Brian McLaren has become one of the key thinkers and writers on the issue of doing ministry in a postmodern age. A former English professor at the University of Maryland, he left academia in 1986 to become founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. He is author of The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, and Finding Faith, both published by Zondervan.
Preaching: In your book, The Church on the Other Side, you talk about doing ministry on the other side of the modern/postmodern transition. How do you describe that transition? What is going on culturally that is making an impact?
McClaren: One of the best ways to frame it I think is to look back in history at other major transitions. We talk about pre-history which is before people have the ability to write. Generally we put that about 2500 B.C. Then people talk about the ancient world, which was the world of a number of significant civilizations: the Sumerian, the Egyptian, Greek, Roman empires — that brings us from about 2500 B.C. to about 500 A.D. That is really a period during which the whole Bible takes place except creation. Then the medieval period from about 500 A.D. to about 1500 A.D. Then the modern period from 1500 to the present. For us, modern tends to just mean now, but if we think of it as a period, we realize that some day it is going to end, and something else will takes its place, if past history is any model.
What would it look like if the modern world came to an end and something new took its place? We would expect there to be a change in philosophy; we would expect there to be a change in economy, a change in organizing structures, a change perhaps in lifestyles of people. A lot of us believe that we have this fascinating convergence of change in all of those areas going on right about now. That is very, very analogous to that last major change around 1500 when you had Columbus and the new world opening up. You had the decay of the feudal economic system, the rise of the modern capitalist system. You had the rise of the nation-state which didn’t exist before 1500, the rise of the industrial regime and technology. There were no complex machines before 1500. The printing press, huge new communication technologies — we can take every one of those changes in 1500 and find their counterparts today, which then creates this moment of cultural transformation.
The change in communication technology — just as the printing press made literacy much more widespread which changed Christianity. In some ways, Protestantism is a form of Christianity that could only exist after the printing press because you couldn’t have literacy because you couldn’t have books in large numbers.
Well, what happens when we become a screen-based world rather than a paper-based world? What happens when the primary modes of communication are electronic rather than through books? Huge change. Change in the way people think. Change in the way they process information. Change in the way we’ve got to preach to them. So there is a huge area.
Another huge area is the way we look at people who are different than us. For 500 years the world has been getting smaller, but now we are in a place where the world gets ever smaller, ever faster because the whole world becomes linked through the internet and television, radio and airplanes. That changes the way we think about people from other cultures. It is not so easy to create caricatures of them, it is not so easy to see them as bad and us as good. So it changes the way that we think about other religions, as well it creates new challenges for us in the whole area of pluralism.
In the modern world we believed that we could have certainty. We could have certainty as individuals and we could have certainty through our own rational processes. We really believe in certainty. Probably most of your readers would agree with that statement: certainty is possible for human beings. Although we might agree that there are some gray areas around the edges, there’s this core of real absolute certainty that we believe.
If we went before 1500 in the medieval period, people wouldn’t have believed that they could have that kind of certainty. They would have understood that much of what they know is based on what their authorities have told them, so they had faith in their authority figures over them. Whatever they would call certainty was really based on faith. In the ancient world, people were aware that there was so much that they didn’t know; they lived with a sense of swimming in mystery. But in the modern world we believe that mystery is going to be removed through rational processes, analysis, science. In the scientific world we have made a lot of progress in that.
In the theological world we applied the same rationalistic process to the Bible and felt that we were getting the whole thing systematized and figured out. Our preaching and our knowing have been about certainty. It has been about principles, it has been about abstract concepts and propositions. That has really worked. People loved to come to church for the last fifty years of high modernity where they could take notes and add to their knowledge base.
Yet as we move into a postmodern world, we re-enter a world of mystery and we re-enter a world where people are skeptical of those over-blown claims to certainty. So there is a radical rethinking of epistemology. Now there are some extremes of this in some of the postmodern philosophers, where you get the feeling that they are saying you don’t know anything and can’t know anything. The irony is that they are writing books about this, which makes you think they are trying to convince people of something that they would to some degree know. They are certain that they can’t be certain about anything!
I think that this has a huge impact for us as Christians. I think in the long run it is a huge gain for us as Christians because the whole world becomes a little more honest that we all live by faith. I talk about this more in my second book, Finding Faith, that we all live by faith. I think it is going to be hard for a lot of us as preachers because we have postured ourselves in a modern posture, as the experts who dispense certainty and knowledge, rather than a more ancient view of the spiritual leader as people who guide others into mystery. Very different.
