I became a Christian in 1973. Because of some early Christian influences in my life, I naïvely believed that there were only three kinds of churches. There were Catholic churches. There were Liberal churches. And there were real churches, i.e. Evangelical churches. Let me say again, I was naïve, but this is what I had been taught.
I believed that the Roman Catholic church was a cult so I dismissed them and placed them in the same category as Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons. I disregarded the Liberal churches (keep in mind that I couldn’t have told you who they were but I knew they were out there) because they didn’t believe in the Bible and Liberal churches were nothing more than a religious social club. Did I mention that I was naïve? So the only thing that was left, the only churches that really counted were the type of churches that I went to…Evangelical churches.
Now fast-forward to today.
I still (kind of) think of myself as an Evangelical and attend an Evangelical church. I have a degree from an Evangelical university. Most of the pastors I work with in my coaching and consulting practice would be considered Evangelicals. But over the years I’ve had a growing group of Liberal pastors as clients. At the beginning of this series I mentioned that I am the founder and moderator of a large pastors group on Facebook. Pastors of every denomination and persuasion are welcome in my group. The stated purpose of our group is:
The Small Church Pastor group provides a safe place of encouragement, resources, ideas, prayer requests…and laughs between senior pastors and the spouses of senior pastors. This group does not allow challenging, debating, or attacking other denominations, pastors, or controversial issues that churches and pastors might disagree on. Our group stays away from discussing the meaning or interpretation of specific scriptures or doctrines Christians and denominations might disagree on.
This group is one of the few places on the Internet where Conservative Christians and Liberal Christians can come together and not get in a fight. We are not always successful, but we are learning and trying.
Progressives are the new Liberals.
Both my Conservative Evangelical friends and Progressive Christian friends may disagree with me on this but as I dialog with today’s Progressives I find very little that is new in what they believe in comparison to what most Liberals of yesteryear believed. But if you listen to some Conservative Evangelicals you would think that the Progressive movement has introduced something new to the story of Christianity in the world. If I am right, if Progressives are, basically, the new Liberals, why then are some Conservative Evangelicals sounding an alarm as if the building was just set on fire?
I have a theory. I can’t prove it. I’ve seen no scientific study to verify it. I don’t have enough money to commission Gallop to look into this. But I think the reason why Evangelicals are so concerned with Progressives is because of one significant way in which the Progressives of today are different than the Liberals of the past.
This is not true of all Progressives, but many Progressives today still think of themselves as Evangelicals. In the past, Liberals didn’t think of themselves as Evangelicals. Because of this it was easier for Evangelicals to dismiss them and relegate them to the category of ‘apostate church.’ The interesting dynamic today is that there is a growing movement of what is called Progressive Evangelicals. Progressive Evangelicals believe that one can be both Progressive and Evangelical whereas some Evangelicals do not believe this is possible. Therefore, many Conservative Evangelicals feel a responsibility to preserve the true meaning of Evangelicalism and sometimes attack and debate the popular voices of Progressive Christianity. It’s kind of like, as long as you weren’t claiming to be one of us (Evangelical) everything was okay but now that you’re using our title it’s not okay.
Did you know that most Progressive Evangelicals and most Conservative Evangelicals agree upon what it means to be an Evangelical? In addition to this, most Progressive Christians and most Conservative Christians agree upon the basic tenets of Christianity.
The Future of Evangelicalism in America
I don’t think Progressives, whether they consider themselves Evangelicals or not, are a fad that will pass. I believe that Progressive Evangelicals are here to stay. I think Progressive Evangelicals will continue to grow in number. I don’t know if they will ever catch up with the number of Conservative Evangelicals but they might. If my prediction proves true I see only two possibilities:
1. Progressives and Conservatives will learn to respect each other, find common ground and do what they can to work together to reach people with the gospel without compromising their theological differences. We saw something similar to this happen between the Charismatics and the non-Chrasimatics. Or…
2. Progressives and Conservatives will become two totally separate and distinct camps at best ignoring each other or at worse at war with each other.
I, for one, am hoping and praying for number one rather than number two.