10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Progressive Evangelicals

Despite the misconceptions, progressive evangelicals do take the Bible seriously — and love Jesus.

Doug Pagitt is the author of Flipped: The Provocative Truth that Changes Everything We Know About God, recently released by Convergent. He is the founder and pastor of Solomon’s Porch, a holistic, missional Christian community in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the director of Convergence, which seeks to promote generous Christianity by connecting people and organizations. We asked him to list 10 things he wishes people knew about progressive evangelicals.

flipped1. We exist.

Really. There are a bunch of us and our numbers are growing. Churches, pastors, and individuals self-identify as progressive evangelicals, even if reluctantly at times (see #2). We are often part of other networks and relationships and have not until recently organized around our “progressive evangelical” characteristics.

Around the country there are large churches, small communities in homes, “free range” thinkers and practitioners, writers, and social and community organizers who are finding new ways of engaging in faith, life, and church. A number of us are conspiring with Christians from other streams of the faith to form new ways of being connected that we are calling Convergence. These relationships have played-out through organizations like Red Letter Christians and Sojourners.

2. We are not totally comfortable with the terms “progressive” or “evangelical.”

Many of us are uncomfortable with the word “progressive” when it is used primarily in the political sense. Not that we are afraid of the progressive political movement — many are deeply engaged in it — but because it often has a more limited scope in politics than it can in faith and religion. We are seeking a progressive posture to help us engage in all the work of God in the world, not only along one set of binary political choices.

We are also uncomfortable with the term “evangelical,” but since no one group owns the word, and scantly can a person give a coherent definition of what it means to be evangelical, most of us use it to describe our ecclesiology more than our theology. We tend to be from free-church, congregational, and anabaptist streams of faith.

Poet Michael Toy says, “We kind of resent having to add the word “progressive” to the label, but feel that in order to be part of a story which is good news to the world, we kind of have to. At the same time, we don’t want to stop being ‘Evangelicals,’ we are post ‘post.’ We are who we are.”

3. We are willing to reengage and reimagine our faith.

Pastor Stan Mitchell of Grace Point in Nashville likes to say, “We believe Scripture is less a set of fixed and final propositional truths and more an invitation into the right conversations. We believe the early church was an infant not an archetype.”

This gets at the heart of the progressive evangelical desire to work on our structure, style, theology, and way of thinking. The tendency has been for denominational churches to be progressive in thinking and theology while maintaining style, structure, and liturgy. On the other hand, evangelicals are often willing to change structure and style, but want to maintain a static thinking and theology. Then you have progressive evangelicals, who are engaged in following the spirit of God into new ways of organizing and new ways of thinking.

4. We became progressive by taking the Bible, Jesus, and history seriously.

Progressive evangelicals have reevaluated our stances on many issues, such as including all people in our communities and lives, understanding economics and how our financial structures affect the poorest in the world, looking at the way we live and reconnect with the earth, realizing the harm human beings are doing to it, and discovering more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

Those of us who have changed our perspectives on issues have done so because of what we have found in the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the way of faith. As pastor Ryan Gear of One Church in Phoenix puts it, “Contrary to accusations of not taking the Bible seriously, we take the Bible seriously enough to read it closely and with intellectual honesty. In a culture in which Fox News is the true pastor to millions of Christians, we attempt to resist over-reading our own views into the Bible. Reading the Bible closely and in its cultural context creates a stronger and more intellectually honest faith.”

5. We are interested in a full-ebbed faith — past, present, and future.

“A progressive Christian is a person of faith who is deeply rooted in historic, global Christianity and interprets and applies it by way of honest engagement with modern culture,” Spiritual Curator, Blue Water Church, Duluth MN Ryan Bauer said.

Toward this end, we host safe spaces for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and express our reflection in practical action. We seek to build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable — including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability — fully recognizing our limitations and biases in this endeavor.

6. We have big imaginations.

We are not concerned primarily with the role, function, and longevity of religious structures and systems. Rather, we seek to engage in the significant issues of our day to bring about healing of the human spirit, foster life in community, and cast a vision for living harmoniously with God and one another. We believe important and significant advancements can be made for all humanity.

7. We are excited about the future of faith.

We are optimistic about finding a way of faith together in the future as we seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions. We imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people who join God in the healing of the world.

