The Evangelical’s Burden

The Evangelical’s Burden September 19, 2012

Recently, I supped with a young, hipster evangelical leader. Someone you would know. Someone who runs large conferences. We had a nice time, but toward the end of our time together, I asked her a question that I figured I knew the answer to:

“You won’t have me or Doug or Brian speak at your events, will you?”

The answer, after some hemming and hawing, was “No.”

Here’s why I asked: Her conference, like many other evangelical conferences, has two categories of speakers: evangelical speakers and non-Christian speakers.

In other words, they’ll have Christians like Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll and Jo Saxton and Dave Kinnaman. They’ll have evangelicals who are disappointed in evangelicals, like Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo.

And they’ll have non-Christians like Malcolm Gladwell and Charlene Li and Seth Godin. They’ll bring in an executive from Nike or Apple or Southwest Airlines. They’ll interview activists and artists and actors.

These people in the second group can have whatever position they want on gays or marriage or abortion or the Bible. It doesn’t matter what they think about any social or theological issue, because hipster evangelicals feel that they can learn how to be “cutting edge” and to “think outside the box” from these “cultural creatives.”

(Interestingly, it’s more likely that one of these “cultural creatives” will drop out of an evangelical speaking engagement, as when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz canceled a gig with megachurch Willow Creek last year.)

But these evangelical conference planners will not have a progressive Christian leader, no matter how creative, smart, relevant, or hip.

“Why?” I asked my friend. “Why will you not have us?”

“Because,” she replied, “Then everyone would say, ‘See, they’re going liberal, just like I suspected.'”

So the upshot is that no matter how thin or stupid the theology of a cultural speaker, they’re welcome. And no matter how astute the contributions of a progressive Christian, they’re not welcome.

Is that any way to run a religion? Do you think it’s the same with progressive Christian events, like Wild Goose? If it is, it’s surely not for the same reason that she told me.

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  • Tom Estes

    Tony, it’s obviously wrong to have non-Christians speak at Christian events, but it seems like you have no problem with that as long as they would still let you speak, which makes no sense.

    Don’t you think you need to stand up for what’s right more than standing up for yourself?

    • JoeyS

      Obviously wrong? What’s obvious about it?

      • Tom Estes

        Well, why would you have someone who rejects the authority of Christianity, the Bible, speak at a Christian conference?

        Again, all that should matter is that Bible truth is being proclaimed. Philippians 1:14-18

        • seems that jesus allowed those who didn’t believe quite as he did to have a voice at the table of conversation, so i’m not so certain it’s ‘obviously wrong.’

          i do think tony is correct in pointing out the seeming ‘double standard’ toward progressive teachers/leaders/christ followers stemming from the fear of being seen as ‘liberal.’ i myself have already begun to feel that same distance, and quite frankly i don’t consider myself all that far left. 😉

          i wonder, along with many others, what it would look like for christians of all types to find solidarity in neighborliness to those ‘outside’ of our doctrinal clicks, theological clans and denominational castes – and even outside of our faith traditions. i’m only just beginning to see the critical importance of such conversations, and welcome them here ::

          • Tom Estes

            I think solidarity can be found when people accept that Christ is the only way to Heaven. John 14:6

            If someone agrees that salvation is through repentance and faith in Christ (and we agree on the definition of those words) then there are lot of disagreement that I, for one, would be willing to endure. But rejecting Christ as the sole way to Heaven would make it impossible for me to find common ground with anyone who claim to be a Christian.

        • R Vogel

          You can’t be for real, right? This has to be some sort of Poe, yes?

    • Kenton

      conference: from Medieval Latin conferentia, from Latin conferre to bring together;

      So… if the idea is “standing up for what’s right” as opposed to “bringing [people] together”, then… it’s… not really a “conference”, now, is it Tom?

    • Did I just read that right, Tom? “It’s obviously wrong to have non-Christians speak at Christian events”?

      First of all, how is that obvious? Where did this notion of wrong-ness take root?

      Secondly, that’s just as bad as saying, “It’s obviously wrong to let black people in our white person worship service.” Or, “Someone who is gay can’t be a Christian.” The kingdom of God is much deeper and wider than these types of bigotry and intolerance. And as I recall, the last time these varied types of hatred took hold of a group of people, massive wars and millions of lives were taken because one man claimed he had it “all figured out” and felt it was appropriate to push those beliefs on our entire globe.

      I am obviously being extreme above, but only to prove this point: Hate follows hate. The only way to stop hate and intolerance is to love with a love that embraces all for the sake of shared humanity and the worth that comes from being the Imago Dei. Love does not mean playing devil’s advocate, challenging one another, etc. It is both/and, not either or.

