Features » March 14, 2007
A new evangelical movement offers lessons for the left
Recently, I blogged a series of essays titled “The Revolution Misses You,” in which I called for progressives to revive the forgotten dream of practical yet radical change. Friends and colleagues immediately scolded me for using “extreme” terms such as “revolution” and “radical.” “You’ll only alienate people,” they said. “This will come back to haunt you.”
At first, I was surprised by what felt like a dramatic overreaction. But I soon realized why I had fallen out of sync with the progressive mainstream on the use of the “R-words”: I had been spending time listening to and reading evangelical Christians who are preaching revolution.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., a 36-year-old evangelical pastor named Rob Bell regularly describes his ministry as “revolutionary,” “radical” and “an insurgency.” Far from alienating people with such language, Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church draws thousands of new worshipers each year from the mostly conservative and white suburbs of west Michigan. In one recent sermon, available as a podcast from MarsHill.org, Bell tells his congregation that the only time Jesus speaks of God directly taking someone’s life is the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-22), a story about a man who builds bigger barns to store a surplus harvest instead of sharing it with those in need. He closed the sermon by listing a dozen places around Grand Rapids where congregants could unload their own surplus wealth.
In his book Irresistible Revolution, 30-year-old author Shane Claiborne, who is currently living in Iraq to “stand in the way of war,” asks evangelicals why their literal reading of the Bible doesn’t lead them to do what Jesus so clearly told wealthy and middle-class people to do in his day: give up everything to help others.
The popular evangelical Christian magazine Relevant, launched in 2003 by Cameron Strang, the son of a Christian publishing magnate, contains a “Revolution” section complete with a raised red fist for a logo. They’ve also released The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World, a compilation by radical, Christian social-justice campaigners from around the world.
Bell and Claiborne are two of the better-known young voices of a broad, explicitly nonviolent, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist theology that is surging at the heart of white, suburban Evangelical Christianity. I first saw this movement at a local, conservative, nondenominational church in North Carolina where the pastor preached a sermon called “Two Fists in the Face of Empire.” Looking further, I found a movement whose book sales tower over their secular progressive counterparts in Amazon rankings; whose sermon podcasts reach thousands of listeners each week; and whose messages, in one form or another, reach millions of churchgoers. Bell alone preaches to more than 10,000 people every Sunday, with more than 50,000 listening in online.
But this movement is still barely aware of its own existence, and has not chosen a label for itself. George Barna, who studies trends among Christians for clients such as the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Focus on the Family, calls it simply “The Revolution” and its adherents “Revolutionaries.”
“The media are oblivious to it,” Barna wrote in his 2006 book Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. “Scholars are clueless about it. The government caught a glimpse of it in the 2004 presidential election but has mostly misinterpreted its nature and motivations.” According to his research, there are more than 20 million Revolutionaries in America, differentiated from mainstream evangelicals by a greater likelihood of serving their community and the poor and oppressed within it, a more “intimate, personally stirring worship of God” in daily life, and a much greater chance of studying the Bible every day.
One indication that this movement is new, nebulous and spontaneous is that Gregory Boyd, a like-minded mega-church pastor two states away in St. Paul, Minn., knew nothing of Rob Bell’s theology until recently. He only heard of the pastors’ conference after the fact because his book Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church was distributed to conference participants.
“There’s definitely something going on,” says Boyd. “I’ve only become aware of it as people have responded to my book. It’s not organized – it’s amorphic. It would include the ‘emerging church movement,’ but it’s bigger than that. It’s a vision of the kingdom [of God]. It’s a new kind of Christianity.”
Heather Zydek, the former “Revolution” section editor for Relevant magazine and the editor of The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World, says, “I definitely don’t have a name for it, but, yes, something is happening. Some people say it’s a Generation X – or Y – thing. But baby boomers are in on it too.”
Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and author of the bestseller God’s Politics, says, “‘Progressive evangelicals’ was thought to be a misnomer, but now we’re a movement.” He was as surprised as anyone when his 2006 book tour for God’s Politics began to develop the feel of a revival tour. At evangelical Christian Bethel University in St. Paul, Wallis spoke shortly after a rally held by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. More people attended Wallis’ event. “One of the Dobson organizers came over and told me, ‘If they make us keep focusing on just two issues [abortion and gay marriage], they’re going to lose all of us,’” he says.
Wallis has long been known on the left as a progressive evangelical voice in the wilderness. But in fact, over the past decades Wallis has had plenty of company, including Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider and N.T. Wright, among others. And while this new generation has been inspired by many of those teachers, they do not have the same association with the organized left that some of their predecessors do. Shane Claiborne is one of the few young voices in this movement who at least knows the history of cross-pollination between the Left and Christianity, mentioning Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day’s socialist origins in Irresistible Revolution.