Preaching: How has your own identity as a preacher changed as you grappled with some of these ideas about postmodernity?
McClaren: I remember getting a feeling in the early and mid 90’s that something I was doing was counter-productive to really getting through to the more postmodern people who were coming through our doors. First of all, most churches have no postmodern people coming through their doors because we give so many messages to tell them “you are not wanted” or “you would not be interested in what we are doing here” because it has such a modern feel. When we started having some postmodern folks coming through our doors, I just felt that something wasn’t working and a change was going to be in order.
I was hearing other people talk about this a little bit. They were talking about the importance of returning to narrative. So, I started thinking, “what does that mean?” It doesn’t just mean telling more cute stories, bringing stories and illustrations into our sermons. One thing I started realizing is that if we understand truth to be always human and contextual, then the way I quote the Bible changes.
For example, I was just working on my sermon for this Sunday and I am going to quote Jesus in John 7 when He says, “If anyone wills to do God’s will he will know my teaching whether it is from God.” I was just going to quote that but then I thought I should reroute this in the story, because what that sentence means, the nuances and fullness of that, will come out as people see the conversation He is in with the Jewish leaders in John 7. So, it is an awareness that the whole New Testament is contextual and the Old Testament — every statement takes place in a story. So trying to reroute the statements in a story moves us away from proof-texting. It moves us back into always giving the narrative framework. Those are always inherently interesting — so much drama to all of this. John 7, what incredible drama is going on there. So that would be a big change.
Another change would be to take the posture not of the expert but of the lead scout in an expedition. So it’s not like I have been there and I have it all figured out and I am bringing it back to other people telling them what’s out there. But we are all on a journey together. I am out in front a little bit but I am trying to give them a guided tour of the new territory. It is a different posture.
Preaching: Can you give me an example of how you were talking about reshaping the framework into a more narrative format. How would you do that differently?
McClaren: I think before I would have just quoted the statement and treated it as a bit of disembodied information or as an abstract principle. I certainly think there is a principle going on there. I am not trying to deny that. But I would have been more propositional, more interested in just what is going on in the abstract. Then when I look at this in context: the Jewish leaders sat there are marveling saying, “How does this man become learned having never been educated?” We have a traditional idea of how people get knowledge.
People get knowledge by getting educated, by the authorities. So Jesus says it is not just by getting educated by sitting in classrooms or by sitting at the feet of Rabbis and listening to them. There is a heart attitude toward this thing, too. There is an experiential attitude. You are going to know my teaching, you are really going to understand it and know its validity when you try it and when you obey God’s will.
In fact it’s a very postmodern passage when you think about it. It is saying that knowledge isn’t about just gaining abstract information. There is a moral dimension to the gaining of knowledge. I suppose it is the Biblical idea of being wise versus being a fool. You can be an educated fool. Jesus is saying “follow Me” to people who don’t understand that — knowing that the best way that they will understand it is by following Him.
What I am trying to do very much is to get people in that same framework; it’s not that I am going to give them the full explanation of everything in a rational, abstract and intellectual way but I’m going to help them get this combination of understanding and experience and experimentation that’s going to guide them into deeper understanding of the gospel.
Preaching: Not only in terms of the shaping of the message — are there other changes in your own preaching that you have been making?
McClaren: In addition to being more narrative, when we get into this we become more conversational. I think modern preaching is analytical and I define analysis as taking a whole and breaking it down into its parts, or taking an effect and breaking it down into its causes — tracing it back to its causes. My sermons in the past were very analytical: take a passage and break it down; take a word and break it down. Everything is about breaking it down. Outlining is analysis. It’s breaking things down into its parts.
Conversations don’t work that way. Conversations take interesting little dog legs — the question gets raised, you go off on a little tangent, then you go off on the main point. I’ve found that the more my preaching mirrors the flow of a conversation, the more people connect with it. The more I try to do abstract analysis, the more it feels like something is being opposed on them. That might be just a reflection of me and this congregation. But if there is a generalization, I would say there is this conversational kind of flow. Maybe I make a statement. I have to say, “What are people thinking right now? What question would they be asking?”
