A New Way of Thinking About Church: Part 1


I recently had an opportunity to attend the Refreshing Winds Conference at Canadian Mennonite University.  The keynote speaker for the event was Brian McLaren.  I had heard Brian McLaren speak at Lambeth Conference in August, 2008.  I thought he had some interesting things to say then, so I was looking forward to hearing him again.

McLaren offers new Biblical models for how we understand the central ideas of faith that provides hope for restoring and reinvigorating the power of the gospels to transform us and our communities.

Brian McLaren has written several books, among them is A New Kind of Christianity, 2001; A Generous Orthodoxy, 2004; and a new book is due out this year, Naked Spirituality.  McLaren offers new Biblical models for how we understand the central ideas of faith that provides hope for restoring and reinvigorating the power of the gospels to transform us and our communities.  McLaren says, “The lack of a simple, doable, durable spirituality undermines the very transformation God is calling us to undergo.  As a result, our religious structures become tools to maintain the status quo and not catalysts for personal and social change”.

Faith in Four Stages

McLaren presented a four-stage framework for understanding the spiritual life.

In his talks at Refreshing Winds, McLaren presented a four-stage framework for understanding the spiritual life.  His message encourages us to “stay true to Jesus’ core message while engaging faithfully with our post-modern world”.

The message about understanding faith in four stages or spaces began with the visual images of sea anemones produced by a diver at 88 ft depth.   The diver had taken a picture at that depth which produced a faint greenish glow.   The diver then turned a full spectrum light on the scene and took another photograph which revealed a hauntingly beautiful scene, rich with colour.  McLaren explained that what you see depends largely on where you are – on the available light.  As you ascend towards the surface, the light increases and more of the beauty can be seen.   Jesus, he explains, desires to bring us to full spectrum light.

Stage 1: Simplicity

McLaren introduced the first of these four stages, or spaces by describing it as place where most of us begin in our faith – Simplicity.  As children, our families, our churches, our schools provide us with authority figures that help us to figure out the “right” answers.  In this stage, we believe that its an us/them world – the “good guys” or the authorities have the right answers and the “bad guys” have it wrong.  This stage is important in laying a foundation for our understanding of the world, but reinforces a dualistic framework.  At 88 feet, McLaren reminds us, we can only see black or green.  In our faith development, we see God as the ultimate authority figure and friend.  We learn to quote Bible verses and develop a strength of conviction – to be able to stand up for what we believe in.   However, McLaren quotes C.S.Lewis in saying that those most willing to die for their faith are those also most willing to inflict suffering or kill for their faith.

McLaren introduced a series of primal spiritual aptitudes or practices that characterize each stage of development.  The words describe the postures of our heart toward God, rooted in a single word.


The first of these postures is the word here.  It describes the place where you uniquely can encounter God .  McLaren points out that Moses responded to God by saying, “Here I am”.  In this stage, we give ourselves permission to say, “I don’t know, I’m just trying to be present”.  It is the practice of presence.


The second posture is thanks.  It is the experience of gratitude, of being blessed.  The practice of gratitude, McLaren explains, opens our heart to the fact that everything is gift and we won’t always have it.

O (Alleluia)

The third posture is the word O or Alleuluia.  It is the practice of wonder or of worship.  McLaren describes it as an empty space so full I can’t put words to it.  Politics, he explains, provides us with too much news coverage; the experience of church with too many books.  We make theolatries of our theologies.  The experience of wonder, McLaren says, is the best understanding there can be.

Although McLaren explains that the stages are artificial – they are an attempt to describe an intangible reality of our experience of spirituality – they help us to identify something of our experience of the church in a new way.  Most of us, he says, begin at Stage 1.  Some of us never move beyond this stage to experience the richness of colour and beauty at succeeding stages.

The series “A New way of Thinking about Church” is written by Nancy Phillips. This is the first article in the series.
Up next… Stage 2: Complexity