By Charlie Dean
Last fall, I was at a meeting of progressive evangelical leaders in Minneapolis and one asked me, “so, are you okay with both words –progressive and evangelical?”
Gulp. I actually, don’t really love either one.
I grew up in a denomination with the word “conservative” in the title, and it was a badge of honor. We were conservative in nearly every way. Our politics were conservative, our clothing styles were midwestern conservative (which means “trendy in New York 5 years ago”), and most of us were conservative with our money.
Of course our theology was conservative. And I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, it’s just who we were. Like I said, we were proud of our conservatism because it distinguished us from the theological “liberals.” And I did mean “liberal” in a pejorative way, because in our minds the liberals were the people who didn’t love, respect or venerate the Bible in the same manner as us and therefore were questionably Christian.
As I started reading more widely and interacting with more “liberal” Christians, my views changed. In time, I stopped calling myself “conservative,” adopting the label “evangelical” in its place. For years, I proudly described the seminary I attended and the megachurch I worked at as “broadly evangelical.”
But like “conservative,” “evangelical” eventually didn’t fit either. In time, like high school sweethearts slowly drifting apart in their college years, it seemed evangelicalism was heading one way, and I the other. The things I loved most about evangelicalism – vigorous discussions about the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the broad inclusion of many denominations and a passion for changing the world -— got subsumed by other ideas that I could no longer endorse -— narrowing definitions of who’s in and out based upon a couple “litmus test” doctrines, an over-identification with the political right and a seemingly growing confidence about our own “rightness.”
Eventually, I gave up the labels. I couldn’t bring myself to associate fully with any one group, author or position, so when we started our church 8 years ago, we didn’t associate with a denomination and we didn’t label ourselves. Instead, we exchanged the convenience of a label for the complexity of answering “what kind of church ARE you” with lots of head scratching, stammering, stuttering associations and denials. In fact, these days I’m mostly comfortable describing our church as a group of “used to be’s” and “if not for Imago I wouldn’t go to church” misfits.
And every time I describe myself or my church I’m again frustrated there isn’t an easier way to say who we are, some kind of label that wouldn’t make me want to gag. And more importantly, I’ve felt very alone in Peoria, Illinois, wishing there were other churches like ours, other pastors to talk to, bounce ideas off of and share resources with. I knew they were out there, but I didn’t know how to find them.
Since my time in Minneapolis, I’ve become friends with some of these “progressive evangelicals,” and together we’re working to create a network of churches like us. And while I’m still uncomfortable with labels, it’s the juxtaposition of those two words — progressive andevangelical — that is wooing me into the fold.
As a homegrown Midwestern boy, I’m only progressive by Midwestern standards. Yes, many people in Peoria think I’m the “emergent boogieman,” but in the broader conversation I’m fairly conservative. When I sit in rooms with those theological liberals whom my tradition warned me about, I find they really do love God, seek to follow Jesus and are engaging in a conversation with the Bible and culture, but they see it through different lenses.
And I’m only evangelical in that I love the passion that my tradition has for sharing the Good News. Of course, my theology about what the “Good News” is has distanced me from my roots, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And I even have hopes that my tradition will change in time.
I was recently in New York, meeting with some of my progressive evangelical friends, and there’s a certain joy I have in knowing that asprogressive evangelicals we leave both groups -— the progressives and the evangelicals — scratching their heads wondering exactly who we are. Maybe that’s as it should be.
And this is why I’m proud to be working with OPEN, “a network of progressive evangelicals fostering a just and generous expression of the Christian faith, renewing a focus on people, poverty, the planet and peace.”
Do we all agree on everything? Nope. Do we all have differing ideas and strategies about people, poverty, the planet and peace? Yep. Is “progressive evangelical” the best label to choose? I don’t know. But I don’t think you need to agree to all the labels in order to partner as friends. Maybe this is the difference between a “denomination” and a “network” — a “network” implies a much looser association, a connecting point for ideas, resources and relationship — than a denomination does (at least in my own mind).
But here’s what I know: there’s enough overlap, camaraderie and synergy between us about “a just and generous expression of the Christian faith” – however we each uniquely express that in New York, Minneapolis, Denver, Peoria, or Morgantown, KY – that I want to be part of this community of people “up to something together.” And that’s why I’m a progressive evangelical.
Charlie Dean is the Lead Pastor at Imago Dei Church in Peoria, Illinois. For more info on Charlie and Imago Dei, visit imagodeichurch.org