A New Way of Thinking About Church: Part 2

In this continuing series of notes from talks presented at the Refreshing Winds Conference at Canadian Mennonite University by keynote speaker Brian McLaren, we explore Stage 2 of a four-stage framework for understanding the spiritual life.

McLaren believes that Christians move through different spaces or stages of experiencing and understanding the spiritual life.  In his second talk, McLaren asks us to think of people we may have encountered who might say, “I’m very spiritual”.  They might deny attendance at a church or even say that they are not religious, but they believe themselves to be spiritual.  McLaren suggests that the underlying message of this statement might be that a person doesn’t believe that science, politics or economics has all the answers, but also doesn’t believe that organized religion has all the answers either.

Can our churches actually help people have a direct experience of God? Unless the answer is yes, there’s no reason to come.

McLaren explains if spirituality and religion have the answers, then they are also the problem.  It’s not the organization of the church that is the problem, it’s what the organization does; it forces us into an “us versus them” stance.  Life can’t be reduced to mechanisms, McLaren states, there’s got to be something more to life.  McLaren believes that people are searching for a spirituality that pervades all of our lives – a practice that leads to personal experience.  We are looking for practices that are sacred and, McLaren suggests, people look to experiences such as getting into nature or hanging out with friends as sacred space and time.  This search is ultimately a search for an experience of the Holy Spirit.

McLaren posed a very interesting question.  He asks, “Can our churches actually help people have a direct experience of God?”  He then responds to his own question by saying that there is not a good reason to come to church unless you can say yes to this.  McLaren wonders if there are people who have outgrown Stage 1 (Simplicity) and find nothing to grow into in our churches.  McLaren suggests that many of our churches do a good job for people who are in the stage of Simplicity, but beyond Stage 1, we have little to offer.

Stage 2: Complexity

McLaren shared a story of shopping for a light bulb in a big box hardware store.  He went to the light bulb aisle and found several staff standing in front of the light bulb display arguing about company practices.  The light bulb display was stunning in its complexity and variety.  After searching for awhile with no offer of assistance, he finally asked the sales associates to move aside so he could see the remainder of the display and finally made a selection based on his own judgement since the sales associates were not willing to interrupt their discussion to assist him.  McLaren wonders if this is a fitting metaphor for our churches!

Those journeying in Stage 2 believe that everything is doable and there are many ways to reach a goal. God is the ultimate guide or coach.

Higher education, McLaren explains, is the portal into Stage 2.  It’s the belief that there is more than one way to do things.  He uses the example of a student attending an economics class and learning that all human behaviour can be explained by class struggle, etc.  The student madly writes notes because the information is likely to be on the test.  Then they attend a biology class where they learn that all human behaviour can be explained by evolution and so on.  Attending a third class in English, the student learns that in King Lear we learn that all human behaviour can be explained by the frustration of ideals and desires.  This is part of a process of learning that there are different ways of seeing the world.  The student wants to get an A so trusts the explanation from the authorities.

In Stage 2, the focus is on the authorities who know “how to do it” and on being effective or winning and success.  A person in Stage 2 wants to know the rules of the game and wants to play by the rules.  There is a belief at this Stage that “bad guys don’t do the right stuff” and authorities are coaches who can help you grow and succeed.  McLaren identifies Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life as being an example of a Stage 2 approach.  Those journeying in Stage 2 believe that everything is doable and there are many ways to reach a goal.  God is the ultimate guide or coach.

During this Stage, relationships become increasingly dependent as a person searches for a suitable coach or mentor.  This is a Stage marked by great enthusiasm, with a “can do”, action oriented mindset.   Christians in this stage will be focussed on how to study the Bible and how to lead others to Christ. The weakness of this Stage is that it is superficial.

Sorry: The practice of regret

In Stage 1, confession is about brushing the slate clean so we can be one of the good guys.

In Stage 2, confession is about recognizing that we are one of the bad guys too, as well as being a good guy.

The first word is about how we hold our regret before God.  It involves confession of sin and increasing expansiveness.  In Stage 1, confession is about brushing the slate clean so we can be one of the good guys.  In Stage 2, McLaren explains, confession is about recognizing that I’m one of the bad guys too, as well as being a good guy.  McLaren believes that the Anglican Church’s move towards accepting responsibility for our role in the residential schools is an excellent example of holding our regret before God.  People who have left the church may express a state of being morally ready for profound regret, but discover that the church is just not there yet.  The essence of a deep spiritual life, McLaren explains, is to be holier than you appear to be.  Having more character than image requires the practice of regret.

Help: The practice of expansion

By recognizing our own knowledge is bounded and our own virtue is limited, we can be open to a wisdom beyond our own.

This word describes our ability to become aware of our limitations and the way we hold our weakness about our limitations and feebleness.  We recognize in this stage that my knowledge is bounded and my virtue is limited.  This allows us to be open to a wisdom beyond our own – the opposite of defensiveness.   McLaren suggests our prayer during this Stage might be, “I’m not asking you, Lord, to expand my world to fit my abilities, I’m asking you to expand my capacity to accept reality”.  McLaren used the example of AA in this stage.  In Stage 1 a person might have accepted that they are a “bad alcoholic”.  In Stage 2, a person might confess their powerlessness over their addiction and seek a sanity beyond their own.

Please: The practice of compassion

This word expresses the practice of intercession – the need to ask on behalf of others.  Intercession is holding the word “please” open in our hearts.

The series “A New way of Thinking about Church” is written by Nancy Phillips. This is the second article in the series.
Up next… Stage 3: Perplexity/Surviving.