“We actually believe in Jesus, salvation, and the end times — Jesus is just more real and it’s all more fun than we can imagine,” said Adam Philips Pastor of Christ Church, Portland

8. We embrace mystery, art, beauty, and science.

We desire to find goodness and expansive truth in all areas of life. We value art, mystery, science, and beauty, recognizing their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity. We seek to grow, learn, expand through an openness to seeing truth, goodness, and beauty wherever they are found.

To that end, we tend to be more committed to growth than to conformity. As Emily Swan, pastor of Blue Ocean Faith says, “We are committed to discipleship, but it means growth and change and not all becoming the same.” 

9. We don’t assume we have solved or can solve all problems.

We are not seeking some sort of global utopia in our lifetimes, but do take seriously Jesus’s call that we “will do even greater things” with our lives. We recognize that the way of goodness and peace in the world requires work on the inner life of people as well as the structural systems of power.

This means a commitment to finding new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world through the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking through collaborations with other religious and secular groups to work toward the common good.

Pastor Roger Flyer reminds us, “As Progressive Evangelicals we can be just as mean-spirited and defensive as anybody else. Hell hath no fury as a recovering conservative evangelical who feels they’ve been duped.”

10. We still love Jesus.

Really. Most of us find Jesus more compelling, more commanding, more converging than ever before. We believe Jesus and in the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love — love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Doug Pagitt
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  • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

    When I think of progressive evangelicals, the Episcopal Church comes to mind; not only aren’t their numbers increasing, but entire dioceses have fled TEC to return to Anglicanism.

    And as for the remnant of continuing progressive Episcopalians, they are eventually forced to sell their churches because they can no longer afford to maintain the very buildings they wrested from their former fellow congregants.

    • Ryan Gear

      Joe, Southern Baptists are losing members, as well. Most denominations are.

      You’re probably referring to the members lost when the Episcopal church began ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. If congregations want to preach that same sex relationships are sinful, that’s their choice. Let’s re-read these comments in ten years and talk about how those congregations are doing. I don’t see many churches in the South using the Bible to promote slavery the way they used to.

      As society progresses, the way evangelicals interpret the Bible progresses. Some things, however, never change:

      “37 Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-30).

      We’ll continue preaching that long after the so-called “culture war” is over.

      • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

        I’m talking about the loss of entire dioceses after the Episcopal Church came under the heavy-handed leadership of Presiding Bishop Katherine Schori, whose reign has nothing to do with Southern Baptists or slavery, but a progressive theology that “reimagines” Jesus as just another way to the Father.

        And with a birth rate of less than two children per household, in ten years there may no longer be an Episcopal denomination to talk about.

        • Guest

          Are you saying that specific brands of Protestant Christianity are genetic? Or that no one ever leaves the church their parents take them too?

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            When an entire diocese leaves a denomination, it’s more than just parishioners leaving church with their parents.

            Just this month, a South Carolina Circuit Court judge ruled that The Episcopal Church’s Diocese of South Carolina can leave the denomination and take with it all its property, including church buildings, symbols and other assets.

          • https://www.facebook.com/toujoursdan Dan Sloan

            So the answer is to force LGBT people into the closet, support African churches and their political movements that criminalize them and tell women that they are mistaken when they discern a call from God to be priests/ministers/bishops because the institution is what matters, not how God is working within people. Really?

            And as a frequent traveler to Africa, I can say that things are changing on the ground quickly there. Those dioceses and parishes may be leaving the Episcopal Church to join up with African Anglican churches so that they can turn the clock to how things were in 2002 (or 1980), but anyone who thinks that the social roles of LGBT people and women in Africa are staying static isn’t paying attention.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            “So the answer is to force LGBT people back into the closet…”?
            Really?
            That wasn’t the answer because that’s not what actually happened.

            The only people who were being forced to do anything against their will were the orthodox Christians of South Carolina who were being compelled by The Episcopal Church to accept a “reimagined” concept of Christianity and marriage. So the diocese left the national church, but this time with its own property.

            However, TEC supporters continue to portray the disassociations by the dioceses of South Carolina, Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin as just a protest of TEC’s shifting policies on sexuality, which in this case only served as a distraction.