Well, that is where I need to go. I need to let the question that I think is naturally arising in their mind be the direction for me — not the analytical outline, the five P’s or the six J’s or whatever it is. That so much dominated modern thinking — we like that because it gave us the feeling of being orderly. It’s structure.
Preaching: Do you serve a fairly young congregation?
McClaren: It used to be fairly young! Then the older I got, the older they got. Ironically a lot of our younger people have brought their parents, so our diversity is really increased in the last few years.
Preaching: Perhaps you are facing the issue that faces other pastors with whom I visit. We think about how you preach to postmoderns. At the same time, in most of our congregations, we are not just preaching to 20 to 30-somethings. We are preaching to 40’s, to 50’s, 60’s. We are preaching to congregations that span world views. How do you deal with that diversity of perspective?
McClaren: That is an extremely tough issue. In the public speaking that I am doing around the country, there is an awful lot of pain clustering around that issue. The first thing is the fact that we have that pain is a good sign. It’s a sign that we are in a situation more like the first century church, because you had Jews and Gentiles having to be brought together — people on the same planet who live in different universes having to be brought together. I think we have an analogous situation. I think we’ve got people on the same planet who live in different universes.
I think that there are certain things that are impossible to do. For example, this problem isn’t just a matter of modern and postmodern. It is a matter of religious taste. Some people have developed religious taste in a modern framework — like an acquired taste in food. You are not going to take somebody who hates Indian food and get them to like it. It is just a taste that they haven’t acquired. I think for people who are highly churched and have a very strong acquired taste for a certain kind of preaching, to ask them to change their taste is like asking them to change their preference in music or food or anything else. I don’t think it is a matter of biblical or unbiblical. I think it would be honest to just say it is a matter of taste.
Then I think it is a compassionate thing to say that if some people are very set in their ways, we are probably going to have to keep meeting their needs in the language and style that they are more used to. It would be nice if we could change them. Maybe a few would change, but we have to recognize the limitations of human beings. What we have to do is not let ourselves be held captive to thosen tastes. We need to create new venues. A lot of churches create alternative services. I think that is one way of dealing with it. Keep meeting the needs of people; as Lyle Schaller says, “Bring change by addition not subtraction.” But add to that some new options.
Preaching: Regarding the alternative service: many pastors have come to the conclusion that in a single worship service they cannot deal with 20’s and 60’s in terms of just the world view change. The world view perspective is just so different. Is it possible to do it within the same church? If you use alternative services, what are the advantages and disadvantages?
McClaren: First of all, this modern, postmodern thing isn’t strictly a matter of age groups. What a lot of us find out is that when we start communicating the gospel in a postmodern context a lot of older people suddenly come out of the woodwork. They weren’t coming to church before. For example, two of the really innovative churches exploring this area are in Minneapolis. One is called Spirit Garage and the other is called Solomon’s Porch. The Spirit Garage is a sub-congregation of a Lutheran church and Solomon’s Porch is a church on its own — a new church plant. But if you go there you will find a whole range of ages because there are older people who have been waiting for something like this.
Doug Padgett, who is the pastor for Solomon’s Porch, has a wonderful metaphor for this. He says, “Do you work on the metaphor of a tree or the metaphor of a garden?” A tree has one root system and you could see an additional service as a branch coming out of the trunk of that tree. The problem is, whatever grows on that branch has to be the same ultimately — it is just more of the same. But if you have the metaphor of a garden and you said as a church we used to only grow green beans, but now we are going to plow up a little additional territory and grow some strawberries. We are all one church, we are all one garden plot here, but now we have two crops. Then we may add a third crop. And over time, the balance of those different crops will change. But we are not in the green bean business, we are in the gardening business. I think that is a much better way to see it.
So here right now we have three different types of services. We have our Sunday celebrations on Sunday morning. We have a much more interactive service on Sunday nights that we call “Emerge.” We have a Thursday night contemplative service that we call “Intermission.” But those three services are intended to be primary worship experiences for different people. So people come Thursday that don’t come Sundays and Sunday nights that don’t come Sunday mornings.
Preaching: Does your preaching style change between those services?
McClaren: Well, I don’t speak in the other services. In one I’ve never spoken in and in the other, very seldom. My style probably wouldn’t change a lot because all three of those in our context are more or less working in a postmodern framework. But, if I were in a more traditional setting, yes, I would have to change. The problem is, I think, when people start crossing over to the other side of this transition they find it harder and harder to go back.
