language

I grew up listening to National Public Radio. That’s what Northwest people do. It’s our kind of sacred liturgy, and it was that sacred liturgy that awakened an early love for the modern, progressive, thoughtful existence that Democrats dream and preach about. My old man, more than anyone, instilled a handful of progressive ideals into my young soul—respect, tolerance, and civic engagement. Driving me to school—slurping his fair trade coffee from his reusable Alcoholics Anonymous mug that rested perfectly on the dashboard of our Subaru—he’d use his one free hand to fine-tune the turn-style dial to the soft-sounding voices of NPR commentators such as Neil Conan, Robin Young, and Robert Siegel. If NPR and Ted Talks are church for the progressive mind, then I was raised in church.

It’s our kind of sacred liturgy, and it was that sacred liturgy that awakened an early love for the modern, progressive, thoughtful existence that Democrats dream and preach about.

I loved NPR’s Neil Conan the most. His voice sounded like God; or, at least, whatever I imagined God might sound like at that time in my life. It’s funny how we always imagine God to look or sound like those we looked at or listened to as children. I guess that’s why A.W. Tozer once said that the most important thing about a person is what they think about when they think about God. Our image of God is always wrapped up in someone in the past. I’ve heard that people raised in hardline legalistic Christianity have an impossible time shaking the image of a God who stands erect, suit and tie, behind a pulpit, screaming, Bible open, pointing His wrathful old wrinkly finger at everyone below that they hadn’t giving enough money and were sinning too much that week. I’ve never had to shake that image. For me, God was like Neil Conan—nice, thoughtful, non-judgmental, progressive, humble, passionate, and most of all, hated asking anybody for money.

For me, God was like Neil Conan—nice, thoughtful, non-judgmental, progressive, humble, passionate, and most of all, hated asking anybody for money.

I remember thinking about God a lot when I was a little kid. God, in those years, was pretty much nice and didn’t seem to involve Himself all that much with our day-to-day lives. God never judged others or myself, but always was super ticked at Christians for their closed-mindedness. God, I remember, would be mad at Christians for all of their oppressions, and sin, and hypocrisy. But when it came to addicts, and sinners, and non-Christians, God never judged them. Nor did he judge me.

He let me do what I wanted to do. Kind of like my grandpa who lived in Montana. Grandpa always gave me money to go the candy store and took me fishing during the summers. God was like grandpa—senile, distant, and benevolent.

Through a series of freakish, ultimately holy events, I experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity at sixteen in my hometown of Salem, Oregon. I first started giving Christianity a good deal of thought after a guy named Matt at the YMCA told me late one evening that if I didn’t believe in Jesus, I would go to hell. As a cradle progressive, I was naturally offended. All ways lead to God and God doesn’t judge, I assumed. I rode the bus home that evening and thought about what Matt said. I was fascinated that there were actual people in our world who believed that there was an actual God who actually had something to say and actually wanted to be in relationship with people. More than anything, his words of warning kick-started thoughts about something I’d never seriously considered: hell, judgment, and the afterlife. The idea of hell oddly created within me a real hunger; hunger for truth, for God, and for answers. The NPR God that sounded like Neil Conan was a nice God to have around but didn’t seem to really care about dealing with the real issues in my life: namely, for me, the emptiness of a sixteen-year-olds soul.

I rode the bus home that evening and thought about what Matt said. I was fascinated that there were actual people in our world who believed that there was an actual God who actually had something to say and actually wanted to be in relationship with people.

One day, as they say, I got saved. I found a church, started reading my Bible, and burned all of my non-Christian C.D.’s after hearing a sermon about the evils of secular industry. For a time, I swung to the opposite of my upbringing and became staunchly both politically and theologically conservative—I have since rested in a sweet spot in the middle picking freely and subjectively from both sides of the issues I think Jesus cares deeply about. This is probably why I fit in neither party. – Back then, telling my parents of my conversion was difficult. Neither of them knew exactly what to do. One time, for instance, I fasted for four days. My caring mom worried that I’d joined a cult. I told her I was just doing “what Jesus told me to do.” I’m positive that didn’t ease her concerns.

