Preaching and the evangelical left

Bet you didn’t know that there’s a Festival of Homiletics. Well, there is, and according to Tony Jones, the usual program consists of sermon-lecture-sermon-lecture. Yeah, not my idea of fun. Apparently, though, they’re mixing things up today in Atlanta. Because it’s “Emergent Preaching Day!” On his blog Jones says, “We live in the most highly educated society and the most highly participatory culture in the history of humankind. Everything around us has changed: the clothes we wear, the way we transport ourselves, how we communicate. And yet, 99% of preachers stand up on Sunday morning and deliver a monologue. A soliloquy. And their churches decline. And they wring their hands. There is another way. There is a way of participation and inclusion and dialogue and conversation.”

Sounds like a great idea, especially if you’re into the concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” Some friends of mine from Keller Park Missionary Church in South Bend (where we lived during grad school) do participatory “sermons.” This was also the style of many progressive evangelicals who lived in intentional communities in the 1970s. Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on the Christian World Liberation Front:

As part of the growing Jesus Movement, members pushed against old denominational allegiances and experimented with Pentecostal and contemplative modes of worship. They nurtured the language of the streets, dismissing legalistic fundamentalism in favor of a freer, more spontaneous faith. Men arrived at prayer meetings wearing beards and blue jeans. Women wore peasant skirts. When meetings finally got started—epidemic lateness and socializing characterized their gatherings—members raised their arms and sang enthusiastically. They played guitars instead of pianos and organs. They sang “Kum-ba-yah, My Lord” and “Pass It On,” songs inspired by both orthodox doctrine and a countercultural style. Instead of sitting in pews, they perched on folding chairs or sat cross-legged on the floor. Leaders eschewed formal sermons in favor of more casual “teachings” or group sharing that often veered in tangential directions. For the celebration of communion, CWLF served Spanada wine—not grape juice—in Dixie cups. For countercultural evangelicals from conservative evangelical congregations who “just wanted to stand up and scream at the top of my lungs” at the “repetitious absurdity” of formulaic evangelical congregations, these new styles were refreshing in their end run around traditional worship forms.

The Chicago Declaration

In all my research, I never came across a good photo of the meeting, so this picture of Chicago YMCA from the 1920s will have to do.

The narrative of Moral Minority is structured around a meeting. Doesn’t sound promising, I know, except that there’s a gunshot (buy the book!). The meeting of several dozen progressive evangelical activists took place on Thanksgiving weekend in 1973 at a YMCA in downtown Chicago. It was a kind of coming-out party for the evangelical left, and major newspapers covered the gathering. The Washington Post reported that delegates sought to “launch a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.” At the end of the weekend, delegates released a hard-hitting manifesto called the Chicago Declaration that confessed that evangelicals “have not proclaimed or demonstrated [God’s] justice to an unjust American society.”

My thick description of the Chicago meeting is located in Chapter 9 of Moral Minority. The last four chapters describe how the evangelical left failed to live up to the initial promise of the Chicago Declaration (why it became a moral minority instead of a moral majority). The first eight chapters, on the other hand, describe the emergence of the evangelical left in the years leading up to the 1973 Chicago Declaration–and the excitement over its significant potential. Each of these chapters is organized around biographical sketches of key delegates at the YMCA meeting in Chicago. Jim Wallis embodied the antiwar impulse of the evangelical left, Sharon Gallagher a communal impulse, Senator Mark Hatfield an electoral impulse, and so on. Over the next several months leading up to Moral Minority’s publication, I’ll be highlighting these important progressive evangelicals. Stay tuned . . .

Green Evangelists

Matthew and Nancy Sleeth of Lexington, Kentucky

Some of the most vibrant initiatives of the contemporary evangelical left have targeted environmental degradation. Some–like Matthew and Nancy Sleeth of Blessed Earth and John Nagle of the University of Notre Dame–describe their work using the language of “creation care.” Others speak of environmental justice. On the other end of the spectrum, conservative critics of these initiatives–like Pastor Jack Hibbs of Southern California–speak of the “green dragon.” For portraits of these figures and a helpful sketch of these fault lines, check out this recent radio episode of The Current on the CBC.

Welcome to new visitors

Welcome! The immediate purpose of this site is to publicize my upcoming book, Moral Minority, which will be released in September by Penn Press. If you continue to visit (and I hope you do!), you’ll see updates as the publication date approaches, and I’ll let you know when and where the book is on sale.

I’ll also use this space to introduce characters–such as Sharon Gallagher, Samuel Escobar, Richard Mouw, Ron Sider, and Jim Wallis–who appear in the book. Many of them continue to work on behalf of peace, the environment, immigrants, women, and the poor. I’ll periodically make note of their activities, as well as those of a vibrant set of younger moderate and progressive evangelicals, such as Rachel Held Evans, Jonathan Merritt, Matthew Soerens, Shane Claiborne, and many others. And as the 2012 election nears, I’ll offer general commentary on the ever-intriguing role of faith in American culture and politics. But I’ll focus primarily on non-rightist sectors.

So stay tuned for links, book excerpts, photos, videos, and the like. Please feel free to interact by commenting and following the activity here via Facebook, email, and Twitter. You can link and follow and like in the panel on the right.


How Democrats should talk to evangelicals

Interesting piece in today’s New York Times. T.M. Luhrmann, author of the just-released When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, explains how Democratic leaders and evangelicals talk past each other. She makes the case that Democratic leaders pitch their argument in pragmatic terms and appeal to outcomes. Evangelicals, by contrast, invoke language related to transformation, virtue, and journey. She ends by arguing that evangelicals and Democrats aren’t as far apart as most think–and that language could bridge the chasm:

To be sure, they won’t connect to every evangelical. But the good news for secular liberals is that evangelicals are smarter and more varied than many liberals realize. I met doctors, scientists and professors at the churches where I studied. They cared about social justice. They cared about the poor. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many of them got into their cars and drove to New Orleans. This is a reachable population, and back in 2008, a quarter of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Obama. Democrats could speak to evangelicals more effectively if they talked about how we could develop our moral character together as we work to rebuild our country.

Politically homeless

Over at, Matthew Soerens laments the dilemma of being pro-life and pro-immigration reform. He writes, “I don’t claim to be a partisan of either party at this point—I cannot fully support either in good conscience—but my hope is that all Christians will join me in challenging both Republican and Democratic elected officials to cherish and protect the God-given dignity of human life by being both pro-life and pro-immigrant.”

Chapter eleven of Moral Minority–“The Limits of Electoral Politics”–locates this problem historically in the late 1960s and 1970s. In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was arguably more pro-life and pro-family than the Republican Party. But in the 1970s the Democratic Party, which increasingly gave a prominent voice to activist, pro-choice secularists, alienated pro-life progressive evangelicals. Meanwhile, the religious right attached itself to the Republican Party, which limited their pro-life logic to abortion. The evangelical left was left politically homeless. Changing party configurations decades ago continues to make life difficult for evangelical activists like Soerens.

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