Preaching: Do you see anybody out there that is doing this effectively — operating effectively on both sides of the divide, whether there are alternate services or something different?
McClaren: In every case I’m aware of, if the senior pastor or dominant leader of the church is strongly modern, he hires someone else to communicate with the postmodern audience. Where the modern senior pastor learns to transition, he finds out there is so much need in a postmodern world that he tends to let somebody else do the modern work and he goes on to do the postmodern work. So I don’t see many that remain amphibious very long. I think I was amphibious five or seven years ago. But I have been going in this direction. Interestingly our church leaders eventually said we want to go that way. We feel that this is new territory. It is a little scary but needs to be explored.
Preaching: In your book you talk about the need to design a new apologetic. What role does apologetics play in a postmodern setting? What shape does that take, and what role does preaching play in that?
McClaren: In a modern context, apologetics is about rational evidence and rational proof and rational argument. In a postmodern setting, it is not that we are abandoning rationality but that we are realizing that as soon as we get into argument in any kind of hostile way, we seem to invalidate our message to postmodern hearers. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Some of it is very cultural in America. I think 1968, Kent State, the Vietnam war — the baby boomer culture reached a point where we thought bitter argument is so dangerous, and people get hurt and people die because of it. I think in our hearts we sort of moved to being somewhat repulsed by that kind of head-to-head argument.
I think for the younger generation that is even more true. Younger people who have grown up with the Balkans in the news and have grown up with Islamic fundamentalism in the news say if we don’t learn how to get along in spite of our disagreements, the world is going to blow up. So this sense that head to head argument — Christianity versus Buddhism, Christianity versus Hinduism, Christianity versus Atheism — that versus mentality sets them off right away. So instead of coming like a football game — where we are going to call the play and see who is standing at the end — I think that we move in to a much more conversational and friendly mode of discourse about religion and our differences and about the gospel.
I also think that showing and listening become as important as telling and convincing. I think one of the things we start to realize is that the Holy Spirit is so active out there. If we listen to people, before long they are going to start telling us where the Holy Spirit is already active in their lives, and then we can start fanning that flame, building that spark into something. Because the Holy Spirit seems to be so active in so many people’s lives, the listening becomes very important and the showing becomes very important.
I think Leslie Newbigin, the theologian who died in the 90’s, had so much to say about this. He said the greatest hermeneutic of the gospel, the greatest explanation of the gospel, is a community that lives by it. I think the importance of demonstrating the gospel at work in our lives becomes more and more important, because the gospel is no longer a disembodied message; it is a message embodied in a community.
Ironically that doesn’t mean that we have to show ourselves a whole lot better than we used to be. It means that we have to make the struggle that we are having about living by the gospel ourselves more overt. We have got to show the pain. We have got to be honest about our failures, present and past. That way apologetics has a lot more to do with apology. Apologizing for our failures. I mean here in America, here we had this incredible Christian heritage and it hasn’t helped us work out our problems between blacks and whites. It didn’t help us treat the native Americans very well. It hasn’t made us be good stewards of the environment. We have any number of embarrassments that are part of our history. Postmodern apologetics means we say, “We’re really sorry; we blew it. We are just human beings, we are struggling with this. But we are still trying to learn, and we feel that the gospel is calling us to do better in these areas.” That becomes a very winsome apologetic when we talk that way.
Preaching: We are seeing two major social/cultural trends: one is pluralism and another is relativism. How do you bring the gospel to bear in an environment or in a context in which you basically are speaking to people who have learned to see the world through pluralistic, relativistic eyes.
McClaren: First of all, from the far side of the transition, I think that people look back and say modern people just learn to see the world through absolutistic and non-relativistic eyes. They would say that the absolutist view of modern people is every bit as much a construct as that of a relativist. I think it is very important for us to really to sit with that for a while — to really see that.
I would say that the dominant thing that we have to prove to a spiritually-seeking non-Christian in a postmodern world is not that Christianity is true. We have to prove that it is good and beautiful. And if they are convinced that it’s good and beautiful, they will be open to it being true. But to just say that we are going to convince them that it’s true and not worry about it being good or beautiful, I think won’t get us very far. Ironically that seems to resonate more with Jesus’ own teaching: by their fruits you will know them, not by their water-tight, systematic arguments will you know them. So the goodness of what we’re about becomes incredibly important. Then again, I don’t think goodness necessarily means perfection, but it at least means honesty and humility about our imperfections. Does that make sense?
