an evangelical and a progressive walk into a church…

unity is not uniformity

it’s been a crazy week around here with my oldest son and my second son (third child) graduating from college and high school on the same day, at the same time, in different states. we made it through, though, and it was filled with all kinds of wonderful memories. in 4 more years, jose and i will be empty nesters, wild!

it feels good to be over the hump of a crazy may, and i am getting excited for a gathering the refuge is hosting in a few weeks called “an evangelical and a progressive walk into the same church…” here are the details:

invite for an evangelical and a progressive walk into a church jpeg

the refuge is a very interesting community in more ways than i can count. among other things, my friend, co-pastor, and partner in ministry–karl wheeler–and i share different theological positions but lead together. co-pastoring is interesting enough, but add in that twist and it even makes for an even greater-need-for-God’s-help-to-keep-us-all-together. we’ve always been different, but over the past 8 years at the refuge, my faith has shifted further away from the comforts of my evangelical roots and what we both used to believe together.

at the same time, it’s been one of our greatest gifts because it also is representative of the community we are part of. at the refuge, people are all over the place in terms of socioeconomics, theological beliefs, political positions, and a host of other things that usually tend to segregate people instead of integrate them. what binds us together? a commitment to community and life together.

why am i still in?  because it is here–in this wild, weird, beautiful, tricky, irritating, challenging, uncomfortable, and oh-so-lovely-in-the-deepest-ways community–that i am learning what i would never know hanging out with people that look like me, think like me, believe like me. it’s one of the prettiest & least-likely-on-the-surface reflections of the kingdom of God Jesus spoke of that i have ever experienced.

there are more than a few times when i have wanted to throw in the towel on holding a space for this much diversity, especially theologically. it has been a stretch for karl, too. when you see issues like gay marriage differently but stay together, that is no small thing.  what does it mean to agree to disagree? what does it mean to watch your co-pastor marry a gay couple when your convictions are different but still lead together the next sunday? what does it mean to watch your co-pastor hold a position that is extremely painful for some of our friends but deserves respect because it comes from a sincere and deep conviction?

what does it mean when you see the Bible differently from the person next to you and it scares or irritates you?

what does it mean when one person’s passion is another person’s pain?

it hasn’t always been pretty.

it has touched a deep place in both of us and in many of our friends in the refuge, too. you see, it’s not just about co-pastoring. we are all in this together, wrestling with what it means to be part of the body of Christ when we see things radically differently. for some people it just has been too hard to be in a place with this much diversity, especially on core issues of theological beliefs. for others, it has been a comfort to not have to choose sides but to be able to wrestle with these difficult things in a safe place.

we are trying to be one in a world–and a church–that tells us that we should divide.

it makes me often think of Jesus’ words to his disciples in the upper room as he prepared to be crucified–“I pray that they will all be one” (john 17:21).

when i hear of churches splitting and organizations-having-to-make-difficult-ethical-choices-in-order-to-keep-taking-care-of-needy-children-around-the-world and yet another group arguing with each other online, i feel so sad because it’s so much simpler that way.

to say “if you believe this, i can’t be with you” is so much easier to say than “i see it differently, but you are my brother or sister and i want to figure out a way to stay together and choose the hard path of love alongside you.”

trust me, we don’t have all of the answers. sometimes i wonder about our future. i am up at night agonizing about how to stay true to what i believe while being open to different points of view that trip a justice wire in my soul. mostly, i am reminded how freaking hard it is for evangelicals and progressives, liberals and conservatives, bible-lovers and bible-allergics, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old, feeling-good-about-life and struggling-to-stay-alive to live alongside together as one.

but i am seeing it up-close and i know it is possible.

the way forward is to lay down our guns.

to listen.

to let go of control.

to own our own beliefs and let others own theirs.

to pray like crazy for the Holy Spirit to show us the way.

to put relationship above doctrine.

to let our shared brokenness bind us together  instead of our list of doctrinal beliefs.  

