From Apologetics to Apologizing: the liberal and the future of the church

I have migrated – both theologically and geographically – from where I was raised. My move from the east to the west coast was mirrored by a similar (and more than symbolic) move in theology.

I grew up with Josh McDowell being the most reasonable (pun intended) voice of faith. I even went to the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and focused on apologetics. I bought Ravi Zacharias books on tape (and later CDs) and used my best stuff when I spoke to college groups or at outreaches. I loved it and it went pretty well most of the time.

At one point the questions changed and then the answers didn’t seem to work as well. Around this same time I read Brian McLaren and Len Sweet and, like a billiard ball struck by the cue ball, I was radically redirected into a different trajectory. Actually, truth be told, I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t figure it out until I was cautioned about using N.T. Wright as my go-to scholar. One day it just hit me: if McLaren and Wright are the far edge before you are ‘out of bounds’ then I might be playing the wrong game… or least have been taught the wrong rules.

I went to a progressive Evangelical seminary* (by that I mean that it acknowledged post-modernity and interacted with biblical scholarship) and then moved again to a radically liberal Doctoral program and started working at a Mainline church.  I love the doctrinal freedom and the intellectual integrity, even as I do miss a couple of things as well.

Perhaps the greatest adjustment I have had to make is not just the absence of apologetics (which is noticeable) but the presence of apologizing for our Christian heritage/perspective. It gives me whiplash every time I realize that we have moved from apologetics to apologizing for Christianity. 

Now, I have strong anabaptist leaning and I am as suspicious of Christian-ism as anyone. But I think that we are in real danger here.

A very popular blog from a renowned scholar came out this week that asked if Progressive Christianity is the last best hope for the future of the church. I’m not convinced that it is, in fact I’m nervous about the future of this branch of the family tree. Do I think that the nature of the universe and science are with us? Absolutely. Do I worry about the organizational and motivational challenges that seem to work against us? Definitely.

Forgive me if you think that I am being harsh. I am simply trying to say that if we who are not conservative-fundamentalist go into the world feeling bad about what we represent and embarrassed about the tradition that we have inherited, it doesn’t provide much to build on.

As a contextual theologian I am a huge proponent of articulating our particular – constructed – embedded – conditioned located-ness. But if we are going to walk around with our tails between our legs people will mistake our epistemic humility for being spineless and impotent. 

I’m proud to be a thoughtful Christian. I think that we bring something great to the world. I have no interest in apologizing for speaking from a Christian perspective, but neither do I have any desire to concede the microphone or public spotlight to less-thoughtful [since no one is thought-less] Christian voices (ie. Pat Robertson) just because they are loud and proud.


p.s. I have been contending for the inherent theological value of the terms Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, and Emergent.
p.p.s McLaren has a great story about not being spineless  in Inter-religious dialogue during my interview with him.

*George Fox Evangelical Seminary 





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Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

I just wanted to thank you all for you feedback. It has helped me process this immensely. I greatly appreciate it. I also wanted to apologize for the delayed response - getting ready for Soularize and being gone a week I neglected my duties! -Bo

dan mcm
dan mcm

Good post. I can completely relate to what you're saying regarding not wanting to have "our tail between our legs". I feel like I've been doing that for years, as I've had some progressive views but been primarily involved with conservative churches. I do hope that eventually the "church" can evolve somewhat and get the conservative and liberal sides to share a little more common ground rather than be battling on so much. After all, there is really one truth, just a lot of perspectives on it. (Which is where my 'reconcilingviewpoints' blog title comes from.) By the way, if you're still near George Fox, we're neighbors (I'm about 10 miles away from Newberg.)


Good thoughts, Bo. I wandered out of the right-wing evangelicalism into which I was converted for a (brief) season into progressive/liberal theology and wandered to some strange third-space that's conservative the way that Richard Weaver was conservative but not the way that Jerry Falwell was. I note that only because, from where I sit, there's not much of a shortage of liberals or right-wingers (as you can tell, I like to reserve the word "conservative" for folks like me ;) ) with strong opinions to hurl at me. Now having said that, I'm mainly thinking about online venues, where I have most of my contact with right-wingers and liberals, so that skews my view, but I honestly don't see all that much of the "apology" stance that you're writing about. In my own experience (mainly in the Midwest and the South), folks don't apologize for liberal Christianity nearly as often as they get rid of the Christianity part altogether. Perhaps that's different out in LA, the home both of the Pentecostal revival and of Hollywood liberalism. (After all, my brother, who works at USC, had no idea who Rob Bell was this summer but knew far more than I about the apocalypse guy whose name I forget.)

Blake H.
Blake H.

As an observer of this phenomenon with Bo, I find myself in agreement. I think part of the problem is that in most of the conversations that center around this matter, people have a hard time learning to engage as equals. While there is an important need to acknowledge the imperfection of the Christian witness in history, the story can't end there. If we are looking to see people empowered, we need to find ways that allows more people to come to the table as equals. Some of this false humility reminds me of a time that I let my wife win at game I was better at (she can hold her own quite well now). If she wins and feels empowered but then learns it was because I didn't engage her sincerely, doesn't that make her feel even worse and possibly dissuade her from playing with me again? "Holding back" and cowering seem like an incredibly egotistical and demeaning thing to do to those who actually want to engage, and be treated, as equals. It also seems like an interesting way of maintaining the existing power dynamic, since those who were dominant are still controlling the conversation by preempting any genuine criticism by waving the white flag.


  1. […] have written before that I don’t want to apologize for being a Christian (I truly love it) but the time for apologetics is … into the night of history. It’s a new day and a new approach is needed for the plurality and […]