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What Lessons Can Progressives Learn from Evangelicals?

Some churches have left progressives in the dust in terms of serving and engaging people directly. Now, a new evangelical movement offers tips for the left.
 
 
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Recently, I blogged a series of essays titled "The Revolution Misses You," in which I called for progressives to revive the forgotten dream of practical yet radical change. Friends and colleagues immediately scolded me for using "extreme" terms such as "revolution" and "radical." "You'll only alienate people," they said. "This will come back to haunt you."

At first, I was surprised by what felt like a dramatic overreaction. But I soon realized why I had fallen out of sync with the progressive mainstream on the use of the "R-words": I had been spending time listening to and reading evangelical Christians who are preaching revolution.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., a 36-year-old evangelical pastor named Rob Bell regularly describes his ministry as "revolutionary," "radical" and "an insurgency." Far from alienating people with such language, Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church draws thousands of new worshipers each year from the mostly conservative and white suburbs of west Michigan. In one recent sermon, available as a podcast from MarsHill.org, Bell tells his congregation that the only time Jesus speaks of God directly taking someone's life is the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-22), a story about a man who builds bigger barns to store a surplus harvest instead of sharing it with those in need. He closed the sermon by listing a dozen places around Grand Rapids where congregants could unload their own surplus wealth.

In his book Irresistible Revolution, 30-year-old author Shane Claiborne, who is currently living in Iraq to "stand in the way of war," asks evangelicals why their literal reading of the Bible doesn't lead them to do what Jesus so clearly told wealthy and middle-class people to do in his day: give up everything to help others.

The popular evangelical Christian magazine Relevant, launched in 2003 by Cameron Strang, the son of a Christian publishing magnate, contains a "Revolution" section complete with a raised red fist for a logo. They've also released The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World, a compilation by radical, Christian social-justice campaigners from around the world.

Bell and Claiborne are two of the better-known young voices of a broad, explicitly nonviolent, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist theology that is surging at the heart of white, suburban Evangelical Christianity. I first saw this movement at a local, conservative, nondenominational church in North Carolina where the pastor preached a sermon called "Two Fists in the Face of Empire." Looking further, I found a movement whose book sales tower over their secular progressive counterparts in Amazon rankings; whose sermon podcasts reach thousands of listeners each week; and whose messages, in one form or another, reach millions of churchgoers. Bell alone preaches to more than 10,000 people every Sunday, with more than 50,000 listening in online.

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But this movement is still barely aware of its own existence, and has not chosen a label for itself. George Barna, who studies trends among Christians for clients such as the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Focus on the Family, calls it simply "The Revolution" and its adherents "Revolutionaries."

"The media are oblivious to it," Barna wrote in his 2006 book Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. "Scholars are clueless about it. The government caught a glimpse of it in the 2004 presidential election but has mostly misinterpreted its nature and motivations." According to his research, there are more than 20 million Revolutionaries in America, differentiated from mainstream evangelicals by a greater likelihood of serving their community and the poor and oppressed within it, a more "intimate, personally stirring worship of God" in daily life, and a much greater chance of studying the Bible every day.

One indication that this movement is new, nebulous and spontaneous is that Gregory Boyd, a like-minded mega-church pastor two states away in St. Paul, Minn., knew nothing of Rob Bell's theology until recently. He only heard of the pastors' conference after the fact because his book Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church was distributed to conference participants.

"There's definitely something going on," says Boyd. "I've only become aware of it as people have responded to my book. It's not organized -- it's amorphic. It would include the 'emerging church movement,' but it's bigger than that. It's a vision of the kingdom [of God]. It's a new kind of Christianity."

Heather Zydek, the former "Revolution" section editor for Relevant magazine and the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World, says, "I definitely don't have a name for it, but, yes, something is happening. Some people say it's a Generation X -- or Y -- thing. But baby boomers are in on it too."

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and author of the bestseller God's Politics, says, "'Progressive evangelicals' was thought to be a misnomer, but now we're a movement." He was as surprised as anyone when his 2006 book tour for God's Politics began to develop the feel of a revival tour. At evangelical Christian Bethel University in St. Paul, Wallis spoke shortly after a rally held by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. More people attended Wallis' event. "One of the Dobson organizers came over and told me, 'If they make us keep focusing on just two issues [abortion and gay marriage], they're going to lose all of us,'" he says.

Wallis has long been known on the left as a progressive evangelical voice in the wilderness. But in fact, over the past decades Wallis has had plenty of company, including Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider and N.T. Wright, among others. And while this new generation has been inspired by many of those teachers, they do not have the same association with the organized left that some of their predecessors do. Shane Claiborne is one of the few young voices in this movement who at least knows the history of cross-pollination between the Left and Christianity, mentioning Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day's socialist origins in Irresistible Revolution.