to walk the hard road of true unity and not surface uniformity.

to practice being peacemakers in the sense of cultivating shalom & wholeness not the unhealthy people-pleasing kind.

to stay open to what we can learn from our differences.

to laugh more and try-to-prove-our-point less.

to remember that Christ’s love can bind us all together in unity. 

to close, i thought i’d share the refuge’s “invitation to community” that we read at the beginning of all of our weekend gatherings together. it was formed out of some really hard conversations last year about these differences and has brought us together in a way that has helped us take a breath and remember what we’re trying to do here.

we’ll read it at the beginning of our june 11th gathering, too, along with the guidelines for dignified dialogue.

so what happens when an evangelical and a progressive walk into a church? 

they can be invited into community together…


The Refuge's Invitation to Community

The Refuge is a mission center and Christian community dedicated to helping hurting and hungry people find faith, hope, and dignity alongside each other.

We love to throw parties, tell stories, find hope, and practice the ways of Jesus as best we can.

We’re all hurt or hungry in our own ways.

We’re at different places on our journey but we share a guiding story, a sweeping epic drama called The Bible.

We find faith as we follow Jesus and share a willingness to honestly wrestle with God and our questions and doubts.

We find dignity as God’s image-bearers and strive to call out that dignity in one another.

We all receive, we all give.

We are old, young, poor, rich, conservative, liberals, single, married, gay, straight, evangelicals, progressives, over-educated, undereducated, certain, doubting, hurting, thriving. 

Yet Christ’s love binds our differences together in unity.

At The Refuge, everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.  

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

29 Comments

  • Kathy, as always, I appreciate your perspective. I think what stands out, and what is different from the circumstances I’ve experienced, is your commitment to relationship. While I wholeheartedly agree with your process, for many churches, leaders, and organizations, beliefs or doctrine trumps relationships. Your example allows both to reside.

    Reply
    • thanks for taking time to share. yep, that’s been my experience, too, until now. many systems just struggle with relationships and diversity. argh.

      Reply
  • Thankyou for your honesty of experience forged by fire. It is the breath of the Spirit to my soul.

    Reply
  • I loved this, especially the “unity, not uniformity” on the poster… however, the reality is many people/pastors/leaders live by the “how can two walk together unless they are agreed?” mantra; so it’s either “their way or no way”, “their way or the highway”, “we’re right, you’re wrong”, “submit, conform & this ship will run smooth”.

    I would love to work alongside people w/ different theologies like you’re doing but I just don’t see it happening, too many hard-line & entrenched belief systems…

    Reply
    • thanks for sharing, P.A., and yeah, it’s true, if we are hard-line or entrenched in our beliefs, it isn’t possible. there has to be an openness in some way for sure and i do agree that is not the norm!

      Reply
  • I love what you write about the diversity of theological position and keeping going in spite of the challenges and difficulties that sticking together through it all faces rather than walking away. I’m sure it must inspire hope in folks reading what you have written as it has for me. Thanks.

    And congratulations to your two sons for graduating college and high school. Graduation from a masters in theology is coming up for me in 3 weeks 🙂

    Reply
  • wow, it sounds like a very special place to be . . . it’s a great witness

    Reply
  • Wonderful… great article and I love the “Invitation to Community”, Kathy, especially the last line! I can see that the wording is carefully crafted… what it doesn’t say is as important as what it does.

    Maybe you have posted on this, but I’m wondering what particular books or authors you’ve found especially helpful in terms of statements of very basic theology (not “doctrinal” statements) or perspectives on spiritual issues, as one who has moved from Evangelical to Progressive like I have. I have particular interest in gap-bridging actions AND foundational thought (as they feed one another), and have made some efforts at composing common ground statements that I hope to be helpful.

    While I can get into abstract aspects of theology and believe that has its place, I’m most interested in what it seems you and Karl and your community members are also: concepts that will help people pray effectively, hope realistically, love copiously and live graciously, enfolded BY grace.

