Loyal Radicals

During the fall of ’05 I helped to organize the Emerging Church/Theological Education Caucus (yah, I know…quite the name) at Princeton Theological Seminary. We were able to have my friend Jonny Baker come over and hang out with us. During one of his talks, he mentioned the phrase “loyal radical” that his friend Bob Hopkins had begun to use. Hopkins has recently posted an article entitled Loyal Radicals and is worth a quick read.

Hopkins says that loyal radicals are going to be the “key agents for change in traditional historic denominations.” He says that they will be creative, committed to the missional transformation of the church, frustrated by institutions’ built-in resistance to change. When I first heard the term used by Jonny, I resonated with the term and used it in my essay for An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. As one who is involved with both Emergent and a traditional mainline denomination (PCUSA), it seems like a fitting name. It certainly is not an easy calling – to be one who stands on the borders, on the edges. However, there are some people who remain committed to the PCUSA who give me hope, including Nanette Sawyer, who started Wicker Park Grace. Nanette is doing some very alternative ministry in a unique area of Chicago, and I know there are others doing similar things across the country.

I think that the term “loyal radical” could be applied to many within traditional denominations who find themselves beginning to struggle with the institutional nature of their respective denominations. But many people don’t want to just leave their traditions behind; many people that there is much to be grateful for with the history and experience of those who have gone before them. So they will choose to be “loyal” to their churches.

The question remains as to whether institutional churches will respect these loyal radicals’ loyalty and give them them room to grow and think and form a new type of ministry within the structures that exist. If not – we could see loyal radicals frustration get the best of them, and result in eventually not being able to maintain the loyalty forever…

Can Presbyterians (and other mainliners) can be open enough to loyal radicals? Will a senior pastor “fudge” a bit on the Book of Order? Will a Session be willing to try something that everyone “knows” is going to fail, in order to allow for the possibility that there might be a different way of doing church.

Hopkins ends his article with this line:

To be healthy this twin development requires that honouring of one another that is borne out of loyalty.

How will loyal radicals honor their backgrounds, tradition and history that comes with an institutional church? How will Sessions, CPMs and Denominational Executives honor the loyal radicals in their midst? These are important questions. I don’t have answers for them – but I’m hoping that our conversations next week at the Mainline Emergent/s event will help shed some light on them. I’m very excited for this event – apparently it’s the biggest Lifelong Learning Event Columbia Theological Seminary has had in 4 years. Over 310 people have registered for the event, so it should be a pretty good party. I’ll be posting some reflections of the event next week. But until then — what do you think? Those of you who are part of an institutional church? Those of you who would consider yourselves loyal radicals? Will this relationship work? Is it doomed to failure? How can this mutual honoring take place?


  1. says

    oh that takes a brave, tough skinned soul to be that loyal radical. we tried and lost hope and faith in denominations. i pray that there are those with more stamina than we had.

    i guess maybe those with more power in the denom than a youth pastor might get farther, but the power that squashes and silences was just too much for us.

  2. says

    I am a Baptist and have come to figure out that sometimes the free church is not so free. I think we need loyal radicals who can earn the trust of their natal fellowship of faith enough to actually be radical. Sometimes that means the support of starting a new congregation and other times struggling with people as seek to emerge, but getting to that point means living in relationship to people long enough to develop the trust necessary for risk. That development of trust has been difficult for me, because I had to get over my “I’m so pomo and you’re so not” hubris.

    I hope the conversation goes well in the ATL. Are you going to record the conversation? Maybe even post them or get them on the EV website.

    By the way I was at AAR and was thinking about 30 minutes into the presentation that I wish I had recorded it. I am glad you were on top of that.


  3. says

    I’ll be really interested to see how this shakes out with Episcopal participation. One interesting aspect is that I’d certainly count our suffragan bishop out here, Nedi Rivera, among the loyal radicals.

  4. says

    You could be a little clearer on several points. First, there’s the use of terms like ‘institutional churches.’ As I was reading, I kept thinking: what does that mean? If it is a church, then it’s an institution, or said differently, there’s no other option. Maybe that’s not how you think about things, so I’m simply trying to understand.

    Second, when I read “frustrated by institutions’ built-in resistance to change,” I thought: any tradition insofar as it is a tradition is at least in some ways conservative, which is to say ‘resistant to change’ or conserving what has come before. I assume you do not want to get rid of a notion of tradition or things that the Christian tradition has passed on to us, which would include everything from Scripture to prayer. That’s why you ask: How will loyal radicals honor their backgrounds, tradition and history…

    I raise these, not to be picky, but because I take it to be important to say that traditions and institutions are important, unavoidable, and necessary.