Zydek characterizes the movement this way: "We want to get back to the roots of Christianity, to the essence of Christianity, which is about service to those in need, sacrifice, denial of self for others -- it's about [Jesus saying] 'pick up your cross and follow me.' But for too long we've spread a gospel of suburbanism, of self-centeredness, of capitalism, of political conservatism -- but not the gospel: the gospel that came from Christ."

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I had been a regular listener of Rob Bell's sermon podcasts for a few months when he announced the January 20-21 "Isn't She Beautiful" conference ("She" being the church). The invitation was open to "Church leaders, pastors, and basically just revolutionaries and insurgents from all over the world." I signed right up.

I arrived at Mars Hill the evening before the conference, in a heavy snow, just in time to catch the regular Sunday night service. The Mars Hill church building is a converted mall. From the outside it looks just like any other old shopping center -- they've never put up a sign. So when you walk in and see the teeming, logo-free community inside that has taken over every inch of this entire mall, you get the feeling that you've walked into an alternate universe. Imagine walking into a McDonalds to find your mom's kitchen inside.

The sanctuary is a hollowed-out department store that used to host RV shows and swap meets -- no decoration, just exposed aluminum walls, ducts and beams. As I walked in, a volunteer handed me a Bible. Three thousand people were on their feet, singing powerfully and worshiping in an explosive expression of collective joy that simply does not exist in the left of this era. There were certainly some "hipster Christians" in the crowd (tattoos, goatees, etc.), but overwhelmingly the congregants were mainstream-looking Michiganders.

Rob Bell finally took to the stage, sporting plastic-rim, hipster glasses, a white belt and cool shirt. He looks like a grown-up indie rock star (and used to play in a popular Grand Rapids band). The son of a Reagan-appointed federal judge, Bell graduated from Wheaton College, where male and female students live in separate dorms with curfews and are encouraged to abstain from physical intimacy. After receiving his M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Bell interned at a conservative, non-denominational evangelical church in Grand Rapids, from which he launched Mars Hill as a "church plant" in February 1999. The name Mars Hill refers to the site where the apostle Paul preached to non-Jews by making the gospel current and relevant to their own culture.

On this night, Bell barely preached himself, and instead spent the evening, as he often does, interviewing a member of the church about how she was living out the gospel. She and her husband had moved to a broken inner-city neighborhood and begun a tutoring and family assistance ministry that is now in the process of expanding out of a church basement to fill an entire renovated warehouse.

If you compare the Mars Hill complex to progressive community centers or union halls, it has no rival. The entire mall has been converted. Most of the stores are now classrooms for the different grades of its enormous Sunday school. One of the large department stores has been converted into an events and youth meeting space with a stage, and ping pong and pool tables. The broad, carpeted concourse is now filled with comfy sofas and chairs for sitting and talking. Though the complex is perfectly clean and attractive, you get the feeling that the church, in renovating the facilities, has spent the minimum possible resources to meet functional needs.

More striking than the size of Mars Hill is the intensity of participation among the membership. The Mars Hill house church program -- where small numbers of people come together in a home for Bible study, fellowship, mutual support and as a launching point for outreach into the community -- involves more than 2,000 members in hundreds of groups, each with its own leaders. Several hundred volunteer as childcare providers and Sunday school teachers. And hundreds more serve each Sunday as ushers, parking helpers and medics. (With 3,500 people in a room, you never know what can happen.)

Yet Mars Hill is not atypical. According to the Barna Group, nine percent of Americans attend house churches (up from one percent 10 years ago). And tens of thousands of churches are de facto community centers, serving and supporting virtually all aspects of their members' lives, usually with a significant percentage of members acting as volunteers. In this way, churches have left progressives in the dust in terms of serving and engaging people directly. The union hall is the left's nearest equivalent, but not only is it dying, it rarely attempts to serve anywhere near as many of the needs -- spiritual and practical -- as churches do.

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Could the shift in focus from personal salvation to the building of the "kingdom of Heaven" be the inevitable result of the long rise of "back to the Bible" fundamentalism? Tens of millions of American Christians are not only reading the Bible, but getting together in groups and studying it -- studying the historical context in which the authors wrote, the nuances of the original Greek and Hebrew, and the issues raised by translation and conflicting source texts.

Zydek says, "No matter how you pick and choose your favorite Bible passages, if you know that Jesus died on the cross for you, that's going to affect the way you treat other people. If you're a Bible-believing Christian, maybe you choose to emphasize evangelism or maybe you emphasize works, but you can't ignore Jesus' example of unconditional love on the cross."

