What's Tony Thinking

Evangelical and Liberal


I was recently asked to provide an endorsement (“blurb” in the trade) for new a book due out this next spring, Better Than Brunch: Missional Churches in Cascadia.

After reading the short study by Jason Byassee and Ross Lockhart, both of whom teach at Vancouver (B.C.) School of Theology, I was enthusiastic about endorsing Better Than Brunch.

What’s behind the title is the observation of a leader at one of the many congregations the authors profile. “In the Northwest, if your church isn’t better than brunch, forget it!” That’s a way of saying that here in the NW/ Cascadia, people aren’t part of a church out of a sense of obligation, but motivation.

The book is full of stories of exciting, experimental, vital congregations here in the Cascadia region, that is Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Unlike the east and midwest, Christendom (the de-facto establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion) never had a deep footprint here in Cascadia.

One of the characteristics of these emerging congregations profiled in Better Than Brunch is that they are both “evangelical” and “liberal.” Byassee and Lockhart offer the following observation about the larger cultural context that sees the two terms as oppositional:

“It is a strange parochialism of our time and place in world and church history that ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ are considered antonyms. To be an ‘evangelical’ just means a conviction that the good news is really good news. Its hearing should make its hearers glad. God has come among us in Jesus Christ and blessed creation on the way to making all things new. ‘Liberal’ just means ‘gener- ous,’  expansive, lavishly prodigal, the way God is in Jesus’ telling.

“Twentieth-century politics and culture wars in America pulled these terms apart, divided those which were never intended to be separate. But they belong to one another. The gospel’s good news makes its recipients generous. There is no evangel without liberal- ity; and perhaps, riskier now, no true generosity without the gospel.”

What Better Than Brunch offers are portraits of churches in the particular region of Cascadia that are thriving and which are both evangelical and liberal; that is they believe God is real and active changing and healing lives and communities and their hearts are open and gracious toward a broken and bruised humanity, especially those at society’s margins. Again from the book:

“Studying these missional churches in Cascadia, we were struck that they tied together these two impulses so often pulled apart in wider North American culture. They are, at once, evangelical and liberal. They may be a harbinger for churches elsewhere. As Christendom disintegrates, and the dust lifts, churches that rise will hold these two impulses together: good news and generosity, evangelism and social justice.”

There’s no necessary connection between “evangelical” and a conservative political agenda. What does define “evangelical” is a focus on God — what God has done, what God is doing, what God has promised in Jesus Christ; and God’s active grace as the center of Christian proclamation. Nor is “liberal” identical at every point with a progressive political agenda. But it does mean a largeness of heart and generosity of spirit — because that is God’s nature and way among us.

One of the Seattle churches that Byassee and Lockhart profile is one I’ve mentioned, Quest Church in Ballard. I was describing Quest as “liberal evangelical” before reading Better Than Brunch.

I tuned into Quest’s service last Sunday (Nov. 22), which was “Amen Sunday.” Seven “Questers,” lay people, spoke about what God had been doing in their lives. As is true of Quest the seven were racially and ethnically diverse. What was also true was that those speaking pushed out the boundaries on what is often considered “evangelical.”

A younger, white woman spoke about how “convicted” she had been by the racial justice protests and protestors in Seattle. “They’ve taught me so much.” One of the men who spoke described the way that “toxic images and definitions of masculinity” had been a source of malformation in his life. Another, a gay man who describes himself as “loud and proud for Jesus,” spoke of being drummed out of his evangelical church when he came out, but finding a home at Quest.

I think Byassee and Lockhart are right. Churches that combine a lively sense of the transforming power of God and God’s grace in Jesus Christ and are generous in spirit and seek God’s justice for all seem to me the wave of the future. Churches that aren’t afraid to step out of the boxes to which the culture wants to consign us are where the excitement is.

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