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In Search of the Elusive “Progressive Evangelical”


I spent this week at a gathering that felt new and old at the same time. Doug Pagitt has long been a master networker. Many of us, myself included, first came into Doug’s orbit when he was working at Leadership Network in Dallas, charged with developing a network of GenX leaders to parallel LN’s Baby Boomer network of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and their peers.

Doug excelled at creating that network, but not in the way that LN appreciated. Let’s just say the the Young Leaders Network was too theologically adventurous for LN’s tastes. Released from LN, that network evolved into Emergent Village, which had a great 10-year run. EV eventually closed because 1) its work had diffused into various existing iterations of American Protestantism, and 2) networks should have finite lifespans.

But the lack of a centralizing group has been acutely felt by many of us who benefitted from YLN and EV. A couple years ago, Doug rearranged his life so that he could once again focus on networking. What started as the CANA Initiative morphed into Convergence, a network meant to bring together many types of Christians, all of whom are committed to the common good.

But the fact is that mainline Christians still gather primarily within their own denominational factions. They bitch about the irrelevance and bureaucracy of their denominations; they bemoan the shrinking numbers and the identity politics; and then they attend all of their denomination’s meetings and conferences, sit on committees and fill out reports.

For many clergy, the denomination is like the Hotel California: You can check out, but you can never leave.

Evangelicals suffer from no such loyalty to denominations. If they are denominationally affiliated, those connections are thin. An evangelicals’ main affinity is to the tribe of evangelicalism.  That’s why so many of evangelicalism’s core identity markers are trans-denominational: Wheaton College, Christianity Today magazine, Focus on the Family, the National Association of Evangelicals.

(Mainline Christianity has no such cluster of non-denominational elements, and the denominational elements within evangelicalism are notably weaker than the non-denominational elements. This is simply a difference between the two groups, reflective of the times in which they rose to prominence.)

So evangelicals who have moved to the left have nowhere to go. If an evangelical church or leader decides to affirm GLBT persons or support marriage equality or take a more progressive stance regarding the Bible, they are expelled from the evangelical tribe. But they are not going to matriculate into a denomination.

For example, several of the folks who gathered this week at Solomon’s Porch this week are young-ish evangelical church planters. They’ve publicly accepted GLBT people into their church. They’ve been cast out by their fellow evangelicals. And they’re not going to become UCC (or Disciples, or PC(USA), or UMC, or EC(USA), or anything else). There’s something in the DNA of these evangelical church plants that precludes them from joining a denomination. It’s just not going to happen.

So these post-evangelical leaders are left without a home. And that’s what Doug and others are creating with OPEN, a new initiative of Convergence, and a home for “progressive evangelicals.”

Readers may wonder what it means to be “progressive evangelical.” Many people I talked to at the inaugural gathering also wondered about this. Some feel uneasy about “progressive” because of the identity politics so rife in liberalism, and others have spent years trying to shed the “evangelical” label because of its right wing connotations. So that final language around this group remains to be seen. It’s a work in progress.

But regardless of semantics, I found OPEN to be both fascinating and hopeful. It had some of the spirit of the early YLN and EV gatherings. It mixed young people and old. It held a sense that there’s something turning in the church world that will benefit those of us who are both independent of denominational affiliation and, if I may, open to new movements of the Spirit in the world. I, for one, am hoping that there are bright days ahead for OPEN—and for progressive evangelicals, whatever and wherever they might be.

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  • Sharla Hulsey

    I think it could be said that mainline Christianity does have a “cluster of non-denominational elements,” most notably the National and World Councils of Churches, Church World Service (with whom many denominations’ disaster relief/economic development agencies partner), and The Christian Century magazine. I’d concede, though, that the mid-20th-century ecumenical movement that gave rise to the NCC and WCC has run its course, and we haven’t really come up with anything that makes a lot of sense to take their place. And younger mainliners aren’t really as tied to denominations as older ones, either. Yes, we have to affiliate with a denomination if we want to become clergy; but other than that the lines are a lot more fluid–and in a lot of places, the reality of small populations and declining church membership means we have to work much more cooperatively with churches and Christians of other denominations.

    I’m Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), by the way, a church I heard Phyllis Tickle say is, among mainline traditions, uniquely positioned in terms of culture and practice to flourish in an Emergent milieu.

  • I’m a Boomer and a Disciple with evangelical roots — am I progressive evangelical? — so I share with Sharla the thought that our Disciples orbit might not be the worst place to hang out!

  • Sharla Hulsey

    After I posted my comment, I looked at the OPEN website and recognized our own Christian Piatt among the pictures of the instigators. So I guess we’re already there.

  • I’m also an OPEN initiator and a Disciples of Christ minister. I would argue progressive evangelicals — like myself — are being widely welcomed in the mainline, particularly the Disciples of Christ and UCC denominations.

  • I think one of the goals of OPEN is to have a search engine/map to help people find progressive evangelical churches near them.