Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

More than welcome – wanted!

A fascinating part of my last 2 years is the amazing number of evangelical and charismatic pastors that I have been able to talk to who feel trapped by the whole ‘open & affirming’ conversation [or same-sex marriage issue for some].

I hear, on a fairly regular basis, that they wish they could be ‘open but not affirming’ or that the whole conversation would just go away and they could just get on with the business of preaching the gospel or making disciples without this cultural pressure to conform to something they are uncomfortable with or even see as wrong.

On the other hand, I have heard from so many gay and lesbian friends about the sheer frustration and agitation at churches saying that everyone is welcome (come as your are) but it really being code for ‘anyone can come and attend but to be fully accepted or empowered will require you to change and conform to be like us.’

The church that I am now pastoring is not just ‘open & affirming’ but it actually a reconciling congregation that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion at every level of church life, ministry, and ordination.  You can probably imagine how amazing it feels to be able to say with complete integrity that “everyone is welcome here” and know that it is totally true in this place !

This morning I wrote the following post in prep for the weekend:

You may have seen that Vermont Hills UMC’s tagline is ‘a spiritual oasis’.  It has been both fascinating and encouraging to find out how accurate of a description this tagline is.

I’ll be honest: we live in a cynical age and if you are not an accepting and welcoming church, people will grow skeptical of taglines and slogans. You have to be open and affirming of people’s journey and their uniqueness or it will not pass the ‘smell test‘.

It was with great joy that I discovered that VHUMC really is a safe and accepting place – that it lived up to the tagline of being ‘a spiritual oasis’.

Now, no one wants to define themselves by what they are not or what they are against – as tempting as it may be. So we don’t want to state this in the negative or only in contrast to others. We want to be as constructive and as hopeful as possible.

That is why it gives me great joy to be able to say that you are welcome here.

In fact, you are more than welcome – you are wanted!

Part of our transition toward being a conversational community is that we need people of:

  • different backgrounds
  • different journeys
  • different perspectives
  • different opinions
  • different races
  • different genders
  • different sexualities
  • different religious convictions
  • different income levels
  • different ages
  • different education levels and styles
  • different passions
  • different giftings
  • different phases of life

I am delighted to be able to say this about VHUMC and I look forward to exploring this topic together this coming Sunday.


IF you are a conversational pastor (as I am) THEN you actually want to hear from people of different genders, stages of life, races, religious backgrounds, and sexualities.  It is not something to be addressed or overcome … it IS the point and the joy of being in dialogue.

If people just repeat back to you what you already believe – that is called ‘an echo chamber’.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a conversational church is accepting that we are not all going to agree about everything … and that is not just ‘OK’ but is a good thing!

Tomorrow I will post part 2 of this idea and ask: ” what would our energy go to if this debate was settled?”


Help Progressive Bible Study

I have read and learned a lot about the Bible.
Now I want to read the Bible again.

This has been a long time coming.

For the past 10-15 years I have been growing increasingly unsatisfied with the either/or options that were being presented.

  • Creation or Evolution
  • Catholic or Protestant
  • Democrat or Republican
  • Gay or Straight
  • Married or Single
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Public or Private
  • Think or Do
  • Talk or Act
  • Faith or Reason

I have come to see that these binaries are not only unsatisfying and impotent but are in reality inaccurate and often deceptive.  If nothing else, they result in a round-and-round series of dead-end debates that lead nowhere and only serve to produce cul-de-sac brands of christianity that where folks in one camp don’t trust and don’t even know how to talk to folks from the ‘other’ camp.

When it comes to reading the Bible, the either/or options seemed to be:

  • one-dimensional black & white literalism
  • reductive dismissal and criticism

Both of those are unsatisfying and impotent.

So over the past 4 years I have been comparing notes with trusted friends and trading ideas with respected thinkers and practitioners. I have tried some new stuff out on Sundays in the pulpit and I have read lots of books about the Bible.

About a year and a half ago I have got to the point where I was tired of reading and talking about the Bible … and I want to actually read the Bible.

I know better than to do that alone … so I went on a journey and I found some fellow travelers. We come from all over the country but we have crossed paths in Portland.