    Reply
    • hi howard sorry about the late response. always nutty around here and extra with 5 kids home that’s for sure. i am not sure on books that i can say were “it” in that moment but i was really transformed personally by brian mclaren’s “the secret message of Jesus”, one that people rarely talk about but i just really liked extra and of course a generous orthodoxy. anything richard rohr i extra appreciate and my very favorite is jean vanier, community and growth, because somehow it is centered on life together instead of belief together. maybe others can add to this list?

      Reply
  • Great post! We are also saddened by those people and churches that are absolutely uncompromising. To be accepted by them, everyone is required to think and believe exactly as they do.

    We try to accept everyone. The non- religious love that. The religious hate it. Therefore our religion is all wrong. Surprise! We’re not religious. We’re Jesus followers.

    We do believe that there are some things we must all agree upon if we are to claim the title of Follower of Jesus. The first is to love God with all our being. The second is like unto the first, to love others as ourselves. All else flows from those. If we reject others because they think differently than we do about baptism, the role of women, the so-called “offices” of the church, and ten thousand other doctrines, are we really loving them, or have we fallen into the deep and miry pit called “religion”, a pit that is so very difficult to claw our way out of?

    Reply
  • I need reminders of how to not take us for granted, and this is a good one. I don’t even think about it anymore- and forget how it is “out there”. How much freedom there is to have different jenga blocks pulled out, without fear of connection dissipating. How our connections are not fragile, but built on a deeper love. Thanks for the reminder of how freaking amazing it is to co-exist in said community. #notawalkintheparkthough #bondingfordummies

    Reply
  • We have all sorts of people in our church…progressives and staunch conservatives.
    What can bring these radically different people together?

    The pure gospel, for real sinners…with NO political messages attached to it.

    Reply
  • Unity is not Uniformity…..Amen to that! Who want to live with a load of robots. Kris Valloton (think that’s how you spell it!!) from Bethel Church in Redding gave a talk once on ‘Supernatural Love’…blessings those that believe differently to you and even hold an opposite view, and being blessed when what they do is being blessed. We still seem to have so much to learn about what it means to love our brother and sisters unconditionally, let alone those around is not yet in the Kingdom. Be blessed Kathy. Love what you share even if I don’t always agree with it!! Mick from Romford in the good old UK.

    Reply
    • thanks, mick, for sharing from afar. my favorite words part “love what you share even if i don’t always agree with it!” those kinds of words will carry us all far if we used them more 🙂

      Reply
  • Just a quick note. This will be my last comment here. It’s been privilege to share the journey with you Kathy and all with the conversations and processing things about faith life and church together on your blog here and I wish you all the best now and for the future.

    I’m on facebook if anyone feels like being in touch there.

    God Bless

    Adam

    Reply
  • I love this. I’ve spent time on both sides of the aisle and I’ve left both sides for the same reasons. Both sides are as fundie, stubborn, unreasonable, controlling and dogmatic as the other. They each have their very good and very bad points. I’m now sitting somewhere in the middle belonging nowhere. But I’m learning that a third way is the only way that will finally work. It’s the only future with real hope in it. Both sides will accomplish nothing where they are. They need to finally come and work together. How capable we are of getting along even when we really disagree is the key to everything. It’s also a choice – getting along with those we disagree with. It’s not something we’re not capable of, it’s something we choose to do or not do.

    Reply
    • thanks, hannah, i love what you are saying about it being a choice. it’s definitely not something that just comes easily and naturally. love your words.

      Reply
  • I mostly read you on SheLoves but hopped over here and find a home. My husband and I are involved in ministry in the recovery community. It has been better for me than I ever could have imagined because this is where I’ve seen what was just a word, grace, played out every day. I’ve clipped this particular post to my Evernote because I’ll need to be reminded of the “to-do’s”. Thank you

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *