My kind of Evangelical

John Nilssonchrist, christianity, evangelicals, God, grace, inter-faith, Jesus, Mormon, Mormons, religion, theology 16 Comments

As a Mormon kid growing up in the area of Southern California largely settled by Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri, evangelicals (we called them born-agains) were the enemy. They were the ones circulating anti-Mormon movies like the Godmakers, they were the ones telling me and my friends of the “swing-set set” that we weren’t saved, that we weren’t even Christian.


When I evolved into a liberal Mormon, theologically and politically, my opinion of evangelicals was one of the few constants in my worldview. I still had an instinctive dislike for them, their tactics, and theology.

Now that I am more comfortable in my own skin, though, I have discovered that I actually like some evangelicals. In fact, there is an entire subsection of evangelicals from whom I have learned a great deal theologically and spiritually.

My favorite Evangelical is Brian McLaren, former pastor of Cedar Ridge Church in Maryland. Author of many books like A New Kind of Christian, The Story We Find Ourselves In, Finding Our Way: The Return of the Ancient Practices, and A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian represents the emerging church, or emergent Christianity, which some polemically have called a return to the old social gospel, but which its advocates have pointed out is much more open to spiritual practices from Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. You are as likely to find Brian and those of his kind fasting, practicing fixed-hour prayer, and campaigning for Obama as you are to find them doing the traditional Sunday morning mega-church thing.

McLaren and others like Doug Pagitt are reinvigorating evangelicalism. What was once a monochromatic phemenon is now vibrant and varied. I love the way they talk about what the message of Jesus was and is.These are the kind of evangelicals I wish I had known as a conservative Mormon kid, or as a newly-liberal Mormon young adult. They are also evangelicals who don’t seek to exclude, but rather to include, even to accept that Mormons can be followers of the way of Jesus.

These emergent Christians help me see Christ in a new way and to be excited about His message and what it means for our world right now in a way I’m not getting from other sources. Why is that?

Comments 16

  1. I’ve read two of Brian McLaren’s books in the last 2 months and I share your enthusiasm. In a way I find it amusing that he’s trying to convince Christians that it’s important to actually live a Christ-like life day to day, but I guess that’s the hurdle they have to over come after years of “grace! I’m saved” emphasis.

    Why be excited about his message? because he’s studying the New Testament (and Old Testament) and looking for the core message in terms of daily living, charity, justice, and mercy. It’s always useful to go back to the basics and figure out where you can improve, and he honestly points out weaknesses in the evangelical culture in a very open way.

    It has been a healthy exercise for me to read his books and compare my faith with his, especially during a time when my interest in Mormon culture is fading. I was struck, for example, by an idea in his Finding Our Way that in Jesus’ scheme of things, people first became disciples (students) so they could learn to become apostles (sharing the word with others). My first response was that he didn’t get what an “apostle” is, but then I realized… we can all be “apostles” in the sense that we are called to go forth, serve, and teach others. Why aren’t we all acting like “apostles”?

  2. I’m not sure why that it is, John. A guess would be perhaps the LDS have a tendency to fray their focus on so many areas that really aren’t as Christ-centered as what these evangelical religions tend to embrace. Their main linchpin of worship is Jesus Christ, whereas the Mormon (though claiming this is in fact the central focus) have temples, prophets, Joseph Smith, claims of a true church, Book of Mormon (though again it is claimed to be Christ-centered literature), visiting and home teaching, and a host of other satellite topics that float around the idea of Jesus, but seldom delve into anything more than the occasional presidential/apostolic statement. For these individuals, it appears the role Jesus and the New Testament play in their belief system far out does the Mormons’. Yet, that is not to say that some LDS folk haven’t had as profound of thought as McClaren, perhaps they just don’t have the opportunity to express it.

  3. John, cool stuff. I’m going to have to read his stuff now. I looked at some of the YouTube video pages for his clips and the comments demonstrate something interesting. The Evangelical Christian community appears to have even more polemic reaction to dissenters than LDS do. There are some people responding to one of those innocuous and (what would appear to be) fairly universally inspiring messages and calling him a wolf and a liar and working for Satan himself. Bizarre.

  4. “Evangelical Christian community appears to have even more polemic reaction to dissenters than LDS do.”

    This is news? ๐Ÿ˜›

  5. There are distinctions and differences between Emergent and Emerging Christianity. I’m more a fan of the latter, which embraces discipleship, community outreach, missional focus, local church models, and engaging the postmodern culture directly. Of course, Emergents share some of this focus, too. IMO, Emergents often deconstruct theology too greatly, taking universalist and the “historical/human Jesus” positions a bit too far.

