The Dones, Rob Bell, and the Future of Progressive (and Evangelical) Christianity

The Dones, Rob Bell, and the Future of Progressive (and Evangelical) Christianity July 31, 2015

Photo: Brett Thatcher, Creative Commons 4.0 via #InstaBLAM
Photo: Brett Thatcher, Creative Commons 4.0 via #InstaBLAM

A few days ago I wrote a piece on my personal blog about “Graduating.”
It was partly a reflection on the story of Rob Bell and how it resonates with my own. It was also about the “Dones” and “post-church” category and how I identify not with the category itself, but with certain elements of the category even as I carve out my own path ahead.

I am “done” – with evangelical church as usual. I’m done with any ministry obligation to that category and identity. I can’t do it anymore, and neither can my family.

In that sense, I am graduating.

That said, there is a flip side to the equation, and one that makes this promotion an emotional and spiritual move up rather than merely an ideological move left. Really, I find myself just as disinterested in being a good progressive as I am in being a good evangelical. This is a moving forward in that strange lane sometimes called the messy middle.

The day after I wrote my graduation post (amazing timing!), Jim Wellman (who literally wrote the book on Rob Bell) wrote his entry in the Patheos Public Square on the future of Progressive Christianity. The gist of his piece is that the “Dones” or “post-church” leaders like Rob Bell are emblematic of the fact that progressive churches don’t have much of a future. There’s just not enough reason for progressives to stay committed to church institutions, because their primary concern is championing the popular justice issues of the day, and their leaders can be accessed through other means (books, conferences, blogs, etc.).

Here’s Jim:

And so goes Progressive Christianity—from my perspective it lacks the social infrastructure that creates and sustains a social movement; its leaders are spiritual entrepreneurs rather than institution builders; their following is dispersed and has no motivation to gather together on a regular basis, except perhaps to hear a speech on their favorite writers newest book.

I just don’t see a robust future for this movement at this point.

Last month, Patheos Public Square hosted the conversation on the future of Evangelicalism, and an article from my friend John Hawthorne pushed a bit from the other side. John’s findings hint at a conflicted, decentered evangelical expression in America, such that growing hostility and exclusivism from the most conservative culture-war types will continue to both push dissenting evangelical voices out and push evangelicalism itself further into irrelevance.

Here’s John:

The next decade of evangelical life will be hotly contested within the group we’d consider as convictional Christians. The question, as Baylor theologian Roger Olson wrote this month, is whether the evangelical tent is large enough to handle the discussions and differences.

It would serve evangelicals well in the coming decade to return to David Bebbington’sdefinitional criteria for evangelicalism: high regard for scripture, the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and the need to share God’s Good News.

I think Jim and John are both right – and the future of the church in America will not lie on the progressive OR (conservative) evangelical “sides,” though certainly core elements of each can remain intact. Instead, the future will take shape as those who jettison their sense of allegiance to cultural evangelicalism AND to cultural progressivism move forward in that messy middle lane. This will mean a rethinking and reforming of the institutions, but not a total abandonment of them. I am inspired by the Dones and post-church crowd, but I am most interested in what it looks like to make use of the institutional structures to keep Eucharistic worship central and streamline everything else to emphasize God’s everyday mission in the world.

We need to take a lesson from those who are fully post-church but apply it to the future-church.

This is what I’ll be arguing for (Jesus-willing) in my forthcoming book After the Apocalypse. Because what we need now are not more cultural progressives and evangelicals, as both, I believe, are passing away in the current apocalypse of Christianity’s decline.

What we need now are post-apocalyptic believers, willing to defy categories and rebuild on the existing structures in completely new and compelling ways.

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