We want to take a classic and give it a twist:

Starting Wednesday September 6th at 7pm we are going to meet in a church basement with Bibles open and read the scriptures together through a progressive lens.

So it begins …


This is one of the blogs & articles that we have been preparing over at

I have asked a few close friends to take a look at it and now I am wondering if you will take a minute to help me out before we go public with this thing!

If you get a chance to look at it or to share it with someone who might be interested in the topic, that would mean a lot to us. You can post comments here, on that site, or email us at

Thank you ahead of time!


Practicing Faith

I’m in an interesting phase of life and faith. My year of being a theology professor is over and I have many reflections that I am processing – both about evangelicalism and about the academy.

Now I am pastoring again, but this time in a wildly liberal post-christian context where I am attempting to do at least two things at the same time:

  1. reach out to non-believing and post-evangelical folks in a compelling way with an invitation to a mature, complex, nuanced approach to faith.
  2. cultivate a vibrant and vital faith in my current congregation.

Focusing on these two things has resulted in a re/turn to two elements that have been dominating my thoughts: the body and the bible.

Below is a post about bodies that I wrote to prepare for church this past Sunday. The person who leads our ‘spiritual practices’ ministry was at the table as my conversation partner.  Later today I will send one about the bible that I could use some help with.

Our bodies matter.  Bodies are key for what gets called spirituality in general and specifically bodies matter in christian worship.

Many people have not thought about it directly but the central story of the entire christian faith is the Christmas story – as story about god becoming embodied. The word (wisdom of god) became flesh and dwelt among us. 

Unfortunately for many in the 19th and 20th century, religion and faith became about what you believe and what you think. It became a mental or intellectual enterprise. For others, religion became about feelings and experience – it changed into a purely heart thing.

The good news is that both the brain and the heart are part of the body!  This is wonderful because when we talk about ‘practices of faith’ or ’embodied belief’ it does not discount the head and the heart ~ it includes and transcends them.

Faith is a whole body activity.

Our bodies matter. They matter to our experience of being human and they matter to our expression of faith.

Our bodies matter to God ~ and the divine is embodied in our practices of faith.

In fact, as Methodists our entire history is built around a series of these embodied practices called ‘methods’. It is literally where we got our name from! Now unfortunately, much of this has been lost over time. It is time to have a conversation about why bodies matter and why the practices of faith are not just a head or a heart issue but a full-bodied experience.


Is Church a Supplement or Complement?

Week 3 of being back in the pulpit and this past Sunday we introduced an element of conversation to our gatherings. There are several things I love about this addition:

  1. While I appreciate so many things about evangelical and liturgical worship, I worry that it has become a one-directional stage performance – a spectacle that encourages people to be spectators.
  2. When everything is pre-planned (and even scripted) it may lose its element of sincerity and deep engagement.

Now, admittedly, the above two concerns may not always be the case – but I am under the conviction that the situation is far worse and that I have actually understated the seriousness of the issue!

In a society of spectacle, the form of the church service has not changed but its power has. In an agrarian society of a previous century the form of liturgical worship would have provided a certain function. The 20th century brought most places in N. America through an transition of industrial and then into a technological society. In post-agrarian (and even post-industrial) communities, the liturgy (or the order of service)- even though it has not changed –  has changed the role that it functions in people’s life.

Here is how I think about this change:

When life in an agrarian era is relatively consistent and even predictable, the church service is an exciting highlight with big music, ideas, and relational connection.

Then something happened in the 20th century and the church started playing a different role in people’s lives. 

Life got busy and society got unpredictable. Some might even say chaotic. Life in the 21st century can be exhausting, confusing, overwhelming and even discouraging. The result is that people wanted their mainline churches to be stable, predictable, and comforting. In a word – safe.

What this has led to is an interesting dilemma for the 21st century:

“Is the church a supplement or a complement to people’s week and life?”

I have posed the question to lots of people who both go to church and those who no longer do so. The overwhelming answer seems to be that church is a supplement to people’s lives.

Life is hectic and unpredictable – so church is a nice break from that.

