Why would the book club I participate in at a Texas church choose to read a book titled Do I Stay Christian? Because many of us are asking ourselves that question. We can see that the political views and tactics embraced by many Christians today (and throughout history) clearly contradict what Jesus taught and modeled. I left my career as a pastor for many of the same reasons Brian McLaren gives in his book, so I was eager to read and discuss his in-depth exploration of reasons to answer “yes” or “no” with the group.
Some book club members had found his 2021 book Faith After Doubt helpful and wanted to read his latest work, which had already gotten hundreds of five-star reviews on Amazon. McLaren has now written more than 15 books and is also a faculty member of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Although he was raised as an evangelical Christian, he later embraced a more inclusive kind of Christianity. In 1982, he co-founded Cedar Ridge Community Church, a nondenominational faith community, with others who shared his desire to welcome spiritual seekers of all kinds. The church’s vision statement invites people to “imagine a community … where everyone is accepted and respected and their journey cherished, regardless of their background, beliefs, or place in society.” McLaren served as its pastor for 24 years before becoming a full-time author, speaker, and teacher.
Cindy Davie, a member of the book club, told me via email that Do I Stay Christian? “arrives on the scene in a world full of turmoil, hatred, and injustices; where reportedly Christian people are the very ones leading the charge of these atrocities.” She added that McLaren “asks the very question many of us are contemplating” and said the book offers a “much-needed deep examination of Christianity’s darkness and oppression overlaid with a hope for a better future.”
Do I Stay Christian? begins with McLaren’s recollection of conversations he has had over the years with people who were questioning or had already left the faith. He cites something “surprising numbers” of Roman Catholics told him: “I have no hope for the church reforming or renewing. My only hope is that it collapses and dies soon, before it does too much more harm, so something new can be resurrected.”
He also quotes a “post-evangelical” who says he sometimes thinks Jesus wouldn’t want to be part of “what we’ve made of the movement he started.”
McLaren then shares his own religious background and what led him to question his religious identity. The main reason was “fellow Christians who advocated versions of Christianity that horrified me and made me want to run for my life in the opposite direction.” He mentions the unconditional support for Donald Trump among most white Christians as an especially egregious example.
McLaren concludes by explaining that he did not write the book to convince readers (or himself) to stay or leave Christianity. Instead, he wants us “to consider how we are going to live, whether or not we identify as Christian.”
For that reason, the book devotes equal time to reasons one might answer “no” or “yes” to its title question. The first 10 chapters make the case for “no.” The second 10 make the case for “yes.” The final eight offer suggestions for how to live well regardless of your decision (or whether you’re even asking the question).
‘I want no more of the ugliness of Christianity’
Our book club members were generally aware of how Christians have behaved badly over the centuries (antisemitism, violence, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, the pursuit of worldly power and wealth, etc). Despite that, the first ten chapters were painful to read. They document in excruciating detail the terrible things Christians have done throughout history (and are still doing), and offer evidence that Christianity is a “failed religion.”
“After reading the first part of the book one could easily say this is enough, and I want no more of the ugliness of Christianity,” Pastor Armin Steege, the church’s visitation pastor, said about the book’s first section.
“McLaren elucidates the elements of Christianity that Christians would rather avert our eyes from or paint with broad historical brushstrokes,” Steege continued. “Those wide brushstrokes ignore behavior throughout history (from the ancient Crusades to modern Christian Nationalism) that is antithetical to the teachings of the very one after whom this faith is named.”
He added that McLaren effectively points out how “the Christian Church has succumbed to the temptation of power and popularity” instead of using “the prophetic voice it was meant to have.”
We were all eager to finish this section and move on to the reasons to remain Christian. Several members wished that McLaren had alternated the “no” and “yes” chapters instead of grouping them separately. My own cynicism about the state of Christianity and the institutional church today made me wonder how the reasons to say “yes” could possibly be as compelling as the reasons to say “no.” I was pleasantly surprised as I read the next section.
Staying ‘defiantly’ Christian
After acknowledging that “an unexamined, status-quo Christianity is not worth perpetuating,” in the second part McLaren presents his arguments for staying Christian. The first is that Christians who are “creative and smart and sincere and dedicated” need encouragement to persevere. Their “promising experiments” and efforts to “embody a beautiful faith” deserve support.
McLaren asks whether giving up on Christianity means ceding ground to the worst people who identify with the faith: “If we give up whatever little voice and influence we have … won’t we be an answer to the misguided prayers of the religious company men and their followers, who want the rest of us gone? …Won’t we be emboldening them by abandoning our post of creative resistance?”