Wallis agrees. "The religious right is being replaced by Jesus," he says. "They're just really digging into Jesus, and what they read in [the Book of] Acts doesn't correspond to their churches. And so they're changing them or going out and creating new communities."

The Revolutionaries' faith in the Bible leads them to a gospel of social justice, but it also leads to a morality that is far out of step with mainstream American culture and the left. Sex outside of marriage, divorce, "lust," "sexual immorality" and homosexuality are all things Jesus or other New Testament voices spoke about with varying degrees of intensity.

According to Wallis, the Revolutionaries are "breaking away from the Right in droves -- but they will never be captured by the left. They're going to challenge the left on a lot of things: For these Christians, sex is covenantal and not recreational. And they oppose abortion and they are not going to move away from that."

Where Revolutionaries most part ways with many mainstream evangelical churches' interpretation of the Bible is in their embrace of women as leaders, elders and preachers. Mars Hill's lead elder (board chair) is a woman. A similar process of reversal of the restriction on women in leadership is taking place in many evangelical churches across the country.

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Boyd's Myth of a Christian Nation is based on a series of six sermons called "The Cross and the Sword" he delivered at his St. Paul church in the politically-charged atmosphere of the 2004 presidential election, in which Minnesota was a heavily-targeted swing state. In those sermons, which made national news, he said:

Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn't bloody and barbaric. That's why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state. ... I am sorry to tell you, that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.
He also spoke out against the exclusive focus on abortion and gay marriage by many evangelical leaders. "Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act," he said. "And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed."

His not-very subtle rebuke of Republican electioneering caused around 1,000 members of his congregation to leave. "Close to 700 left during the six-week 'Cross and the Sword' sermon series," he says. "Another 300 or so left when I 'didn't have the good sense' to back off the topic but rather returned to it once again just prior to the election." But 4,000 stayed. And he said he had never received so much positive feedback in his career: "Some people literally wept with gratitude, saying that they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not 'toeing the conservative party line.'"

Yet the Revolution is not primarily a reaction to Republican attempts to politicize the church. What sets it apart from mainstream evangelicalism is not a liberal rejection of Republican politics, but rather a more radical rejection of conservatism and liberalism, and anything else that is not the "kingdom of God."

To the Revolutionaries, what seems righteous or commonsensical to humans does not matter; all that matters is what God wants. Boyd writes in Myth of a Christian Nation: "To the extent that an individual or group looks like Jesus -- dying for those who crucified him and praying for their forgiveness in the process -- to that degree they can be said to manifest the kingdom of God. To the degree that they do not look like this, they do not manifest God's kingdom."

And that is where anticapitalism and anti-imperialism come in. Capitalism doesn't look like Jesus. Empire doesn't look like Jesus. In their critique of the political and economic institutions of the "kingdom of the world," the Revolutionaries are following in the tradition of early Christianity. In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, pastor and theologian Brian J. Walsh and theologian Sylvia C. Keesmaat write:

Just as in the ancient world, the [Roman imperial] images of peace and prosperity masked the reality of inequality and violence, so the contemporary images projected by advertising mask the reality of sweatshops, inequality, and domestic and international violence created by our lifestyles. And in the face of the ubiquitous imagery of the empire, Paul proclaims Jesus as the true image of God (Col 1:15) and calls the Colossian Christians to bear the image of Jesus in shaping an alternative to the empire.

For the Revolutionaries, the new "temple" -- from which Jesus chased the money changers in the Bible -- is the shopping mall. They write:

Globalization isn't just an aggressive stage in the history of capitalism. It is a religious movement of previously unheard-of proportions. Progress is its underlying myth, unlimited economic growth its foundational faith, the shopping mall its place of worship, consumerism its overriding image, 'I'll have a Big Mac and fries' its ritual of initiation, and global domination its ultimate goal.
In the shopping mall liberated by Mars Hill, the Colossians Remixed authors -- a married couple who home school their children -- discussed their work during an all-day forum attended by a thousand suburban, white, middle-class moms and dads. How many authors from the anti-globalization left have presented their ideas to a willing mass audience of middle-class suburbanites?

The thinking and dreaming of this movement is as utopian as the most far-out sect of antiglobalization anarchists, yet they are living it right at the heart of mainstream America. And they are organizing with unbelievable success, attracting thousands of new participants every week and spawning hundreds of new churches and thousands of new small groups and house churches every year.

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At the "Isn't She Beautiful" conference, the non-theological sessions were devoted to one of the secrets of this movement's success: leaders -- identifying them, recruiting them, "loving them" and letting them lead. The pastors at the conference all seemed to view their church memberships as seas of under-utilized leaders, and spent as much time as they could learning from each other and the Mars Hill staff how to be the best "fishers of men" they believe Jesus called them to be.