Preaching: Let me push a little bit on that. There are postmodern folks who basically say, “You know what’s true for you is good, but that may not be true for me.” At what point do you have to, for the sake of the gospel, draw a line and say there are some things that are true and some things that are false?
McClaren: First of all I think that there is so much sloppy thinking among relativistic people, and some of it is just downright silly. I think it’s appropriate for us in a very gentle, humble way to point out some of that silliness. I try to do this in my second book, Finding Faith, where I say that if all religions are equally true, then God must like some religions better than others, because He told some people they could convert with the sword and told other people to turn the other cheek. Well He’s definitely giving some people the earthly advantage there!
Just to point out to people if they say “you can’t know anything,” and then you say, “Well, are you sure of that? Do you know that you can’t know anything? Then you have just contradicted yourself.” So there are all kinds of contradictions. I think that we can gently point this out to people, but in the long run I don’t think that is the best approach to take.
I think that the best approach is to try to be sympathetic to why they are telling you that everything is equally true. This isn’t really an intellectual statement. This is really a social statement. It is saying that we can’t go around condemning other people or judging other people or shutting other people up because we disagree with them. I think if we could be sympathetic to that statement — which we are as Christians — then we could just move beyond it and start demonstrating the gospel to them. Then I think we start helping them consider what their current beliefs are and where their current beliefs don’t take into account what’s really out there.
There is a very important book just out by Stan Grenz and John Franke called Beyond Foundationalism. It is a book about theological method, and in the book they define theology in a very interesting way. They say theology is not just about God. Theology is a human attempt to create models of the universe based on beliefs about God. This is what is really at stake when we are talking to people about the gospel. We are not just talking about different beliefs about God; we are talking about different models of the universe.
So in a sense then, what we do with people is we say, “Let’s look at your model of the universe and hold it up against reality. Does it really take reality into account?” We can sort of join them in looking at that. If they are willing to say, “You know I don’t think my view of reality, my model, really does take all of reality into account,” then we can say, “Well, let me show you how mine works. Let’s see if mine takes reality into account.” And we are going to both be sure that there are modifications needed because none of us has a perfect view of the universe. But there becomes more of a collaborative process there, and it becomes an ongoing conversation with a potential for influence. So I think we are going to help people come to Christ through influence rather than coercion by argument.
I really think our modern apologetics ended up being about coercion by argument. I love what Soren Kierkeggard said about this way back in the early 1800’s. He talked about why the indirect approach to truth is better than the direct approach. He said if I make a direct approach and say I am right and you are wrong, I am forcing you to, in a sense, lose face in front of me and surrender to me. But if instead I present to you “Here’s how I see things and why don’t you think about it and compare it to how you see things,” then I allow you to go off in private and figure this out and before God you can make your changes. That way I am asking you to humble yourself before God, not before me. It is like childbirth. It has got to be done very gently. It has got to let the process be at work.
Preaching: You talk about the need to learn a new rhetoric. Obviously part of rhetoric is language. Have you sensed that your use of language has changed?
McClaren: This is so important. Here is a place where I think the whole seeker movement and church growth movement really helped us, because they reminded us that we have so much insider jargon. Very often people are turned away from our message not because they disagree with it but because they just feel overwhelmed with jargon that they don’t understand.
I got some insight into this a few years ago. A friend of mine is a committed Buddhist, and I figured I couldn’t carry on a lot of extended conversation with him unless I understood a little bit more about Buddhism. So he gave me a bunch of Buddhist literature and I just felt inundated with all of these Hindu or Sanskrit terms. I just felt: if you people are really trying to help me understand Buddhism, why don’t you translate this into English for me, or why don’t you give me a nice glossary to let me know why you are using these terms?
I think we have a similar challenge in the words we use — finding ways to make things clear. Of course Jesus exemplifies this with His telling stories. This is not the difference between modern and postmodern. I think in the modern world we really believe that truth can reside in isolated words. But I think in a postmodern world we have more confidence in truth residing in stories such as parables than just in isolated, technical words.
The whole idea of technical terminology is a very modern idea — important in the modern world and important in the science and technical world permanently. So words are tremendously important. I think our methods of argument are really important. I think the postmodern culture requires us to be more gentle and respectful, which has a certain resonance in 1 Peter 3, “Always be ready to give a reason and do it with gentleness and respect.” I think we have to do that. We have to be more biblical now in that way.
