Blurred Theological Lines


“While the older generation is content to sit around and critique culture, that culture is moving beyond them. At some point the traditional church and all of the expressions of that church will become essentially irrelevant.” — Ted Dekker

It’s four days until the memorial service for a vibrant 24-year-old claimed by a rare disease, and her grieving parents and I are in full panic mode. No way will our space accommodate the latest head count estimate. And we haven’t a clue where to turn.

Through the efforts of the young funeral director working with us, a site was just found for our 11th-hour, decidedly heathen crowd: an evangelical megachurch that is on paper (and in many a mind) the last congregation on Earth that should come to our rescue.

The parents and I meet with the young and youngish staff. No theological litmus test, no absolutes about the content of the service. Just heartfelt condolences and radical hospitality for the liberal Samaritans on their doorstep.

The non-traditional memorial comes off more or less according to plan, replete with Irish dancers, Eastern meditation and a swear-to-God helicopter flyover.

As the post-service reception winds down, for all we know our cordial hosts may be on the horn to an exorcist five minutes after we clear the parking lot. But if so, we’re none the wiser. All we know is some of Jesus’ best followers just met us where we are, and brought us into their circle of caring anyway. And along the way schooled us in what it looks like to walk the walk of the humble servant.

Although counterintuitive given the bright theological, social and political lines separating our two camps, this temporary joining of ranks is a micro-study of the emerging milieu of American evangelicalism; for as that tradition continues to age upward and hemorrhage members, there is evidence its older millennials and younger Gen Xers are far more theologically limber than their parents and grandparents.

This trend toward a softer American evangelicalism was documented in a thorough 2016 study done by the credible Public Religion Research Institute, wherein both age cohorts expressed a more universalist, less politicized understanding of the church’s role in the world.

Included in the results of the study was a growing acceptance among younger evangelicals for persons identifying as LGBTQ – along with legal abortion one of the two defining social issues of evangelism for the past 40 years.

Equally vexing for many evangelical elders are their younger members’ informal worship styles and embrace of “liberal” social justice efforts such as buying fair trade coffee, and attending marches protesting Trump’s deportation policies.

And as noted in a Nov. 8 article on evangelical decline appearing in The Christian Century, not only are denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention losing numbers (in the case of the SBC, one million over the last 10 years) the percentage of white members is trending downward faster than any other race/ethnic group.

In response, several leaders of conservative evangelical communions have mounted a fierce attack against what they see as the erosion of biblical authority and historic creeds. Late last summer, a cadre of hard-right evangelical traditionalists (including perennial conservative fire breathers James Robison, Tony Perkins and James Dobson) issued a doctrinal summary, the Nashville Statement, specifically denouncing same-sex marriage and multi-gender identification.

Pious and dictatorial as such proclamations often are, the Nashville Statement goes beyond the pale with its stern warning to those who so much as harbor a positive attitude toward gays: “We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

Put even more bluntly by one of the Statement’s other signers, gay folk and their “sympathizers” should not expect to enter eternal life.

We should expect more such efforts to maintain rightwing evangelicalism’s prominence over vanguard congregations like the one that embraced my parishioners and me: even a fear-based and angry theology can thwart change when flush with cash, lobbyists and friends in high places.

But there’s no mistaking the revolutionary love also at work within the evangelical fold. The bright line that once divided its practitioners from the rest of us is looking a bit blurrier these days. Act of kindness by act of kindness.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2017

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652