      Being progressive and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive. Jesus was unbelievably progressive for his time, hanging out with the whores, claiming it’s not an eye for an eye but that we must instead turn the other cheek, not to mention taking on the most ultimate act of violence and dying like a common criminal for his cause.

      If we are going to claim the Bible as our theological handbook (and personally, I don’t) then I might challenge you in this way, Tom: Read the Bible, all of it, through an undecided and unfiltered lens. Read the text with a careful, critical, open mind. You might find it to be a bit different than the theology that you are spouting above.

      • *edit* Love does not mean NOT playing devil’s advocate, challenging one another, etc. It is both/and, not either or.

      • Tom Estes

        Stating that something is wrong is not hateful, and I’m not playing devil’s advocate.(He has enough advocates) I’m just stating what I believe is taught in the Bible. The early church would have never had a non-Christian at a Christian event, ever, this brings me to my conclusion that it is wrong to have non-Christians speak at such events.

        • Tom Estes

          should be *as* taught in the Bible.

        • JPL

          Ummm…if the early church never had a non-Christian at a Christian event, how did they get more Christians? So…no conversion? You had to be a Christian before you could come to hear Paul speak? All of Peter’s speeches on Acts were to already converted Christians?

          And today, if a man has a heart attack at a Christian event, you can’t drag a doctor who is Muslim in off the street to treat him? A non-Christian contractor who repaired a church’s plumbing can’t be invited to the weekend men’s retreat? You can only hold a Christian conference in a hotel chain owned by, and exclusively staffed by, Christians? Must they be evangelicals, or will all the Latino Catholic wait staff suffice?

          Epic fail.

          • Evelyn

            Not so fast, JPL:

            Matthew 18:15-20
            (Jesus said) “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

    • (A parody)

      TOM ESTES: “Gee, Tony. This whole idea doesn’t match what’s in my head one bit. So it’s likely wrong. That means you’re wrong too in what you believe because it’s not what I believe. I’m right. You’re not. And I’m sure you’ll go to Hell for it. My brain says the Bible is the word of God, and I believe whatever it says because it is the absolute truth no matter what anyone else says. I believe because . . . well, just because. There is no room for conversation, doubt, or compromise. And since you don’t believe the same way as I do there must be something wrong with you. That means you’re not a Christian because you don’t believe the way I do. You’re a sinner and if you die in your ignorance you will go to Hell. And burn for eternity.”

  • I’m not buying this, Tony. One weak answer to a micro question doesn’t necessarily lead to a macro conclusion. Besides, it seems self-evident that a group with a set of doctrinal positions that matter to them would be less threatened by a non-practioner with something interesting to say than they would from an insder revisionist critic. Not everything is an open forum. Those of us who have to make decisions like this usually have a bigger picture vision in mind when deciding who will speak in our churches or organizations…and who won’t.

    • Who preaches at your church is a completely different matter, John. That’s worship.

      If an evangelical is willing to allow her constituency to be challenged by a non-Christian, then she should be willing to have them challenged by a Christian from another perspective as well.

      It is self-evident that they’re less threatened by a non-theological speaker, but that doesn’t justify their behavior.

      • Chris

        Princeton, Harvard and many other institutions of higher learning were originally founded on the precepts of traditionally held biblical beliefs and understanding. They were conservative. In the name of fairness the conservatives allowed liberals to come in and share their points of view. Now that these institutions are completely dominated by liberals the conservatives have been squeezed out to near extinction (although a few can be found hanging around just so the liberals can call themselves open-minded).

        It’s just possible that the organizers of these conferences have learned through hindsight just what happens when the genteel, open-minded liberals get in the door.

        • JPL

          It sure is sweet to have the epic liberal power to sneak on in to bastions of conservatism, and then end up completely dominating them in no time at all, without having to use violence or force. You know, perhaps it’s worth considering that this occurs because their ideas are actually better. I understand nature tends to work that way…stronger, smarter, more capable species pushing out the less capable. That’s evolution…oh wait…I think I see the problem…

          • Chris

            There are lots of dishonorable ways to gain an upper hand without the use of force. You can tell yourself that liberal ideas are just plain better and that’s all that really happened if that helps you feel superior.

        • Are you shitting me? You actually think that’s what happened?

        • Sundown

          Chris, you seem to be implying that the only way to keep one’s core beliefs is to censor other people. Is that what you truly believe?

  • Josh Butcher

    Tony, do you really think we are supposed to believe such a story? I don’t know why you would spend the time to write such a fairy tale on your blog…

    like mainstream evangelicals would ever allow a conference to be run by a woman. Sheesh! At least get your story lined up before you publish it on your blog.