    I don’t dislike Brian by any means but some of his positions are seen as risky to many Christians as trad. Christianity is viewed as risky by LDS persons. Therefore, even moderated Emerging positions can be very radical appearing for Mormons. I would like to see Emerging views grow more persuasive and influential for Christian living, so the most extreme and risky need to have some moderation, in my view in order for the memes to catch on.

    Still, I like Emergents like Brian McLaren out there giving evangelicalism some of its shake-up. Some of the pendulum is bound to swing back from the more extreme positions, and the net gain for evangelicalism will be healthy progress. I don’t think Reformed theology Emerging types are the only solution, either, but they offer a good counterbalance. And I’m certainly united with even the spirituality of believers like Brian in opposing what the growth of Prosperity Gospel churches and “The Religious Right” churches are doing (and have done) to American evangelical Christianity.

    Anyhow, I’d recommend interested readers to John’s thread to check out the Jesus Shaped Spirituality blog. It’s a good place to follow “post-evangelical” approaches to Christianity.

  6. Studying what is happening within the general evangelical community is fascinating – both the struggles to define doctrine AND the movement toward much of what is taught within Mormonism. Thanks for posting this, John.

  7. What’s new about this? From an (admittedly) first and rather superficial look, it looks a lot like the kinder, gentler, all-inclusive mainstream Protestant churches, who’ve slowly moved left in their ideology and worldview… and are imploding as far as membership is concerned. I can see why some more “traditional” evangelicals have reservations.

  8. Carlos (7):

    I agree — I think you’ve have only given a superficial look at Emerging Christianity. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It is one of the few segments of American Christianity not posting net decline in market share. (Of course, some approaches I’d criticise, like Mega-Churchness or Properity Gospelness, are also showing growth, so growth alone is a not a predictor of worth, even for positions with which I agree. Still growing movements/approaches are worthy for deeper consideration, for the pro and for the con, when most denominations of American Christianity are declining.)

    Either way, the more extreme positions of Emergence may be worth criticising as theologically risky, but it is no reason to dismiss many of the healthy and positive lessons the movement is demonstrating. I briefly mentioned a few reasons that I think are worthy for consideration.


    no-man (1): I agree that it is healthy to reconsider what “apostleship” means. Emerging types are not the first to see discipleship and apostleship, for example, as descriptive roles and states more than proscriptive, rigid titles of empowerment or authority. I think Emerging believers are taking the emphasis the next step, though. Not only are they revisiting the traditional discussion of authority, but they are questioning the rigidity of denominational/institutional thinking (even among Protestantism) by driving the discussion not necessarily always away from theology, but toward seeing missional, purposeful action as the most important.

  9. John…I am not sure about his conclusion on the first video. Is his conclusion that we should only except a Christian view of God as being the only valid one or should we not imprint our alternative pictures onto Jesus (like believing “God told GWB to invade Iraq)about things he would not have said?

    Nice theological views…I enjoyed his videos. Thanks.

  10. Pingback: LDS & Brian McLaren « Heart Issues for LDS

  11. I liked the videos very much though they are pretty generic. I am interested in what he has to say when they aren’t quite as neatly packaged. But, really, is he spreading a different message than said, Neal A Maxwell? I think not. When we peel back the LDS “must dos,” The message of Jesus is in there somewhere…..

  12. As an evangelical… let me tell you… I know of very few evangelicals who would even begin to consider Brian McLaren an evangelical, especially given his position on homosexuality, his denial of inerrancy, his denial of eternal punishment, his denial of penal substitutionary atonement, his denial of the correspondence theory of truth, his denial of a Biblical view of healthy church government, his pluralism, his postmodernism, etc.

    All that piles up…

  13. I love to hear someone who is sincere and passionate about something in religion, that has a focus on something different than my own. It’s refreshing. It provides the opportunity to notice something that I might have overlooked a hundred times because of my own comfortable filters.

    #12 Interesting view from the other side. I don’t know a lot more about Brian McLaren yet beyond those video clips, but the topics you mentioned are ones I would probably have similar views about as Brian.

  14. Post


    I have to second Valoel’s comments. I was struck by how similar Brian’s take on Christianity was to my own, and yet I am attracted to it because it is more intensely spiritual than the traditional social gospel, to which I am also attracted.

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