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Brian McLaren

NEW YORK — Author Brian McLaren is among the most influential American religious thinkers of the last decade.

His break with rigid orthodoxy and embrace of new worship styles is at the center of what is called the emerging church — a movement that has gone viral. The emerging church reclaims ancient practices and prayers and creates new ones, while re-examining Scripture to learn how modern-day Christians should live.

Since no particular denomination is dominant in the view of McLaren and evangelical thinkers like him, their views have been embraced by a wide range of religious groups, including both conservative and liberal Protestants along with Roman Catholic congregations.

Emerging church leaders have earned praise as innovators, especially in their ability to inspire young people. Yet, many conservative Christians remain suspicious of the movement and its approach to theology. Emerging thinkers contend that evangelicals and others have been too influenced by the broader culture in their reading of Scripture. The emerging church says this has marginalized important Bible teachings and hurt the faith.

McLaren has explained his thoughts in more than 10 books. His latest, "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope," argues that Christians must move beyond traditional charity and work for systemic change that addresses the causes of human suffering.

McLaren recently sat down with The Associated Press to talk about the book and the future of emerging churches. Here are his answers in condensed form:

Question: How is what you recommend different than the humanitarian work churches do already?

Answer: It's not working within the paradigm that a lot of Christians work — which is all that God is ultimately interested in is extracting souls for heaven. And we might do some good works here on earth, but we don't really expect any of it to work, because the world is sort of, the toilet has been flushed and it's going down.

Question: What do you mean by systemic change?

Answer: You can make incremental changes within a subsystem, but in order to actually change a whole system you have to get a lot of the parts changing all at once. ... You can pour money into building a school, but then if there's a war, the war wipes out all the benefit you got from the school and the school shuts down. You can improve agriculture, but if HIV runs through, then there's so much upheaval, then you can't maintain the advances in agriculture.

Question: But there's an impression churches are already so active on these issues. Why does anyone need to urge churches to do this?

Answer: One of the really important concepts is the difference between mercy and justice. There's that famous passage from Micah 6, "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God." One way to describe it is unjust systems throw people into misery and mercy brings us to relieve some of their misery, but until we confront the unjust systems by doing justice we're never going to make a change. ... I think what churches in America, especially evangelical churches, are just waking up to is the way they have to deal with systemic injustice, not just charitable giving to people in misery.

Question: Are you trying to create heaven on earth?

Answer: As a Christian, I'm just trying to be faithful. I'm trying to live out what I pray when I pray the Lord's prayer, 'May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth.' ... I'm not a utopian in any way.

Question: On the theology behind the emerging church, you reject the idea that there's an absolute truth. So what boundaries are there on theology that churches are teaching? Can any church just call itself an emerging church?

Answer: Obviously that's a challenge. The flip side of that question is look at the Catholic Church: For all of its orthodoxy, it could have bishops covering up for molesting priests. And evangelicals, for all their claims of orthodoxy, can be barbaric to gay people and can blindly support a rush to war in Iraq and can be, as we speak, fomenting for war with Iran. ... Obviously, I have a lot of critics and they often say, 'You're wanting to water down the Gospel to accommodate to post-modernity.' I say, 'No, I really don't want to do that. But what I do want to do is acknowledge first the ways we've already watered down the Gospel to accommodate modernity.' ... I think the naivete of some of those critics is that they're starting with a pure pristine understanding of the Gospel. It seems to me we're all in danger of screwing up.

Question: Can you talk about where the emerging movement is now?

Answer: The first of these sort of emerging gatherings that I was ever involved with was 10 years ago, and we weren't even using the word emerging yet. ... None of us ever guessed in our wildest dreams that we were onto something that would become a big deal. We were trying to survive really. Ten years ago, I was a 42-year-old pastor who loved God, but was having deep questions about the kind of standard evangelical way of being a Christian I'd been devoted to. And I was so relieved to find that other people were asking the same questions. ... There are still people who are just entering into the conversation at that level, so there are people who, for them this is all new.

Question: What comes next for emerging churches?

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Answer: Ten years ago, the question was, why are Gen-Xers dropping out of church? ... So we've been grappling with these very deep theological questions over the last five or seven years. What is the Gospel? What was Jesus really trying to do? ... Emergent Village (www.emergentvillage.com) created this kind of safe space for people to talk. Now what's happened is all of these affiliated groups are forming — Presby-mergent, Anglo-mergent. ... A Catholic network is forming. ... It's breathtaking to hear all the creative thinking going on about the future.