            “This has never been about exclusion,” said SC Bishop Mark Lawrence. “Our churches, our diocese are open to all. It’s about the freedom to practice and proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us….”

            Lawrence and his flock join other exiled Episcopalians by remaining true to their faith while TEC and its lawyers are free to push a “reimagined” progressive Christianity on those who decide to remain.

        • jmark59

          Sorry but our Episcopal church likes Bishop Katherine Schori. You can’t blame loss of membership on her but on the Episcopal churches that left who practiced a brand of right-wing fundamentalist Christianity that excluded gays from their membership. That is the Episcopal church we left before we joined a progressive Episcopal church.

          • http://www.worthynews.com/ Joe DeCaro

            And here’s the leader of the progressive church you joined when she was interviewed by the New York Times back in 2009.

            Questions for Katharine Jefferts Schori
            State of the Church Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON

            NYT: How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?
            KJS: About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

            NYT: Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?
            KJS: No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

  • Ryan Gear

    Thanks for a great post, Doug. Well written.

    And thanks for helping so many leaders converge into one space to be who God is calling us to be. Many people feel like the church in America has left them, but things are changing.

    The future is bright.

  • Erik

    I think if progressive evangelicals want to be thought of as anything other than simply a left wing political organization they might stop taking political jabs at Fox News when trying to explain how they came to be as a result of taking the Bible seriously and not as simply a group of leftist political operatives.

    • Ryan Gear

      Erik, not being a Fox News viewer doesn’t make you a leftist political operative. Don’t you think that’s overstating it just a bit, friend?

      The fact is that, in our time, evangelicalism has been defined in largely political terms. That quotes sends a message to people who are tired of it there is an alternative.

      We believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change lives.
      We believe in the inspiration of Scripture.
      We believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit.

      And we believe that millions of Americans are ready for a life-changing, spiritually exciting faith that doesn’t have to be tied to someone’s political agenda.

      • Erik

        Ryan,

        You are right, not watching Fox News actually says nothing about a person’s political opinions. However, a main point of an article is that a the philosophy called progressive evangelicalism is the result of Biblical study and not political opinions. You weaken your argument when you take unnecessary political potshots in that article.

        If the point of the article is to simply speak to others who already share your viewpoint then those comments do not detract from the point. However, if you want to reach out beyond those who already agree with you the comments are a distraction.

        I’m not attempting to comment on Doug’s political views. I’m simply trying to point out that that statement detracted, rather than supported, his central argument to a large chunk of those who don’t already agree with him.

  • James Gertmenian

    What I find missing in many discussions about Progressive Evangelicalism (caveat: I haven’t read “Flipped” yet!) is any acknowledgement of the debt owed to historic strains of liberal theology and to those Progressive Christians who don’t come out of the evangelical experience. Many of the “new” discoveries by Progressive Evangelicals are ideas that have been around for decades . . . even centuries. For instance, the new Progressive Evangelical hermeneutic owes a great deal to historic liberal scholarship. And emerging acceptance of LGBT folk in the Evangelical community was preceded by similar acceptance in mainline and liberal churches. I’m NOT suggesting that Progressive Evangelicals are simply new liberals. There are significant differences. But the movement withing Evangelicalism would be well served to see itself in context and not as some “de novo” creation. By the way, I would make the same argument to my fellow liberals who forget that much of our social conscience is rooted in 19th Century Evangelicalism (cf. Abolitionism). We need less self-congratulation and more understanding of our common roots. And, by the way, some healthy humility and an equal dose of gratitude to those who have gone before us.

    • KT Pridgen

      When one of the leaders/founders of the movement has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, self-congratulation is going to be par for the course, unfortunately.

    • Michael Toy

      Yeah, I think this is spot on.

  • KT Pridgen

    Here’s one thing I wish everyone knew about progressive Evangelicals: They still use harmful gender stereotypes to silence and dismiss women.

    • Jack Jackson

      basically, Islam…except progressives can’t say bad things about muslims

  • RustbeltRick

    11. “We’re not afraid to assert that our culture is suffering from historic levels of inequality, and we steadfastly stand with the marginalized and the have-nots, while calling the powerful to repentance, as we assert the need for justice, fairness and compassion in our politics and our economic systems.”