He argues that by remaining Christian, we honor reformers from previous eras who “chose to stay Christian when Christianity as a whole was a hot, violent, ugly mess.” He notes that it is possible to stay “defiantly” faithful. We can “keep our integrity and speak our truth … from the outside edge of the inside.”
Other reasons he gives for staying Christian include love for Jesus and the fact that some sectors of Christianity are getting better even as others get worse. Many denominations now welcome BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and members of other previously excluded marginalized groups. Some of those individuals have been ordained as deacons, pastors, and bishops. Pilgrim United Church of Christ, New Bedford, Massachusetts, installed the Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson, a transgender woman, as its pastor in October 2022. Bishop Guy Erwin, who is now President of United Lutheran Seminary, was the ELCA’s first openly gay bishop and its first Native bishop (he is a member of the Osage Nation, born on its Oklahoma reservation).
McLaren notes the importance of listening to and learning from people who used to be excluded. He says it would be wrong to leave when those voices finally have a seat at the table. They deserve to be heard and are needed to help “heal what the oppressors desecrated.”
‘A way to be more fully and maturely human’
The final section of the book offers recommendations for how to live regardless of how you answer the question. It begins with a discussion of various models of human development, which McLaren synthesizes into his own model based on the concepts of simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony, which he describes in detail.
He suggests those wrestling with their answer to “Do I stay Christian?” may actually want to change stages, not religions. He asks an interesting question: “What if your real desire is not simply a way to stay Christian or put Christianity behind you but a way to be more fully and maturely human?”
The remaining chapters explore specific ways we can all be better humans. The first encourages readers to change individualistic or nationalist desires to wiser ones like the good of the planet, all people, and ourselves. McLaren says that when we desire the greater good, we experience “divine or transcendent love—universal, non-discriminatory, healing, creative, life-giving.” Some will describe that love as God; others will use different words.
Additional chapters suggest readers spend more time immersed in the natural world and work to preserve it, and also listen to and love our bodies. He encourages everyone to align with a new “meta-movement” that can “liberate us from the dominant meta-movement that has proven itself genocidal, eco-cidal, and therefore suicidal.” Another recommendation is to practice “vigilant self-examination” so that we “stay loyal to reality” instead of rejecting facts that challenge the beliefs of any community we belong to. Finally, he advocates that all humans, especially Christians, “come out” in the way many LGBTQ+ people have. That means we need to “renounce” previous beliefs and actions we now recognize as wrong and/or “announce” how we have changed and what our new beliefs are. Several examples of “coming out statements” are included; my personal favorite was this announcement:
“My commitment to follow the life and teachings of Jesus is stronger than ever, but for my own health and sanity, I can no longer remain associated with Christianity. I have tried to be an agent of change from the inside, but I am battle-scarred and worn down.”
The section ends with a call for all humans to be humble, kind, and just. It is followed by an afterword in which McLaren states that the only answer to “Do I stay Christian?” that really matters is “the one we give with our lives.”
Even though we’ve finished Do I Stay Christian? we’re still talking about it. We discuss our opinions about events mentioned in the book, like the violent coup attempt on January 6, 2021, and what has happened since the book’s publication in May 2022.
“This book has stimulated more critical discussion in our group than any of our other recent book choices,” said Dennis Vanderwerf, the book club’s leader, via email.“It is also very relevant to the religious and political divisions of our contemporary world. I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with these issues.”
Another member, Bob Stern, characterized the book as “initially very disturbing and unsettling, then insightful and thought-provoking, and then finally encouraging and hopeful.”
Joyce Beck shared her opinion of each section: “His historical perspective when saying ‘No’ is educational, giving permission and a reason to say ‘No.’ His ‘Yes’ response challenges his readers to find their authentic voices and move into loving action. His ‘How’ response needs to be read and reread, digested, and read again.”
Cindy Hill told me, “McLaren gives a chilling history of the pervasive and persistent male dominance from the beginnings of the early church to present-day society and politics.”
Finally, Pastor Steege said he found the book “intriguing, enlightening, and hopeful in a way that has honesty and integrity to many like myself who seek a faith that is truthful to its spiritual underpinnings as well as its justice-oriented love of mankind.”
What I appreciated most about Do I Stay Christian? was McLaren’s honesty about his own ongoing struggle with that question and his refusal to present either “yes” or “no” as the correct answer for every reader. My current answer is a tentative, conditional “yes” that could easily become a “no.”
Whether I ultimately decide to stay Christian or not, my desire to follow Jesus will continue. As one former pastor quoted in the book said, “Jesus, the man, is still absolutely compelling to me. … I want nothing more than to follow his example in the way I live.”
I want to follow Jesus’ example too. The real question for me is whether staying Christian makes it easier or more difficult to do that.