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Lessen focus on eternity, McLaren says at Willow Creek student ministries conference

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. (BP)–The emphasis Christians place on the traditional Christian doctrines of hell and the second coming of Jesus inhibits believers from living effective lives of service in this world, according to speaker and author Brian McLaren.

McLaren explained his views April 9-10 at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., as a featured speaker during the Willow Creek Association’s annual Shift student ministries conference. During the conference’s opening session, Bo Boshers, executive director of student ministries for the Willow Creek Association, said he does not agree with all McLaren’s views but that all youth ministers should consider his thoughts.

In his most recent book, “Everything Must Change” (Thomas Nelson), McLaren commends Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels as one of only a handful of evangelical leaders properly addressing global poverty and equity for the world’s population.

“Some of us came from a religious tradition or a religious background where our main role was to recruit kids to go to heaven,” said McLaren, a controversial leader within the emerging church movement. “And that’s a good thing. Mortality rates are still pretty high, and we all have to face that decision. But I’m here to challenge you to think bigger and deeper and in more layers and dimensions about your role.”

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In a later conference breakout session, McLaren elaborated, “There are some ideas that are not truly ideas of the Gospel but are ideas of the modern understanding of the Gospel. The problem isn’t the Bible. The problem is modern rings that we put around the Bible. And what we need to do — some of us in our thinking — is to find the courage to snip the ring so that our faith … can really have a future.”

Though he did not specify at Willow Creek which traditional doctrines need revision, McLaren wrote in his 2007 book “Everything Must Change” that the doctrine of hell needs radical rethinking. He argues that people who believe in hell may be inclined to dominate and take advantage of other people, rather than help them.

“Many of us have been increasingly critical in recent years of popular American eschatology in general, and conventional views of hell in particular,” he wrote. “Simply put, if we believe that God will ultimately enforce his will by forceful domination, and will eternally torture all who resist that domination, then torture and domination become not only permissible but in some way godly.”

The orthodox understanding that Jesus will return at a future date and forcefully conquer all His enemies also needs rethinking, according to McLaren.

“This eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we’ve said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly,” McLaren wrote.

The book of Revelation does not actually teach that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, he wrote, but that a new way of living is possible within this universe if humans will follow Jesus’ example.

By going to the cross, McLaren argued in his book, Jesus committed an act similar to the Chinese student at Tiananmen Square in the late 1980s — he placed himself in harm’s way to demonstrate the injustice of a society that would harm a peaceful and godly man.

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McLaren’s views break harshly from traditional Christian theology that Jesus died on the cross as substitute for sinful humanity, taking the punishment that men and women deserved for their sin. Traditional Christian theology also contends that those who do not trust Jesus for their salvation will be punished in hell eternally for their sins and that Jesus will return at a future date to conquer all evil.

At Willow Creek, McLaren outlined some of the world’s most pressing problems and explained how humanity is facing several serious crises.

The “prosperity crisis” refers to the fact that humans have turned the quest for prosperity into a religion that exalts possession and consumption at unsustainable levels, he said. The “equity crisis” refers to the growing gap between the world’s ultra-rich and its extremely poor, which prompts the poor to resent and even hate the rich minority, while the “security crisis” refers to the danger of war and violence arising from intensifying resentment and fear among people at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum, he said.

In attempts to solve these problems, humans often have resorted to imperialism, revolution, scapegoating and isolation, McLaren said. But Jesus offered an alternative strategy that offers people the prosperity, equity and security they seek, he said.

Jesus told people, “Listen everybody, I want you to stop believing those other stories,” McLaren said. “That’s in part what the word ‘repent’ means. I want you to think again about what’s going on here. I want you to have a fresh vision of what’s going on in this world.

“Repent doesn’t just mean feel guilty. That’s certainly part of it, but repent means something much bigger than that. It means realize that your entire way of seeing things is misguided and wrong.”

The world’s hope consists in believing Jesus’ teaching that a life of care for others and stewardship of resources is ultimately more fulfilling than a life of seeking wealth and security at the expense of caring for the needy, according to McLaren.

“Jesus is saying that switching sides — choosing to serve the needs of the poor instead of working the system that favors the rich — is a way of ‘laying up treasure in heaven,’ of working for a higher spiritual economy rather than the ‘unclean’ imperial economy,” McLaren wrote.

Citing the Lord’s Prayer, he told conference attendees that youth ministers must shift their thinking and teach teens that involvement in earthly matters is more pressing than focus on eternal matters.

“As youth workers, a shift is happening and a shift is needed,” he said, “that you become agents of recruiting people, young people, to consider devoting their entire lives to living not just for themselves and their own selfish interests, not just for their nation and their own national interests, but to work as agents of the Kingdom of God, joining with Jesus Christ in His good news of the Kingdom of God.”

In the breakout session, McLaren said the world is moving from an era of modern thinking to an era of postmodern thinking and youth ministers must transition their teaching accordingly.

While modern thinking emphasizes analysis, postmodern thinking moves beyond reason and analysis to a focus on larger realities, he said.

“We’re in a period of profound shift in our world today,” he said. “And what has been familiar to us and our churches is in some ways shaking and crumbling and being reconfigured.”

Youth ministry in the postmodern world must stop pointing out to teens the faults of non-Christian religions, McLaren said, because postmodern people do not view critiques positively.

“The kids walk out thinking, ‘Man, I don’t want to be a Christian because Christians are always attacking everybody else,'” he said. “So you end up giving the opposite message you intended to give because they’re living in a world where to be critical seems like it’s dangerous because they’re worried that people are going to kill each other and blow each other up. We’ve got to realize the storm is occurring and the landscape is changing.”

Though older Christian ministers may be able to remain in the bubble of modern thinking, youth pastors must trust God through this time of transition and make a change to new ways of thinking, he said.

“We’re going through this kind of deep shift,” he said, “and the non-youth pastors, many of them, feel they can afford to not have to face this because they will get older as their congregation gets older, and their congregation will live in the bubble of modernity as it passes from this scene. But youth pastors don’t have that luxury.”
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David Roach is a writer for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Baptist Press correspondent.