    You’re welcome.

    • KT Pridgen

      NOTE: This is only the case when the marginalized are being mistreated by those more conservative than we are. When the marginalization and silencing is directed towards someone who has been wronged by the progressive Evangelical leadership, we prefer to threaten opposing voices with litigation. For the greater good.

  • Danica

    Posting for a friend:

    Here’s something I wish everyone knew about progressive evangelicals: they believe in, create, and maintain the exact same ideas about power and truth being consolidated in a few Top-O-The-Foodchain individuals as every other church or religion.

    They fool you because their talking points are different. The need to protect their status as set apart wisdom purveyors is unchanged.

    (They may also fool you with the yoga studios their wives run from the church as part of their holistic faith community. Nothing wrong with that business model, I guess?)

    • KT Pridgen

      Amen. In a way, certain progressive evangelicals are worse than conservative evangelicals. At least people like Mark Driscoll (as reprehensible and abusive as he is) were open about their views. Sure, he tried to dress them up to draw in crowds, but if asked, he would say, “Women should submit, and men should be traditionally masculine.” If you didn’t agree with that, you knew to stay away.

      It’s not like certain leaders in this movement who shout for women’s rights and talk about supporting the marginalized only to abandon, silence, and further traumatize women who are actually facing abuse at the hands of a “progressive” evangelical. Thinking about progressive leadership gives me the same kind of terrified, unsafe feeling that I’ve gotten when I hear stories about prominent male feminists sexually assaulting and/or abusing the women in their lives. It feels so slimy and icky to use a platform of acceptance and healing to reject and hurt people.

  • Brent

    “We have big imaginations.” This is one of the issues that I often see in progressive evangelicals. There is the big-hearted view of the world that believes with the right thought processes and actions we will see monumental change. However, sometimes the vision is so grandiose that the day to day working out of the reign of God in the lives of people is ignored. Look at who gives the most both in time and percentage of their income. Look at who runs the most homeless shelters. Look at who is most invested in issues like clean water. It’s not progressive Christians.

    Progressive evangelicals are great at festivals and dialogueing but would be better served getting their hand dirty.

  • George Plasterer

    Well, “progressive” is rather clearly the operative and dominant word here. A cover for a political movement, it seems like. Jesus advances your political agenda, which is what you seem to really care about. The slam on FOX News is always interesting. Let us see, NYT, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, if added up, would have far more influence than Fox News or some of the talk radio hosts. The point is that there is a legitimate debate about the role of government in individual, economic, and cultural life. I happen to be more on the libertarian side of this divide, which I suppose makes me reactionary. I do not know.

  • Aaron Strietzel

    Thanks for a great article, I resonate with this so much and I know many others that do as well. We need places and articles such as these to help us navigate forward, to help us be true to who we are, and yet guide is into the future. I am one of those that was raised in a conservative/evangelical church and have spent the last 2-3 years trying to find a “home” – I think there is a growing number of us that are more open in our theology and yet more evangelical in the way Doug described it here, “evangelical, most of us use it to describe our ecclesiology more than our theology” – so true!

  • Guest

    So, the Bible and scripture are malleable things designed not to direct moral behavior based on absolute truths (i.e., right and wrong), but to please you and coddle your feelings, making morality relative and whatever you want it to be… AWESOME.

    YOLO, baby!!

  • Guest

    So, the Bible and scripture are malleable things designed not to direct moral behavior based on absolute truths (i.e., right and wrong), but to please you and coddle your feelings, making morality relative and whatever you want it to be… AWESOME.

    YOLO, baby!!

  • Guest

    So, the Bible and scripture are malleable things designed not to direct moral behavior based on absolute truths (i.e., right and wrong), but to please you and coddle your feelings, making morality relative and whatever you want it to be… AWESOME.

    YOLO, baby!!

  • greghalv

    Pastor Stan Mitchell of Grace Point in Nashville likes to say, “We believe Scripture is less a set of fixed and final propositional truths and more an invitation into the right conversations.”

    So, the Bible and scripture are malleable things designed not to direct moral behavior based on absolute truths (i.e., right and wrong), but to please you and coddle your feelings, making morality relative and whatever you want it to be… AWESOME.

    YOLO, baby!!