I think in a world where we are bombarded by print, television, radio, internet, the importance of beauty in communication increases. In the old world, you could just be louder, and the louder you were, the more you would be heard. I think now the softer we speak the more likely we’ll be heard. If we speak with some beauty and passion and intensity, people are drawn in. Sort of abrasive, loud language got people’s attention. Now abrasive, loud language makes people think that someone is mentality ill or someone is trying to cause a fight.
Preaching: The use of story and narrative has been a major trend in homiletics. How do you integrate these things in your preaching? Do you see yourself as a narrative preacher? Do you use story within another framework?
McClaren: The first thing that comes to my mind is that I struggle with that. I was born and raised on prepositional preaching rather than narrative, so I think that I have always struggled. I am much less prone to quote the Bible with just a verse. I’ve got to tell the story around it. I’ve got to tell who said it. I’ve got to tell when he said it. I’ve got to tell what is going on when he said it and what context it fits in.
Very often I think my sermons will develop around a larger story — the story of how I am struggling with something in my own life, the story of how the Christian community as a whole is struggling with something. For example, this week I am going to speak on the spiritual practice of secrecy. Here is an example of a word change. We used to call these spiritual disciplines but I don’t think that discipline communicates the right connotation, so I am using the term spiritual practice. I want to talk about this from the angle of two problems that we as Christians have struggled with. One is the problem of authenticity. We don’t seem real. We have a lot of talk. We don’t imitate the iceberg, which is one tenth visible and nine tenths non-visible. I think Jesus, when He teaches about secrecy, is telling us to be authentic. You have to have more going on under the surface that nobody knows about. This is a problem in the church, and everybody is aware of it. All the hypocrisy in the church and how superficial and shallow we feel and how little effect we have.
Then the other problem is our effectiveness. We make up some significant proportion of our population, but we don’t seem to be having an impact, so we seem kind of lightweight. Again I think this problem is related to the fact that we’re all on the surface, we don’t have enough going on in secret that nobody knows about. So talking about the issue comes in the context of the larger story of what is going on in the church today and tomorrow.
Preaching: How did you come to establish this church?
McClaren: I think that I have some kind of a gift of evangelism from the spiritual womb so to speak. When I was a teenager and I began to follow Christ, I started a little Bible study. Nobody told me to, I just did. I didn’t even think of inviting Christians; I invited non-Christians. That ended up growing to 80 to 90 kids in my high school. When I was a graduate student and an instructor at University of Maryland, my wife and I started a little fellowship in our home that grew to 50 to 60 people. Again, my tendency was to invite non-Christians to that.
I never thought of being a pastor. I really loved the idea of being a college English teacher. In 1985 I heard Rick Warren speak. It was the first time in my life that I heard anybody talk about church work as being evangelistic work. For me, the church was really important, really necessary, but it sort of got in the way of evangelism. But when I heard Rick speak, I thought I could be a pastor in the way he was talking about — my work as a pastor was evangelistic work. Now I think I tend to see evangelism and nurture under the broader heading of disciple making, so it is much more holistic for me.
In 1985 that is when I first thought this is something that I really could do. That precipitated a beginning. Meanwhile we had started a little house group that eventually grew into Cedar Ridge. I started putting more and more of my effort into working with that group starting in 1986.
Preaching: Tell me about your church. What is a typical Sunday morning like for you?
McLaren: We are not any great model. We are just a church that is trying to be true to the gospel and reach our community — to be disciples and make disciples. When people ask about our service I often jokingly say it is a cross between Willow Creek, Vineyard and an Episcopal service! The first 40 or 45 minutes of our service will be very much like a Willow Creek service. We have one song and some announcements. Very often we will have a drama that leads us into the theme of the sermon. I end the sermon with a prayer and the prayer is always an invitation for response. Not that we call people forward but that the prayer that I will lead will be in response to what has been said.
Then right after that we have communion every Sunday, and we do that in more of an Episcopal style where we actually us the liturgy out of the prayer book, and people come forward to take communion. I think that works here because Maryland is a very Catholic state, so for a lot of people, if they haven’t had communion, they don’t feel like they have really come to church.