Zydek characterizes the movement this way: “We want to get back to the roots of Christianity, to the essence of Christianity, which is about service to those in need, sacrifice, denial of self for others – it’s about [Jesus saying] ‘pick up your cross and follow me.’ But for too long we’ve spread a gospel of suburbanism, of self-centeredness, of capitalism, of political conservatism – but not the gospel: the gospel that came from Christ.”
I had been a regular listener of Rob Bell’s sermon podcasts for a few months when he announced the January 20-21 “Isn’t She Beautiful” conference (“She” being the church). The invitation was open to “Church leaders, pastors, and basically just revolutionaries and insurgents from all over the world.” I signed right up.
I arrived at Mars Hill the evening before the conference, in a heavy snow, just in time to catch the regular Sunday night service. The Mars Hill church building is a converted mall. From the outside it looks just like any other old shopping center – they’ve never put up a sign. So when you walk in and see the teeming, logo-free community inside that has taken over every inch of this entire mall, you get the feeling that you’ve walked into an alternate universe. Imagine walking into a McDonalds to find your mom’s kitchen inside.
The sanctuary is a hollowed-out department store that used to host RV shows and swap meets – no decoration, just exposed aluminum walls, ducts and beams. As I walked in, a volunteer handed me a Bible. Three thousand people were on their feet, singing powerfully and worshiping in an explosive expression of collective joy that simply does not exist in the left of this era. There were certainly some “hipster Christians” in the crowd (tattoos, goatees, etc.), but overwhelmingly the congregants were mainstream-looking Michiganders.
Rob Bell finally took to the stage, sporting plastic-rim, hipster glasses, a white belt and cool shirt. He looks like a grown-up indie rock star (and used to play in a popular Grand Rapids band). The son of a Reagan-appointed federal judge, Bell graduated from Wheaton College, where male and female students live in separate dorms with curfews and are encouraged to abstain from physical intimacy. After receiving his M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Bell interned at a conservative, non-denominational evangelical church in Grand Rapids, from which he launched Mars Hill as a “church plant” in February 1999. The name Mars Hill refers to the site where the apostle Paul preached to non-Jews by making the gospel current and relevant to their own culture.
On this night, Bell barely preached himself, and instead spent the evening, as he often does, interviewing a member of the church about how she was living out the gospel. She and her husband had moved to a broken inner-city neighborhood and begun a tutoring and family assistance ministry that is now in the process of expanding out of a church basement to fill an entire renovated warehouse.
If you compare the Mars Hill complex to progressive community centers or union halls, it has no rival. The entire mall has been converted. Most of the stores are now classrooms for the different grades of its enormous Sunday school. One of the large department stores has been converted into an events and youth meeting space with a stage, and ping pong and pool tables. The broad, carpeted concourse is now filled with comfy sofas and chairs for sitting and talking. Though the complex is perfectly clean and attractive, you get the feeling that the church, in renovating the facilities, has spent the minimum possible resources to meet functional needs.
More striking than the size of Mars Hill is the intensity of participation among the membership. The Mars Hill house church program – where small numbers of people come together in a home for Bible study, fellowship, mutual support and as a launching point for outreach into the community – involves more than 2,000 members in hundreds of groups, each with its own leaders. Several hundred volunteer as childcare providers and Sunday school teachers. And hundreds more serve each Sunday as ushers, parking helpers and medics. (With 3,500 people in a room, you never know what can happen.)
Yet Mars Hill is not atypical. According to the Barna Group, nine percent of Americans attend house churches (up from one percent 10 years ago). And tens of thousands of churches are de facto community centers, serving and supporting virtually all aspects of their members’ lives, usually with a significant percentage of members acting as volunteers. In this way, churches have left progressives in the dust in terms of serving and engaging people directly. The union hall is the left’s nearest equivalent, but not only is it dying, it rarely attempts to serve anywhere near as many of the needs – spiritual and practical – as churches do.
Could the shift in focus from personal salvation to the building of the “kingdom of Heaven” be the inevitable result of the long rise of “back to the Bible” fundamentalism? Tens of millions of American Christians are not only reading the Bible, but getting together in groups and studying it – studying the historical context in which the authors wrote, the nuances of the original Greek and Hebrew, and the issues raised by translation and conflicting source texts.
Zydek says, “No matter how you pick and choose your favorite Bible passages, if you know that Jesus died on the cross for you, that’s going to affect the way you treat other people. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, maybe you choose to emphasize evangelism or maybe you emphasize works, but you can’t ignore Jesus’ example of unconditional love on the cross.”
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Zack Exley is a former senior advisor with the Bernie Sanders campaign and the author, with Becky Bond, of Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything.
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