Fire Without Brimstone

Brian McLaren preaches tolerance and environmemtalism, making him one of the country's more unusual yet influential evangelicals.

April 27, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

This is an especially happy church. Laughing congregants arrive in jeans, clutching small children and gigantic coffee mugs. When the children are comfortable and the coffee finished, and the rock band that opens the Sunday morning service finds its groove, the swaying people reach their hands upward, as though expecting a high-five from on high.

At the very least, they might get a bear hug after the service from Brian McLaren, the man at the center of Cedar Ridge Community Church's ebullience, and, some would say, one of the most powerful evangelical preachers in America today. He stands in the middle of the sanctuary, his bowed head bald as a monk's, a smile on his face.

The people in the audience smile back -- even though they know their pastor is leaving them.

This winter, McLaren announced that he is stepping down as senior pastor for a more minor role in the Montgomery County church that has grown so large that off-duty police officers direct traffic flowing out of the parking lot most Sundays. Instead of preaching the gospel almost every week, the North Laurel resident will be traveling to seminaries and religious summits across America and the world, explaining his vision of Christianity in the new century.

The church he founded will have to learn to survive without him.

McLaren's celebrity loomed large even before February, when Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America, alongside the likes of Billy Graham and Rick Warren, who wrote The Purpose-Driven Life. At 48, McLaren is the unofficial leader of the "emergent church" movement, which emphasizes environmentalism and racial and sexual tolerance, while distancing itself from the social conservatism of the religious right.

The author of seven books and the co-author of two more, McLaren is modest about his role.

"I'm having some influence over younger leaders and future leaders," he admits.

"He's the guru," says Tony Campolo, a professor of sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., who co-authored a book with McLaren. "Word got around that there was a guy with something new to say who was interesting and easy to understand. A lot of evangelicals who do not buy into the politics of the religious right said, `Hey, we've got a spokesperson here.'"

But many Christians object to McLaren's message, particularly his permissive attitude toward issues like abortion, which -- in an evangelical landscape where a pro-life stance is practically a given -- McLaren opposes but doesn't openly condemn. More generally, conservatives complain that this feel-good faith drains the content out of Christianity.

"If you take his theology to its logical conclusion, it would destroy the Christian church, or Christianity as we understand it," said Mark Galli, the managing editor of Christianity Today.

Some evangelical groups have rejected McLaren's liberalism. Recently, the Kentucky Baptist Convention withdrew its invitation to him to speak at a February conference because his position "diverges too greatly to be appropriate," the convention's director said.

More often, though, McLaren's views incite curiosity and debate -- which even critics like Galli say is a good thing -- and his schedule is packed. Almost every week brings a speaking engagement.

But long before he led a movement, McLaren led a church.

The seeds of Cedar Ridge were planted in his College Park apartment in the early 1980s, when he was a graduate student and aspiring English professor at the University of Maryland.

By his early 20s, McLaren had already dabbled in Christian formats as disparate as the hippie-dominated Jesus movement and the traditional Episcopal church. Raised in Rockville in an extremely conservative church, he started questioning religion as a young man.

His doubts had as much to do with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor as Jesus Christ. A consummate musician, McLaren found it hard to love a God who didn't even like rock 'n' roll. After late Saturday nights spent at teen dance halls, he fidgeted in the pews on Sunday mornings, thinking, "If this stuff about God is true, I'm getting in a lot of trouble," McLaren recalled. "And if it's not true, who cares."

But he couldn't stop caring.

"It just mattered to me," said McLaren. "I prayed a lot. I'd be praying, `Are you there? Are you real?' It mattered to me."

He was still praying years later when he started his living room Bible study in College Park with a few dozen people, mostly fellow students. These were young intellectuals dismayed by the mounting conservatism of the evangelical community, who wanted a close relationship with God without the constant threat of condemnation.

"We just tried to create a kind of a safe space," said McLaren.

Soon that safe space wasn't big enough. The nondenominational group moved to a larger living room, where it started meeting on Sundays, then to a Hyattsville middle school and progressively larger auditoriums. The church was itinerant throughout the late '80s and early '90s.

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