Friday, January 3, 2014

"Everything Must Change" by Brian McLaren: A Review

Ten years ago, Brian McLaren, at the height of the Emergent Church movement, published the book Everything Must Change. In light of this anniversary, I thought it would be fun to republish my review of it from several years ago. Some changes have been made.

Brian McLaren is the leading voice in the Emerging Church moment. I have read almost all of his works and have come to the conclusion that no one can understand McLaren without first reading Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope.

Everything Must Change is essentially a sequel to McLaren's previous book, The Secret Message of Jesus, where he laid out Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God. In short, the Kingdom of God is here and now and not primarily about the afterlife. To McLaren, Christians have become so preoccupied with life after the death they have forgotten about life before death and have, as a result, neglected their Christian responsibility to carry out the business of Jesus' Kingdom here on earth.

The Kingdom of God is the central theme of the book. Without understanding that, one will be lost in McLaren's argument. He goes so far as to define the gospel simply as the Kingdom of God. This is basic McLarenian theology. The gospel according to McLaren, then, is about more than just escape from hell, but about the journey of faith in Christ that is both incarnational and active.

Therefore, McLaren seeks to guide his reader into how they can serve in God's Kingdom right here and now. To do so, McLaren identifies a number of crisis' that rank high on his list that need to be dealt with.

The first list begins with the "Prosperity Crisis," defined as Environmental breakdown used by our unsustainable global economy, an economy that fails to respect environmental limits even as it succeeds in producing great wealth for about one-third of the world's population. The second issue is the "Equity Crisis," defined as the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, which prompts the poor majority to envy, resent, and even hate the rich minority - which in turn elicits fear and anger in the rich. The third crisis is the "Security Crisis," defined as the danger of cataclysmic war arising from the intensifying resentment and fear among various groups at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Finally, there is the "Spirituality Crisis," defined as the failure of the world's religions, especially its two largest religions, to provide a framing story capable of healing or reducing the three previous crisis'. (5)

Later, McLaren adds to this list. Other major crisis' we need to face and deal with include hunger and malnutrition, climate change, financial instability, water and sanitation, population/migration, education, corruption in government, poverty and hunger, gender equality that empowers women, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases (46-47).

McLaren sees the Kingdom of God as God's presence in mobilizing believers around the world to deal with these issues. Although McLaren does not believe in Utopianism, he certainly comes close. He offers ideas, solutions, thoughts, opinions, analysis, etc. in order to encourage the reader to deal with these issues.

There are a number of concerns I have with this book.

The Kingdom of God Present, Yet Future

McLaren is right in criticizing Christians for interpreting the Kingdom of God as only a future hope and neglecting it as a present reality. However, McLaren commits the same mistake common among theological liberals he is criticizing others of doing: emphasizing one over the other. The message and meaning of the Kingdom of God is both/and; both present and future. Christ has set up His Kingdom, but we will never attain it until He comes in glory and majesty in the end times.

Of course, that is one of the many areas where McLaren and I differ. I have a high eschatology because Scripture demands it. The Old Testament prophesied it, Jesus foretold it, and John described it. It is in the end time narrative that the Kingdom of God is finally set up and in place ultimately fulfilled by the second physical coming of Jesus Christ.

McLaren will have none of this. Throughout Everything Must Change and his other books, McLaren all but mocks such a notion. For example, he writes, We don't have a violent 'Second Coming' Jesus who finishes what the gentle 'First Coming' Jesus failed to do, but we have a poetic description of the way the gentle First Coming Jesus powerfully overcomes through his nonviolent 'weakness' (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25), a prince of peace who word of reconciliation is truly mightier than Caesar's sword. (145)

So, in essence, McLaren is not interested in apocalyptic, end-times eschatology. Rather, he proclaims a Kingdom that is present set up by Christ in His first coming that is fulfilled by Christians. Although I appreciate McLaren's efforts calling attention to our need to focus on the present reality, he is wrong in virtually denying the future hope of the Kingdom. Sinful man, no matter how pious he might try to become, will never bring the Kingdom to fruition. It must and can only take a holy, righteous, and just God to physically set up His Kingdom to right all the wrongs, to end injustice, and to resolve poverty. We mere mortals and sinners cannot attain such a goal, though we must fight for it with all that we have, but apart from Christ own work and action, we will fail.

The Kingdom is the Gospel, the Gospel is Not the Kingdom

Another frequent problem I have with McLaren in this and his other books is his confusion over the gospel. I will not go into detail on what he has written regarding sin, salvation, the atonement, depravity, repentance, and other foundational issues surrounding the gospel. But, in brief, McLaren believes that the gospel is summed up in the phrase, "The Kingdom of God is at hand."

Again, I think McLaren is on to something, but he isn't quite where Jesus and revealed Scripture takes us. McLaren sums the gospel as the Kingdom, whereas Scripture would point to the Kingdom as the gospel. The difference is significant. What McLaren offers, though he would deny it, is a postmodern version of the social gospel. Because of his emphasis on the "here and now" Kingdom, he can do no other. This entire book is about ending poverty and stopping global warming with very little regarding the subsitutionary atonement of Christ through the cross. He in fact rejects such a notion.

McLaren even quotes Walter Rauschenbusch favorably in order to make the point that many of our religious institutions have taught us to see no horizon for the message of Jesus beyond the soul of the individual (243). What is significant about this reference isn't just that McLaren clearly finds inspiration from Rauschenbusch, but that the two are very much the same. When I read McLaren, I often hear Rauschenbusch in the background applauding. The difference between the two men is cultural epistemologies: Rauschenbusch was modern while McLaren is postmodern.

The Kingdom is the gospel in the sense that a right theology bears right living. The Christian that does nothing in serving the poor, the needy, injustice, etc. does not understand the gospel. Sadly, McLaren is reacting to abuses to the gospel by rejecting the gospel. And he does so to the damning of his own and others' souls.

Political Unfairness

I do not want to spend much time on this issue, but it is important nonetheless. McLaren is no fan of capitalism, the Religious Right, conservatism, Republicans, or anything associated with the political right. I have no problem with that. At times, McLaren raises important issues.

My problem, however, is the imbalance of criticism McLaren offers towards the left. Though he claims that Jesus is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Capitalist or socialist, right or left, McLaren criticizes the right much more than the left. For example, throughout the book McLaren criticizes capitalism because of its greed - a common theme for McLaren. A major problem he has with capitalism is that being founded on greed, it leads to nothing but greed: consumerism, a widening gap between the rich and poor, etc. Such a criticism might be warranted, but McLaren is almost completely silent on the dangers of socialism. If the danger of capitalism is greed, the danger of socialism is covetousness.

Here, I must return to a previous point made regarding the Kingdom of God. No economic or political theory will bring about McLaren's dream of bringing the Kingdom to earth here and now. Why? Because man is sinful and serves only himself. This is why we are to be preaching the the pure gospel, not a social gospel. The gospel deals with man's humanity, the social gospel does not.


Overall, McLaren writes a book that will be adored by Emergent and Postmodern alike. McLaren will continue to be a leading voice among "new kind of Christians." My main concern is that these new kind of Christians are not Christians. At this point, Emergents will shout that I am still lost in the modern world full of propositions and systematic theology. I respond, "no, I am trapped in the world of Christ. I don't need culture to define the gospel. Jesus already has."

Once again, we must remind ourselves of the transcendence of the gospel "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 4). It does not need to be updated or changed. If our problem (sin) is not affected by culture, neither is the solution (the gospel). Therefore, rather than focus on what man can do, let us preach what Christ has already done . . . and then roll up our sleeves and get to work to the glory of our Savior, Jesus Christ!

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