  • Keith Rowley

    But Tony and Brian are perfectly capable of giving a presentation on Church practices or social media in the church and not bringing up homosexuality or any other area where they might not agree with the standard dogma of the group they are presenting to. Just as a non Christian speaker can give a presentation and not talk about these issues or their view that the resurection is hogwash. It isn’t the content of the presentation that keeps them from inviting Tony, it is the fact that he is a progressive Christian and Christians who don’t fall in the conservative camp are more reviled by conservatives than just about any non-Christians are.

  • it is to easy to mitigate the words of those whowe can easily disown, but to have a Christian upset or sense of comfort in faith is anathema to the modern evangelical. i am convinced that most of or sinful structures, talking about within the institution of evangelicalism, concern maintaining or comfort. we have lost the dangerous word and asked for a lesser god.but i don’t get many conference speaking invites either.


  • Rob

    Spot on Tony. Just look at the lineup for Catalyst and events like it. I guess it’s better to be “challenged” by cool cultural hipsters than by those with differing (from evangelicalism) theological viewpoints.

  • Sung Moy

    I believe that any group that is so self-identified will by nature exclude to protect the perceived essence of what they believe the group to represent, including progressives. You nailed the problem on the head though. If you are the predominant group, the burden is on you then to maintain the integrity. Any offshoot or group that rises out of response to the original can define itself in whatever way they wish. So in the example of “conferences” it is evident then how the group defines itself. The reason evangelicals can invite non-Christians is that there is a clear boundary between believers and non-believers. When the line gets fuzzy as with evangelicals and progressives, it becomes more of a threat of losing membership from one sheep pen to another. Then there are people like me who feel lost because I am caught between theological extemes.

  • Frank

    Um yeah ok. Maybe it’s because progressive Christianity has very little to offer. Maybe it’s because progressive Christianity looks just like the secular world. Maybe because progressive Christianity has and continues to rewrite their own brand faith and scripture. Who wants to hear about made up religion under the guise of Christianity?

    • Evelyn

      “Who wants to hear about made up religion under the guise of Christianity?”
      Anyone who attends a church that calls itself “Christian” because it is ALL made up.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t think I’ve ever been at a big Christian event that featured a non-Christian speaker (other than possibly a rabbi). I must be hanging out at the wrong events.

  • I can’t say I’ve ever been to an evangelical event that featured a non-Christian speaker, and to be honest I don’t even think that it’s relevant to the point you’re trying to make. It seems that you’re bothered because the iconography or symbolism of having you, or Doug, or Brian on the flyer is too strong of a detriment in the evangelical mind to overcome the possible benefits of having you at the conference.

    I would say that the organizers aren’t worried about what you’d say at the conference or what the conference attendees would think of your message. Instead, they are worried about the reactions of those who don’t attend the conference and only see your name associated with their beloved institution.

    As hypocritical as it may be, it’s also deeply pragmatic on the part of the organizer. This wouldn’t be a problem for Wild Goose, but that’s because the progressive church sees the evangelical church as a pest, not as a threat.

    • SuperStar

      You are mostly right, but in some cases, the organizers of these events are worried about what Tony, Doug, or Brian might say at an event. Evangelicals of a conservative persuasion have a hard time believing that there is more than one way to look at an issue, whether theological, political, or social. Progressives have been pushed to the margins because they cause too many Christians to think about what they really believe and why they believe what they believe.

      Tom Estes and Frank, whoever you guys are, you really don’t add anything to the conversations on Tony’s blog. In fact, you cause conversations to get derailed and offer no helpful insights. I think it would be best to start your own blogs so that you can live in the world that you have created for yourselves and the people that think like you.

      • Frank

        Progressives are on the margin as you put it because they are simply on the wrong path. Yes they do cause us to think but what I think is “how can someone get something so wrong and fail to see it?”

        I will be here as long as Tony allows me to be here.

        • Every blog has its version of the stray, angry neighborhood cat that consumes thanklessly. We don’t like it, but we still feed it. It’s part compassion and patience, part morbid curiosity. (Hint: you’re the stray cat here, Frank).

        • I like you Frank. Just wanted to be moderately nice on the internet. Just to see if it was possible. 🙂

    • Chris

      And how likely would it be that you would invite a “pest” to speak at your shindig.

      • I guess it depends how provocative I need said shindig to be.

  • I’m not sure about progressive events like Wild Goose. But at progressive mainline events, it’s rare to find an evangelical speaker. I’m not familiar enough with why that is the case. I’ve heard that evangelicals won’t come when they are invited, perhaps for the same reasons an evangelical conference won’t invite progressives.

  • It goes back to this simple reality: Fear will make you stupid.

  • Simon

    They think you are more influential then George Clooney; and rightly so.