Telling my dad was even harder. I can only imagine it compares to some tiny extent the pain a gay kid experiences coming out to his conservative parents—I just happened to be a Christian coming out to his liberal parents. They both loved me, still do, but back then, it was awkward.

Since my conversion, I’ve had a deep longing and desire to translate the graceful gospel of Jesus Christ to the liberal, progressive conscience that represents my upbringing. I admit, at times, it’s a challenge. Progressive Christianity, as I’ve observed, actually practices Jesus’ social ethics of loving the poor, caring for the widow, and fighting injustice better than anyone (all the while shrinking as a community globally). Yet, conservative Christianity, with all of its problems, is still actually talking about the atoning and final work of the cross for a sinful world. One is nailing orthopraxy and the other orthodoxy. How, then, do you preach orthodoxy to someone who is doing orthopraxy. Or, on the other side, how do you preach the call to orthopraxy to someone who has orthodox theology? As C.S. Lewis once said, you need both shears of the scissors to actually cut something. The problem is that without the other, you cease being scissors and simply become a knife. Bringing liberals and conservatives together is nearly impossible because both are so sharp at being their side of scissors. Furthering the challenge, many progressives surpass conservatives in thoughtfulness, intellect, and action.. They know the history of the Bible, stand up to the abuse of the church, and, ultimately, fight for social justice in breath-taking ways.

Bringing liberals and conservatives together is nearly impossible because both are so sharp at being their side of scissors.

I believe it is possible to do all the things Jesus did in social justice and completely neglect the gospel of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. I also believe you can be so focused on believing in and arguing for an atonement theory that perfectly represents the gospel that you fail to ever work in a soup kitchen. Social justice and the cross only have power when they live in marriage. The challenge is allowing both to be both, yet, challenging both to get the other side.

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In my thirteen years as a Christian I’ve noticed a sort of predisposed challenge among many Evangelicals to not knowing how to speak to liberals and progressives. In the end, many Christians have a set of skills and words to reach out to those who come from conservative perspectives. But, on the other hand, lack the language, relational, or experiential skills to substantively engage the liberal, progressive, city-dweller; especially of the kind that resides in the Northwest. This is a problem. First, because it shows we don’t take the Great Commission seriously, and, secondly, because we have crafted a gospel that only works or is sensible to the conservative mind. Friends, if the gospel isn’t for all people, then it’s for no people.
How does the church talk to the liberal?

That’s when I turn to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. There, we find a model for what a church in a liberal, progressive, and civically engaged city should do. All tribes, nations, and tongues would have been present in Jerusalem for the Pentecost event just forty days after Jesus’ death. The church, scared as they might be, gather together in a house in the center of bustling Jerusalem. Perched from the upper room above, the disciples utter the unlearned tongues of those below—Medes, Parthians, Cretans, and Arabs. Broadly, Scripture describes two varieties of tongue-speech: xenolalia (speaking in foreign tongues for missional purposes) and glossolalia (speaking in spiritual languages for edification)—the latter of which is widely practiced among Pentecostals and Charismatics to this day. The former, however, is what Acts 2 portrays—tongue-speech for the express purpose of evangelizing the world. The event undoubtedly represents a mesmerizing, and critical, detail of a Pentecost church. Imbued with the Spirit, the church now emerges as a community of polyglots. Now, in view of the brute force of the Spirit’s power, Jesus’ church is provided the fresh capability to boldly, intelligibly, and faithfully proclaim the good news in any and all languages to the global, diverse, city below. The unwritten accounts from the crowd below would, I’m sure, be followed by sheer surprised as the onlookers are caught off guard hearing the story of a dead carpenter in their own tongues while in the far-off city of Jerusalem. How beautiful that the loving God of Scripture meets the foreigner on their travels.

What stands out is this: the Pentecost event takes place in the context of great diversity.
Furthermore, this newly born polyglot church is empowered to speak every tongue for the spread of the gospel—tongues, mind you; there is no evidence to suggest they themselves knew as they spoke. Foreign tongues, unknown tongues, unlearned tongues, all of them. They can now speak every language. The church of the 21st century must, by the power of the Spirit, learn to speak the language of the liberal, progressive city. Otherwise, the church will lose its missional voice in the city.

