Why THIS Church Matters

Our church is going through a season where we are facing difficult budgetary constraints for the first time in our history. And so we’ve been talking a lot about “why does this church matter?” This is (one) of my answers to that question:


Last week I got briefly distracted on Facebook by a Washington Post article about the Noah’s Ark replica that creationist Ken Ham built in Kentucky. While the article was mostly about Ham’s intention to build more theme-park style Bible attractions, the article also reported that the “single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown [sic]…”

Groups like the ACLU have been critical of the project, specifically the organization’s discriminatory hiring practices that should render it ineligible for state funding.

“As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply.”


Yes, I read the entire statement of faith. And yes, it represents a very conservative evangelical view of Scripture, theology and the world. I think most of you who would read this post probably aren’t that conservative.

However, it’s a loud view. It’s a definition of Christianity that gets a lot of airtime both because of media interest and also because part of what makes evangelicals “evangelical” is their boldness about their faith, their willingness to “stand on street corners” and wear their faith on their collective sleeve.

But this is what concerns me: many modern people are rejecting Christianity because “Christian” to some has become synonymous with a strictly literal reading of the Bible, rejecting evolution and judging homosexuality (their word, not mine) to be a sin (among other things).


This is why I believe the progressive evangelical church matters, and specifically why I believe that my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, IL – matters.

Listen, I’m not going to throw stones here. If you know me, you know I disagree with a lot of things in the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith. I think some of their beliefs are harmful and unhealthy. But I don’t feel compelled to call them “heretics” or anything like that.

But I do hope to offer a counter-narrative. I do hope to say to everyone, “there are many ways of being ‘Christian.’” What makes us “Christian” is that we’re all followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We believe his words, his teachings, his “way” matters, and it’s still worth following, 2,000 years later. It’s worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about, it’s worth orienting our lives around.

We don’t agree on lots and lots of things. But even though we disagree, we can still worship together, we can still argue together, we can still serve the poor and take communion together. THIS is what I think Jesus means when he says, “ that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”


So here’s why I think my church matters. In the midst of an increasingly polarized culture where being “right” is more important than being loving, kind or civil, our church insists on 3 things….

The unity that Jesus is talking about in John 17 as the most significant form of witness.

That how we treat those at the margins is central to the “gospel.”

God loves everyone just as much as he loves Jesus. Everyone.

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Why I am a Progressive Evangelical

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 and evangelical — 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 as progressive 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.

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Why I Believe in The OPEN Network

I get asked all the time, “what kind of church ARE you?”

Cue stuttering, hemming, hawing, and rambling answers.

“Well, we’re not exactly evangelical, but that’s our roots, and we try to love our roots, and we’re not Catholic, although we like the Catholics a lot and we try to follow some of the liturgical practices of Catholics and Anglicans and Episcopalians, and technically we’re nondenominational in that we don’t belong to a denomination, but we’re not against denominations per se, so we prefer to use the term intradenominational to say that we’re a group of people who come from all kinds of different denominations…”


Almost 8 years into the life of our church and I still have a hard time explaining our quirky little community in Peoria, IL.


I was invited by my friend Michael to Minneapolis to join a conversation last week with what Doug Pagitt described as “junk-drawer churches” churches; churches that don’t belong to a denomination or network, who describe their theology and practice as progressive, and their history as evangelical. We came from different parts of the country, with differing styles of worship, differing creeds, practices, politics and contexts. But what united us is our progressive theology has left most of us feeling disenfranchised and alone in our contexts. Almost everyone I met said something like, “we’re the only church of our kind in our city.”

It was so good for my soul to hear other pastors – some of whom I’ve known by reputation for years – say the same things as me: “We’re the only church of our type in our town,” “I don’t regularly get to hang out with pastors like me,” and “I feel alone as a pastor.”

Last week, in Minneapolis, I found my people.

Tuesday evening, after dinner with new friends, I looked around the room at Solomon’s Porch, where we were gathering, and tears filled my eyes. Finding one’s people is one of the best things in life.


I’m super-hopeful for what this may become. I’m proud to be in at the ground floor. I’m excited to have made new friends in Denver, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and various other places. I’m hopeful to make more.

I believe that a sea-change is coming; has actually already begun in the American church. Yes, I can quibble about terminology. Many of us talked about how both labels – progressive and evangelical don’t quite fit. But something is happening. The old narratives don’t carry the same weight as they once did, and more people are waking up, looking around the world and asking themselves “who is God?” and “what is the Good News?” It’s a good time to be a pastor.

I’m proud to be an early supporter of OPEN.

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