UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

The shape of church to come

By Donna Sinclair

About 20 people, mostly United Church members, have gathered to listen to theologian Marcus Borg in an anonymous hotel meeting room in Seattle, Washington. Despite the fact that most arrived the evening before on a rickety bus that had begun early in the morning in Kelowna, B.C., pausing in Vancouver to pick up more passengers, they are alert and attentive.

Borg is a professor, and sounds like one -- clear, witty, wide-ranging, encouraging; he is intellectual without being arrogant. He's also a force in North American Christianity. His books are immediate, effortless bestsellers. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (Harper SanFrancisco), for instance, sold 100,000 copies the first year it was released. (Asked sympathetically if his publisher likes to keep him on the road doing promotion, Borg says, "No. My publisher wants me to keep on writing books.")

This is not a promotion event, however. His slightly travel-weary audience of ministers and writers -- including a former moderator -- already believes, with him, that the landscape of Christianity on this continent is shifting. They've been invited here by a British Columbia publisher specializing in religion and spirituality. Wood Lake Books is considering an entire category of books to illuminate this interesting shape of Christianity, and they want advice.

What's happening to North American Christianity, especially in its liberal mainline, is both increasingly documented and complex. The "emerging Christianity," as Borg and others have termed it, is distinguished by (among other things) a movement away from both literalism and dogma, and a shift toward a closer relationship with a God of compassion rather than judgment. It is marked by a yearning for justice (including justice for Creation) and a renewed sense of ancient mystery. Most in this room already agree with this analysis. What has their close attention is the way Borg sees this being played out in local congregations:

* Adult theological education: A congregation that (knowingly or not) exemplifies this re-framed Christianity will stress adult theological re-education, Borg says, because "most people over 40 learned a version of Christianity that no longer makes sense to them." So one of their "greatest needs" is for material to help them discuss the big topics -- God, the Bible, Jesus, the Christian life. There are nods around the room. United Church congregations all across the country are involved in just what he describes: small study groups that don't necessarily need expert leadership but involve spiritual "formation, as well as information." They want to know not only what God is like but how to be with God. (One of the participants is Tim Scorer, whose Experiencing the Heart of Christianity is a frequent study guide in United Church congregations.)

* Spiritual practice: In The Heart of Christianity, Borg explains carefully how the definition of "belief" that is appearing -- or reappearing -- today has nothing to do with agreeing with certain statements. It is about the heart, not the head. In premodern English, Borg explains, it meant "to hold dear." To believe, then, simply means to love. "Faith is about beloving God."

Congregations that are touched by the emerging Christianity will help members connect with the sacred and mysterious. They will value loving God, being in relation with God, experiencing God, being transformed by God. So the "practice of spirituality, a centring in God as known in Jesus," in Borg's phrase, will be much more important than, say, believing in the virgin birth.

Sunday worship, therefore, will "nourish" our relationship with God. To illustrate the shift in emphasis, Borg does a radio preacher routine about "the God who longs to be worshipped." That's not how it is, he says. "Worship is not for God, but for us. God doesn't need to be worshipped for God's sake." Instead, good worship "forms us, opens us up," with liturgy and hymns and even the sermons.

Good worship is also subversive. One of the marks of the emerging Christianity is that it is "beyond convention," not allied with the prevailing culture, and certainly not with the imperial structures where Christianity has often found its home. When we sing "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," Borg points out, we are saying that "God alone is Lord. That subverts every earthly lord and culture."

Of course, such congregations will also support individual spiritual practice, "the how- to as well as the purpose of prayer, teaching simple forms of centring prayer, encouraging people to develop a daily discipline."

* Justice, along with charity: A hallmark of the "emerging Christianity" congregation is its attention to compassion and justice as "the primary fruits of congregational life," says Borg. While in "popular Christianity, for the most part, righteousness revolves around sexual behaviour," this type of congregation will instead "see a fair amount of political consciousness-raising."

Again, there are glances of recognition around the table. Many United Church congregations supported the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, opposed intervention in Iraq, uphold Native rights. Rev. Bruce Sanguine, for instance, from Vancouver's Canadian Memorial United, is here. The congregation sponsors a Centre for Peace and teaches eco-theology, explicitly noting in their signage and Web site, says Sanguine, that "something different is going on." Writer Carolyn Pogue describes her deep involvement in peace issues, while Very Rev. Bill Phipps, from years of working for the common good, describes trying to "help the culture live by a new narrative."

* Knowledge of Scripture: Congregations typical of the emerging shape of Christianity are grounded deeply in Scripture, including the Sunday morning sermon. They "live deeply into the Bible and Christian tradition," says Borg. While that tradition must be approached with "discernment" -- we've made lots of mistakes -- tradition is also "about the wisdom, beauty and goodness of the past. Without it, we easily fall under the tyranny of the present."

Borg is clear that Christianity is not the only way to God -- this model has a great respect for the wisdom of other faiths. The Christianity that is emerging involves "living within the Christian identity." Even when the rest of the world goes shopping on Sundays, "being Christian means resocialization into a Christian world in a time when the most powerful agent of socialization is the culture, not the church," he says. "The socialization of our children matters."

Not everyone sees the faith this way. At the same time, it is not new. This view of Christianity "has been visible for well over 100 years," Borg says, and it's gradually growing stronger. Perhaps that's because as children, many North Americans played with others of different faiths and studied science in school. They grew older and read books about the historical Jesus. They talked, and grew restless, until, in the last few decades, "it has become a major grassroots movement among both laity and clergy."

Judging from the circle in this room, that's especially true in the United Church; but Borg makes it clear that evangelicals like Maryland-based Brian D. McLaren are similarly caught up by this vision. "Maybe 20 percent of the evangelicals in the U. S. are open to this," he says. That could be as many as 12 million people.

The 20 gathered here talk energetically about the implications of all this; about how those who felt isolated in this kind of thinking can start to feel they are not alone. And at the end of the day, the rattly bus returns, the Canadians climb in and go north, Borg heads south towards home. Those from Wood Lake Books head back to work. The first book in Wood Lake's new imprint, CopperHouse (because copper's uses are ancient, yet new) is due out in spring.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image