    Many have claimed or now acquiesce to the notions that morality or virtue is incoherent without some tradition, a reasoned discourse over time, and, further, that virtues need institutions to sustain the practices with inculcate them even though institutions themselves may tend to become parasitic on the practices that they make possible.

    So instead of institutional church, you could say…hmmm…here I’m not sure…maybe just say ‘church’. Unless you mean denomenationally affiliated or some such notion. Instead of ‘resistant to change,’ maybe ‘unnecessarily resistant to change.’

    Loyal radical is too bad as far as terms go ’cause it points to the fact that every tradition is always already engaged in the twin tasks of conservation and innovation. In that sense, of course being a loyal radical will work. It’s the whole story of human history.

    If we’re simply talking about denominations, then I might less optimistic, since my larger contention would be that Protestantism is dead or at least dying…and, yes, that would implicate Emergent for the most part.

  5. says

    When a movement or a conversation such as emergent addresses the fundamental foundations of an institution and seeks to change it, the institution seems to win that challenge in most cases. I have many friends of mine who I would consider “Loyal Radicals” trying to spread the seed of change from within, and they seem to me to be hitting their heads against a concrete wall. I am not saying that there are not pockets of change that are happening within the institutional church because there are, but it has only been when the institution has invited the change to happened. Let us not forget that Martin Luther was a “Loyal Radical” and look where it got him, he was almost killed and had to start his own denomination. Hear me say that I do not think that the people in the emergent conversation should start their own denomination and I am not saying we should do away with all tradition, but to quote Doug Pagitt we have to “re-imagine” how we do this thing we call church. When you re-imagine how something should function you have to start at its foundation and with the institutional church that just does not happen because you have to address things like the authority of the bible and the authority of male gender, what does salvation look like and these foundational issues are unmovable to these institutions of faith. That is my $2.50 for the day.

  6. says

    Bobbie – and that’s what is sad. I’m afraid that the church will just continue to turn away future loyal radicals.

    Tripp, yes, Emergent is going to be recording the conference and I know at least some of the audio will be going up, probably in the form of podcasts. Look for those!

  7. Truth Seeker says

    If I may interject with a comment, I would like to say a few things on this topic. Being on staff at a church I see both sides of this issue. Now, some may criticize by beliefs but hear me out on this, give it a chance.

    As a church body we are unified in our common beliefs and our adherence to not only truth, but to traditions. Even though within the details there is personal opinion, there is unity in the broad strokes. As a staff member I have to deal with the minor things all day, but the mojor points we don’t have to wrestle over. All that to say that the reason “loyal radicals” are, how do you say it, not listened to (better term?) is that many times they loudly, and honestly quite forcefully, try to force their views on others.

    I have seen time and time again, and I am not old at all, that someone with a strong opinion that may or may not be orthodox will speak very loud and very strongly against the church, its structures, practices, leaders, etc. When someone approaches that person to either figure out the problem or to put out fire that may have erupted over their actions, some “loyal radicals” will get defensive and say that the church is too rigid, too traditional, not outward focused.

    Being on a staff I see where church unity, tradition, and discipline are all very important. Those elements are not to subjagate people, as opposed to what many think, but rather to provide order and structure to chaos. Without traditions, discipline, and structure, ministries would fall to peices, money would disappear, toliets would not be cleaned, etc. But my experience with “loyal radicals” has been that they want to abolish the system that provides them the opportunity to worship, study the word with fellow believers, and to have clean restroom facilities. If they don’t like how things are done, which the majority agrees to, than go to another church. We will love you and we welcome you with open arms, but if you are there to stir up problems maybe this is not the place to be. Unity and stability are important for people. We may not agree on everything as believers but that tradition, stability, and structure makes the church feel like a home, no…a family! Many times the “loyal radicals” are like the uncle that everyone puts up with but doesn’t want at the family reunion.


  8. petros says

    for a longer excursus on this “loyal radical” idea, shane claiborne is (i believe) pointing toward this same concept. his book talks about “ordinary radicals”, re-imagining what it means to be followers of Jesus. he poses vital questions that we must ask the church and ourselves, in order to get back to the intended mission of the Body and the Church. and he concludes his book (the Irresistible Revolution) by challenging us not to sever from the established church, because “we can do more together than we can do alone.” wise words, because i think, when it comes down to it, we either abandon the church as it has come to be, or we become loyal/ordinary radicals within it – because the church is not a building or an institution, but the body of believers.

    being back in the church (something i was hoping i wouldn’t do again, but alas God tends to break OUR plans), i am hopeful that there can be a mutual melding of generations, to help the church become alive again. look at vintage faith church in santa cruz. it is one of the foremost emergent congregations today, and it resides in a PCUSA facility, with their declared mission being “two churches, one vision”. so i have hope – along with the reality of a long, effortful road toward that hope, because i believe that is what our mission is as followers of Christ here in this world.

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