This high-density leadership organizing model stands in stark contrast to anything I've ever seen working in unions, progressive organizations and Democratic political campaigns. On the left, recruiting and mobilizing leaders has become devalued work that is typically left to inexperienced recent college graduates. The pastors at this conference, however, saw recruiting and inspiring leaders as one of their central callings. Too often, the left pays lip service to the grassroots, but lacks faith in grassroots leaders. The result is that too many of our organizations are one person deep and stretched impossibly thin. At the conference, I tried to imagine what Kerry campaign field offices (where I spent a lot of time in 2004) would have looked like if we had recruited leaders instead of "bodies" and expected them to be "faithful, committed members of a team" (words included in Mars Hill volunteer job descriptions). Some organizations on the left do include "leadership development" in their organizing models. But churches seem to assume that there are already plenty of "developed" leaders in their midst and go straight to giving them as much responsibility as they can.

Andrew Richards is the "local outreach pastor" at Mars Hill, charged with driving the Mars Hill house church program to reach people in need in the greater Grand Rapids community. "We're not only taking care of the needs of our own community, but we want to respond to the needs that are in the greater community," he said before a recent Sunday service while trying to recruit more leaders. He laid out five areas of focus: urban at-risk youth, refugees, poverty, community development and HIV/AIDS.

Rob Bell and other church leaders seem to be building up to a big challenge. It is unclear exactly what is in the works. (Bell does not give interviews.) But he has been preaching more and more about "systemic oppression," poverty, debt and disease -- not just locally but globally. And other leaders have indicated to the membership that the current level of sacrifice for others in the community and the world is not in line with Jesus' teachings.

On Dec. 10, 2006, Bell kicked off a series of sermons, titled "Calling all Peacemakers," during which he said:

Never before in history have there been a group of people as resourced as us. ... Never before has there been a group of people who could look at the most pressing needs of the world and think: well, we could do it ... History is like sitting right there, in the middle of war, and great expenditure, and violence, and the world torn apart in a thousand directions -- [waiting for] a whole ground swell of people to say, 'Well, we could, we could, we could do this. We could do what Jesus said to do.'

But, as of now, the Revolutionaries seem to be embracing person-to-person, "be the alternative" solutions to the exclusion of advocating for social policy that is more in line with their vision of the kingdom. Boyd says, "I never see Jesus trying to resolve any of Caesar's problems."

Wallis believes this reluctance comes from the recent experience of being dragged into the mess of partisan politics on the terms of the Republican party.

"But the prophets [of the Bible] don't talk about just being an island of hope -- they talk about land, labor, capital, equity, fairness, wages," says Wallis. "And who are the prophets addressing? Employers, judges, rulers. On behalf of widows, orphans, workers, farmers, ordinary people. The gospel is deeply political. It's not partisan politics, but a prophetic politics. It is what the prophets and Jesus finally call us to."

"Take any big issue we've got: Politics is failing to deal with it. They see that," Wallis continues. "But I'm saying that we need to change politics. Social movements change politics -- and the strongest social movements have spiritual foundations."

I asked Wallis if leaders like Rob Bell were part of a rebirth of the Liberation Theology movement that took root in Latin America in the '60s and '70s. "This movement is in a sense liberation theology in the best sense of the word," he says, "but it's more personally faith-based, more street-based and finally more community-based. I remember you'd go to a [liberation theology] event and it would be analysis, analysis, analysis -- and there would never even be a prayer."

This new generation of Christian Revolutionaries most definitely places prayer above analysis. But where will their prayers lead them? Will they forever restrict themselves to person-to-person, "relational" solutions? Or will they choose to influence political leaders on issues they share with the left -- poverty, war, environmental destruction -- with the same force that the Christian Right exerted around abortion, gay marriage and other areas?

All that's certain is that they will keep praying for answers with a desperate yearning and remarkable openness -- as Rob Bell did recently:

God, give us a vision for a new kind of world. We grieve, we honor, we condemn. But we want to move through that. We want to have asked the hard, hard questions. But we want to move though that too. And we want to be people of a dream, which we believe is your dream for the world. But then, God, we want to move past that. We want to move to action. ... God, what would this look like? Show us millions of different ways to bless -- to bless in such a way that it would literally shake the foundation of the Earth and capture us with this kind of dream. ... Please, God, open our eyes.
And 10,000 American suburbanites replied, "Amen."

Zack Exley is a senior strategist with OMP, a D.C.-based communications and fundraising firm, and co-founder of the New Organizing Institute. He can be reached at his Web site, ZackExley.com.

 
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