In Portland, Oregon, where I pastor a church called Theophilus in the urban core of one of the most progressive cities in America, I’ve learned some good, hard lessons about being a Spirit-filled polyglot church that not only welcomes but also shares the gospel to liberals. Here are some thoughts about what the church of the 21st century must learn about learning the liberal tongues of the diverse city:

1. Care for things liberals care about—listen, listen, and then listen some more. Keep your ear to NPR, have a never-ending stream of Ted Talks at your fingertips, and read the newspaper. On one hand, the Spirit of God has, does, and will speak through many progressives in our world and in the church. But more importantly, if we’re unwilling to lend some compassion toward the issues important to the progressive personality (the environment, racial justice, LGBT conversation), they won’t lend their ear to hear what is important to the church. I call this mutual compassion. If we expect others to care about our issues, we must begin by caring about theirs. Does this mean we agree with the conclusions? Certainly not, in fact, I often land in very different places than my liberal friends. But I care enough to enter the conversation. It’s hard to share the gospel if you never enter a conversation about something you know little or nothing about. Risk being an amateur. This is, of course, is not to suggest that conservative Christianity doesn’t care about these issues. They certainly do. But a liberal has a certain take on them, and it is important that the church hear those issues from their angle.

It’s hard to share the gospel if you never enter a conversation about something you know little or nothing about.

2. Acknowledge injustices wherever they reside—injustice, oppression, and abuse are the cardinal sins to the liberal mind. Wherever and whenever the church has done them, they must be judged, even if they have taken place in our own communities. It goes a long way to be wildly open about the sins of your communities; confess them, discuss them, and repent of them. Humility is the most affective apologetic strategy to educated, progressive people. It speaks of openness, transparency, and open-mindedness, the hallmarks of progressive virtue.

3. Share your story—a liberal will always hear your story even if they think it’s silly. It is your story. And for a community that believes one’s story has the right to define someone’s identity, they will extend the same grace to a Christian. The truth is I did not come to Christianity because of a fine-sounding argument or a story someone made up. I had a dramatic conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ in my car as I drove down the road. That is my story. And my story is my story. No one can really take away what I have experienced to be deeply true. And that story is my slice of the gospel for the world.

No one can really take away what I have experienced to be deeply true. And that story is my slice of the gospel for the world.

4. Ardently preach the exclusivity of Jesus —many, even conservatives, might question this claim. But ultimately I can’t find any model of orthodox Christianity either historically or experientially, which denies the exclusivity of the claims of Jesus regarding his divinity or His Kingdom. Jesus is God and Jesus is the only Son of God. The trick is, here, being humble and acknowledging that you, as a Christian, are still doing all you can to find Jesus. If Jesus is the only way, it means I’m not the only way. Christians aren’t the only way. The church isn’t the only way. Jesus Christ, the one who hung on a cross is the only way. Probably the greatest heresy of gospel-centered Christianity to the liberal mind is the claim of Jesus’ exclusivity—that there is no other way to God. It makes your claim of the exclusivity of Jesus come alive to a liberal when you are humble enough to admit that even you struggle, at times, to find Jesus. While Jesus is the only way, I am always still trying to find him.

And as I dream of the church of the 21st century, I can imagine a church brimming with both conservatives and liberals who weekly gather, in disruptive disagreement, to worship wholeheartedly the God of Creation who stands as Lord. Lord above all of our politics and differences.

Ultimately, I would suggest that we must entirely crucify the idea that some of us are “conservative Christians” and others of us are “liberal Christians.” The Bible does not offer us compatible language or categories to describe ourselves as such. We are Christians—common Christians who weekly come together and break the body and drink the blood of the savior of the world. Nothing else outside of that defines us. And as I dream of the church of the 21st century, I can imagine a church brimming with both conservatives and liberals who weekly gather, in disruptive disagreement, to worship wholeheartedly the God of Creation who stands as Lord. Lord above all of our politics and differences. I’m reminded of Jesus on the cross. When Jesus died, there was a sign above his head that read: “The King of the Jews.” It was written in three languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. The gospel is still like that. The gospel is only the gospel if it is a polyglot gospel. And if isn’t for the whole world, then it isn’t for anybody.

And I’d think the whole world includes those pesky liberals.