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Q & R: How Would You Define You, Part 2

(For Part 1, go here:)

Someone recently asked me to "define me" in response to the following quote about some friends of mine and me.

“But their answers have often lacked the substance on which we can live, and what goes by the name of ‘emerging church’ now appears to have settled into another version of mainline Christianity.”

I thought I'd add two comments. First, on Mainline Christianity.

In my most recent book on Christian identity in a multi-faith world, I explore how groups typically build identity among "us" through hostility to "them." In my experience, many Evangelicals and Mainliners know who they are largely through hostility to one another: "We are not-them," or even "We are anti-them." (Maybe as Protestants, they needed each other in this way after the Protestant feud with Catholicism ran its course.)

On both sides, I sense some hardening of those us-them categories - and on both sides, more and more people are seeking to re-engage with generous voices "on the other side." For example, you would be hard-pressed to find among younger Evangelical pastors a bookshelf (at home, if not at the office) that doesn't include books by Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Buechner, Diana Butler Bass, etc., if not also Marcus Borg, Dom Crossan, Jack Spong, or Sally McFague. And there wouldn't be too many Mainline bookshelves that didn't include something by Don Miller, Rob Bell, Bill Hybels, N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, or Rachel Held Evans.

If I could get one message through to so called "conservative" Christians about so-called "liberal" mainliners, I would ask them to look at this list:


Opposing enslavement of Native Peoples during the colonial era
Opposing colonialism in general
Abolition of slavery
Ending racial segregation
Promoting affirmative action regarding racial equality
Equal rights for women
Opposing elective wars
Defending free scientific inquiry about the "shape" of the universe
Defending free scientific inquiry about the age of the earth
Defending free scientific inquiry about biological evolution
Promoting environmental responsibility
Defending a safety net for poor
Promoting interfaith understanding
Seeking equality for LGBTQ people

On every one of these issues, the conservative Christian majority of their era - Catholic, Protestant, etc. - took the wrong side. On every one. On every one of these issues, a progressive Christian minority took the right side. Every one. Sometimes I think we should define a conservative as someone who agrees with progressives 50 years late. I think we're somewhere into that 50-year process on LGBTQ issues at the moment.

So I would say that if you're Evangelical, rather than looking with disdain on your Mainline brothers and sisters, try some humility. It changes your perspective. (And when I speak to Mainliners about Evangelicals, I say the same thing, because I could create another list - perhaps I will - about issues/practices/values where Evangelicals have led the way or held moral high ground - a balance Rachel Held Evans struck perfectly in a recent blog, I think. BTW - I'm aware that many mainliners aren't progressive, and some evangelicals are progressive. Again, as has been said, labels have a purpose, but they also carry lots of imprecision.)

I was recently in a conversation where all of the participants were bona-fide Evangelicals (with the possible exception of me, depending on whom you ask), and all of the participants were African American, Latin American, Asian American, and Native American, except me. Several of them said something like this, in several ways, at several points in the conversation: "The center of resistance to our well-being and full inclusion as minorities in America, along with the well-being of the planet's ecology, lies in American Evangelicalism." I was stunned by their candor.

I never set out to leave Evangelicalism. I simply wanted to ask the questions I couldn't help but ask and tell the truth as I saw it about some of these things. I'm glad that I was welcomed by Mainliners. And wherever Evangelicals want me around, I'm glad and honored to be there. And the same goes for Catholics and others too.

So I'm not bothered if people want to say I've "gone Mainline." Some would say Mainliners have low enough standards to accept me, and others would say they have more space, grace, and welcome ...

Second, on "the emerging church." This is a term I have generally avoided, depending on who's using it and why. As I explain in my most recent book, many of us are trying to figure out which adjectives to add in front of the problematized noun "Christian." For some, it's born again, for others it's Spirit-filled, and for others, it's born-again-Spirit-filled-Bible-believing. For others it's progressive, or Anabaptist, or missional, or Vatican II Catholic, or whatever. The subtitle of A Generous Orthodoxy pretty much proves that I don't have an easy solution to the problem. I think the term "Emergence Christianity" steers in a good direction, as does "Convergence Christianity," but sometimes I think the problem is with the noun, not the adjectives. Lately, I try to speak of "Christian faith" instead of "Christianity" for reasons that might be obvious or might not. Anyway, I can work with a lot of adjectives and am interested in building bridges to common ground, not erecting walls and fences to keep others at bay.

I never liked the way "emerging church" felt like yet another market sector, and I suspected that in that word "church" there still were a lot of unexamined assumptions hiding like stowaways. My hope is that from the conversations of recent decades, something bigger and more beautiful and dynamic is emerging than we have yet seen ... or labeled.

The only other thing I'd add ... what concerned me most in the quote wasn't what it infers about "mainline" or "emerging", but this: "... their answers have often lacked substance on which we can live." I suppose we all have differing criteria for substance ... but I know, for me, my life as a pastor and now as a writer has been about a quest for "substance on which to live." So if somebody feels I haven't arrived there yet to the degree they have, they can at least take comfort that my quest continues.