that our culture needs to go through from exploiting the environment to caring about it? So, those could be our exciting ways that faith communities could become centers of spiritual organizing.
Joe: Wow. Yeah, absolutely. That gets really exciting as you talk about it, the things that we could accomplish, and have accomplished in some levels, but so much more that needs to be done.
This is another little bit of an aside, but in the last chapter of the book you mention how through the years you’ve experienced criticism. I wrestle with this. I write for the website of the United Methodist Church, and I’m guessing everybody learns to deal with criticism at some form, or has to deal with it—from supervisors, teachers, whoever. So, could you give me some advice? What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned about how to handle criticism?
Brian: Well, in the book I tell about one of my mentors. She gave me this little prayer that was written down from a Serbian Orthodox bishop. And that prayer, which I provide a link to in the book, really, really has helped me. What the prayer has helped me do is stop from reacting to criticism because here’s the thing: It’s not the criticism that hurts you. It’s your reaction to the criticism that discredits you.
If the criticism is valid, what a great opportunity to say, Wow, thanks. I really got to learn something with that. I appreciate that. …instead of getting defensive, right? But even if it’s totally invalid…. One way I say it is that every criticism is an opportunity to clarify your message. So you think, Well, you know what, if I actually said what they think I said, then I would agree with them. But that’s not actually what I mean. So now I have an opportunity to clarify. And even when there is sincere disagreement, yeah, a lot of times people criticize to shut somebody up. This is a message they don’t want anybody to hear. And so they try to come in with such strong language to just shut you up. And Jesus, I think his word about if someone strikes you on one side of the face, don’t run away; don’t hide; don’t cry; don’t…you know. No, stand up and turn the other cheek. In other words, if you’re doing the right thing, when you have opposition, this is your opportunity to graciously keep going. And that’s what Jesus did. That’s what Paul did. That’s what the Wesleys did. And I think that’s what we can do as well.
Joe: Wow. Thank you. That’s really helpful. So the last question, the question I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is what do you do to keep your spirit in shape? How do you stay connected to God? Is there a practice that you would recommend that we might be able to try out?
Brian: I’m so glad you ask people that question. The first thing I would want to say is that I have noticed in my life that those practices have changed over time. So I’d like to tell you the practice that was most valuable to me in the first half of my life, and the one that’s most valuable to me now.
The first half of my life, without question, it was the practice of journaling. I would get a little notebook and I would write every day or almost every day. I would write a prayer. And if I was reading a passage of Scripture I’d take notes and writes observations on that Scripture. Sometimes I would just rewrite the Scripture right in my journal as a way of sort of taking it in more deeply. But in my garage I have a big box full of all those old notebooks, you know, hundreds and hundreds and thousands of pages through the years. So that really was important. But something funny happened. When I became a professional writer that practice stopped working for me the way it had before.
In the last few years the practice that has meant so much to me is solitude and silence, and just to be able to withdraw, You know, I’m always speaking and to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen, solitude and silence has been a life saver for me and very, very important.
Joe: Wonderful. Wonderful. Again, both of those are things that we can all try and see how they work for us.
Brian, thank you so much for talking to me today. Thank you for your work through the years. This has been a great opportunity for me.
Brian: Well, keep up the good work, and so glad for these conversations happening, in people’s cars, in homes and elsewhere.
Joe: That was author, speaker and activist Brian McLaren. To learn more about Brian or to order his book, go to UMC.org\podcasts and look for Get Your Spirit in Shape, episode 26. We have links on that page to order his book and to learn more about some of the things we talked about. Also on the page, you’ll find links to other United Methodist podcasts you might enjoy and a link to my email address so you can share your thoughts and ideas for the podcasts with me. I would also be grateful if you would take a moment and review us on iTunes or wherever you download our podcast. Excellent reviews help more people find us.
Thanks again for listening, downloading and subscribing. I'll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.