    Tony, you are a progressive voice within the church. Evangelical leaders are making a conscious choice to silence your prophetic voice. It’s been considered and rejected (or perhaps, not considered and rejected).

    There are probably few places that you would have more influence then a Hollywood star like George Clooney, or a marketing guru like Seth Godin, but a Christian conference might just be one of them. If George Clooney comes in to talk about Darfur and then throws out a comment about civil rights for gay folks, the conservative audience can chalk that up to just another Hollywood type that “isn’t saved.” I think most of us don’t instinctively look to movie stars for moral guidance.

    You on the other hand, are a trained theologian and Christian thought leader. You have chosen to anchor your thinking and writing by wrestling with scripture and the church community. I think the Evangelical leaders rightly suspect that your voice in the theological context is stronger than their “secular stars,” because you use scripture, theological arguments and a Christian vocabulary to communicate your message. As you speak out on issues progressively (whether at the conference or at another time) your role as an “insider” is potentially more disruptive then a more famous outsider.

    That’s why you are not given the simple hospitality that a non-Christian might receive. I witnessed this first-hand when the Society for Pentecostal Studies was forced to rent a hotel ballroom when a local university kept you from reading your paper on their campus (I think because of a stand you did or didn’t take on homosexuality). This school also let the Mayor of Minneapolis (obviously a progressive voice as co-chair of the DNC) speak in chapel, but he wasn’t talking as a theologian, he was talking as civil leader.

    I think they rightly intuit that you would be more likely to change people’s minds in a way, they don’t want minds changed.

    Bottom line: if you were a pop icon, and not a theologian my guess is you would get the nod, even if your ideas were exactly the same.

    Then again, maybe it’s just a money thing. Big, headline-grabbing names probably draw more participants than they push away. Controversial theologians might persuade some groups from participating without drawing in others.

  • Zach Lind

    I didn’t realize Gabe Lyons was a “she”. 😉

  • Charles

    I, for one, find it mildly amusing that Tony self-identifies as a christian progressive. He may be progressive in comparison to a hard-line evangelical, and other evangelicals may think him progressive; but, he is thought of as a mainliner by many, including me.

  • Gregory

    The thing I find repulsive about “leadership conferences” like Catalyst (I have no idea what conference this article is referring to) is the massive amount of wasteful consumption going on in the name of “reaching a generation”. All together a conference like Catalyst will represent $3-5 million in ticket sales and attendees will likely spend at least another $5 million in travel and accommodations. On top of that their collective consumption will represent 10 million+ lb in CO2 emissions. All of this for some high octane christian marketing training from celebrity speakers that offer their information for free online? Is it possible that a weekend event like this is worth the cost?

    • Haha this. Even better, the message will be about helping poor people around the world.

      And when I hear about Mark Driscoll or John Piper being invited to speak at Wild Goose, I’ll agree with you, Tony.

  • T. C.

    A prophet is without honor in her hometown.

  • Scott Gay

    The heart of this subject is our need for an ecumenical spirit. I’ll use Dr. Roger Olson as an evangelical example. I know he has been appreciated when a speaker on Doug Pagitt’s radio program, because he does have a really good grasp of Christian streams from the past to present. He has just recently blogged on why he is ecumenical…….”real Christian unity is not broken by denominational labels or even traditions. It is broken by anathemas and refusal of shared communion and rejection of real Christians’ ministries just because of differences of doctrine and practice”.
    Our diversity is actually an unbelievable strength. I believe that the Roman Catholic Chesterton described it best in his chaptor on paradoxes in “Orthodoxy”. Chesterton shows the difficulty and the worthwhileness of the Christian position over and against the worldly position. It takes maturity to see the incredible balance that is needed in holding paradoxical views simultaneously( one of the foremost examples is a person being both divine and human). Isn’t it ironic that some modern evangelicals display a lack of tolerance, when that is at the heart of their problem with hierarchial traditions like catholicism. I guess I chalk it up to many having grown to a synthetic/conventional level, perhaps even into angst and struggle, but still without any conjunctive experience of reality.

  • Case in point: Liberty just had Donald Trump speak.

  • Tim

    As one who does attend some of these evangelical type of events, I still haven’t really figured out why certain people/positions are never represented. Especially since many of these events are leadership oriented, I find it unlikely that the mere sight of a progressive would throw their theology into a tailspin (and if so, they may need to spend time and work on their theology).

    A big part of conferences is to discover new ideas, find inspiration, hear wisdom and connect with others – including progressive theologians would be a good thing.

  • R Vogel

    But they already had name tags made up that said ‘Christian’ and ‘Non-Christian,’ none for ‘Heretics’ So sorry! ;p