Is Christianity a fading religion? Can the faith be born anew?
These are some of the questions that will be explored this weekend at the annual Jim and Gwen Pruyne Lectureship in Progressive Christianity, sponsored by New Covenant Community Church in Normal.
This year’s speaker is theologian and author Brian McLaren, known primarily for his writings on what’s called the “emergent church.” McLaren comes from an evangelical tradition, but often takes issue with traditional teachings and practices.
Speaking on GLT's "Sound Ideas," McLaren said what’s needed is a 21rst century understanding of Christianity -- one focused less on beliefs, and more on living the faith.
"All faiths are always in the making, always evolving and changing and growing. Often those changes are small and incremental, but I think we're in a time when we have to do some radical rethinking," he said.
McLaren said three areas are ripe for reinterpretation: "how we define our faith, how we understand God, and how we understand the church or organized religion."
Some of these changes are already occurring, he added. While doctrine remains important, McLaren said he sees a shift away from defining faith solely in terms of a system of beliefs.
"The essence is actually on a way of life, and not just a set of statements that you have to check 'agree or disagree'" McLaren said.
While externals such as ritual and liturgy also remain important, McLaren said, "There is an essential re-centering on spirituality, on what is happening in our own experience of God, and in what ways we are we being transformed into more loving people, more humble people, people more characterized by awe and wonder as opposed to being know-it-alls."
The former pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland, McLaren began focusing on the declining number of young people within traditional religions back in the 1990s.
He said there remains a hunger for authentic spiritual experience by young adults, but their declining presence at traditional worship services demonstrates that churches aren't meeting their needs.
"Twenty years ago I felt this was a problem that a few tweaks could perhaps solve. Now I think, no, the departure of the younger generation is data the church needs," he said.
The kind of change churches need, he said, "is not just cosmetic and stylistic, not a mater of guitars and drums rather than organs and pianos. There are some deeper things going on. I have come to believe unless we deal with those deeper issues, then people have very good reason to stay away."
McLaren said most churches would not have been inclined to listen to young adults "unless those young people left."
The author of "The Great Spiritual Migration" and "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?" McLaren said he is disappointed by the role some evangelicals are playing in the current presidential election.
"By this or that church's standards, you can have all the right beliefs or participate in all the right institutional rituals and markers and still be a racist or still treat women as inferior to men or show shaming prejudice for LGBTQ people or be careless about the environment," he said.
"What we're realizing is your checking off all the right boxes on a set of beliefs doesn't tell us much about the kind of person you are. We're wanting to pay a lot more attention to the content of character."
There's more from McLaren on the election, his vision for the Christian faith, and his visit to Bloomington-Normal in the full interview.
McLaren will speak Friday on "The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World's Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian" at 7 p.m. in the Astroth Center at Heartland Community College in Normal. That presentation is free.
He will lead a workshop on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on "Healing a Fractured World" at First Presbyterian Church in Normal. The cost of the workshop is $30. Reservations are required and can be made on line at www.pruynelectures.com or by contacting New Covenant Community Church.