I also think it is important in a postmodern context because I think we are going to see a resurgence of the value of ritual, ceremony and liturgy. We’ll include confession of sin. Very often we will include a creed, reciting the creed as preparation for communion. Then we have communion and as people come forward then we will have twenty minutes or so of worship, singing. It might be a little more like a Vineyard kind of thing with contemporary music. That becomes a very experiential time because there are people coming forward, and there are people back in the seats singing and there is a lot to see as well as to hear what is going on.
The whole service is seventy-five minutes so that leaves me thirty, maybe thirty-five minutes for the sermon.
Preaching: As you preach, how far out do you plan? Do you use series?
McLaren: We use series and I generally plan about six months out. Part of that is because of the coordination we need for people getting drama scripts developed and all the rest, so we have to keep planning out pretty far in advance. We tend to use four to six week series. Generally in the summer we’ll do a longer series. Last summer, for example, we gave an overview of the whole Bible in fourteen weeks, which was really fun and really helpful for people — to try to get the big historical sweep. In general the summer season we really will concentrate on being a little more expository. We did the Sermon on the Mount one summer. So we really take a passage much more in depth then. We tend to see the spring time as our strongest outreach season. I typically do a series that we call God in the Movies where we will do four, five or six sermons where we’ll focus on a movie each week that is popular and look for some spiritual themes. Show a few clips from them.
Preaching: What about the use of audio, video or other technology in support of preaching? You said you do use video clips from films. Are there other things that you use?
McLaren: We project our scriptures on the screen. If there is a particularly interesting quote from an author. I think this week I have a clip from Dallas Willard that we are going to put up. Helping people with visuals like that seems important.
Preaching: When you are not preaching using a movie theme, do you still use video clips as illustrative material?
McLaren: Yes, quite often we will do that. Actually this week I am also using a popular song, so we will play the song and project the lyrics and talk about how that relates to the theme.
I think whenever we do anything with popular culture in a positive way they feel responsive. It is very easy to be negative about stuff in popular culture. There’s no shortage of stuff to complain about but when we can find some shred of goodness out there, I think that affirms and teaches them to look for some good out there, not just bad. I think that we are pretty good at teaching people to look for bad. But to find some redemptive theme of a song — I think it’s helpful.
Preaching: You talked about how your preaching has changed. Can you anticipate additional changes that you may be making?
McLaren: When I do public speaking not in a Sunday morning sermon context, I am finding that the Q & A times become incredibly important. I often wonder how could we create more opportunity for dialogue in our services. There are a million logistical problems in this. I wonder if we don’t need to create opportunities where there would be much more dialogue, Q & A, that kind of thing.
I also think about this not just on our sermons and formal worship service, but just in our teaching ministry in general. One of the things that Dallas Willard says in The Divine Conspiracy that is very important is that intensity is an es-sential element of discipleship. In other words, it is different to be ex-posed to something for one hour a week for eight weeks than being ex-posed to it for eight hours on one Saturday. I wouldn’t be surprised if we moved more of our energy away from weekly one hour events to a really intense weekend retreat for example. So we could do teaching and have dialogue and really engage much more deeply in the material.
Preaching: Any closing observations?
McClaren: You know something related back to rhetoric. I was an English instructor before going into the ministry. The genre of literature that pays the most attention to every word and interplay of words is poetry. I think it is so interesting that so much of the Bible is written in poetry. The prophets were poets as well as the Psalms. I think that there are huge resources available to us in poetry and helping people rediscover a few well chosen words rather than a barrage of journalistic words that just flow out without much attention to diction.
Preaching: So when you go back to the sermon as three points and a poem, hold the points?
McLaren: Make the sermon pointless! (Laughing) Of course people really need to be taught this. It is not that they are coming in with a huge appreciation of poetry already, but I think when we help they appreciate it, something in them resonates. Everybody is so busy, they are moving so fast — it’s good for us to help them slow down. I think that part of our challenge is turning the sermon experience into a spiritual practice. So we are not just giving information. We are creating a spiritual experience, and we are guiding people in a group meditation. So that it is not just about telling people what to do out there. It is letting something happen right here.
For some people, especially in the early stages of their spiritual search, putting aside an hour and half to come and be in a place is a major commitment. I think that we need to honor that and help something important happen for them here. Hopefully it won’t stop there. But we can’t take that for granted anymore. The act of coming is pretty significant.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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