What I am hoping for is an engagement when we gather as the church that is not a vacation from the chaos of life but one that prepares us for it. I don’t want church to be a supplement to life, I want church to complement your life.

When it comes down to it, I am hoping that what we do when gather as the church is to practice faith together so that we are ready for the week ahead and the life of faith. We want to create space to engage new ideas and wrestle with challenging issues.

In a digital age, people want a place to ask hard questions, wrestle with new concepts, try out new things, and most of all to contribute something of value.

3 Questions about ‘Change’

Can you help me as I get ready for Sunday?

This will be my 3rd service at Vermont Hills UMC – but it is the first gathering that will be built around conversation. The first week was a holiday weekend so I just introduced myself casually. Last week was a big communion week. This week we are moving the communion table and replacing it with a coffee table.

Would be willing answer 3 questions for me as I prepare to facilitate that conversation:

  1. What is the biggest change that you have seen in society during your lifetime?
  2. What has changed the most for you in the past 20 years?
  3. What is one change that you would undo if you could?


My three answers would be something like:
1. The role of religion in public life.
2. Discovering Second Naïveté mid-preaching career.
3. TV in the living room and iPhones at the breakfast table.

I would love to hear your 3 answers.

Tomorrow Morning I Return To Pastoral Ministry


The year of being a visiting theology professor is 3 weeks from coming to a close.

It has been wonderful and I have learned so much. My students have impressed me at every turn … except for a growing concern about the local churches that they come from .

This have given me a desire to get back into local church ministry. The Lord has heard my prayer and She had attended to my cry. 

SO here we go …

Tomorrow morning I return to the ‘pulpit’ for the first time in a year.

AND I return to being a Sr. Pastor for the first time in 10 years.

I am so excited. 

1) I want to thank you for your prayers, notes, and support as I prepare to transition back into pastoral ministry. It has meant a lot (and it apparently worked)

3) I begin tomorrow with a shortened service  (due to the holiday weekend) and then we go big next Sunday July 9th with a full communion service.

I will be transitioning the church toward a 2.0 model (video link) and need conversation partners.  Check out our new website for details

Reimagining-VHUMCSo if I could ask a favor:

If you know any progressive or post-evangelical friends who are looking for a church in Portland, please send them along! This is going to be a fun adventure creating a different kind of church that integrates:

  • Liturgical Worship
  • Embodied Practices
  • Critical Conversations

Let the adventure begin.

Life Is About To Change

11 months ago I left my church, left LA, and left social media to come to Portland for a year-long appointment as the visiting professor of theology at the same seminary I had studied at 7 short years before.

It has been an eye-opening year. The seminary has changed a lot in 7 years. Education (higher ed in general and theological ed specifically) has changed a lot in 7 years. I have changed a lot in 7 years.

I had an epiphany of sorts this spring and I reached out to my denominational friends in the Portland area. I let them know that I was interested in getting back in to pastoral ministry and that I would be transferring my ordination to their Methodist denomination. The reception was so warm and so welcoming that I took it as confirmation. The Spirit of God is up to something. I can feel it. 

Fast forward 3 months and I am just weeks away from being appointed to a church in SW Portland. I am beyond excited. The church is small and in need of revitalization, but the thing that it has going for it is that the congregation cares about things that matter and they serve their community. That is an exciting point to build on.

The two issues that occupy my imagination right now (before I start) are:

  1. Transitioning the Sunday gathering to a more conversational engagement and transforming the sanctuary to a more versatile space. I have this vision to hybrid the two excellent models from the church in LA into one dynamic experience that incorporates liturgical elements, embodied practices, and critical conversations.
  2. Reaching out to new people with an invitation to a truly different kind of church environment. I have been ‘workshopping’ some ideas with the post-evangelical folks that I know to see what they think of the plan. Early feedback is good.

So I am inheriting this wonderful older congregation, a cool but outdated building, the wisdom from my experience in LA, and a mandate for change & growth from my denominational leadership. That is an electric combination.

Add that to a year of reflection and rest and I am just about busting at the seems to get started.

Thank you for your support this past year and for your prayers in the months to come. I get appointed June 20th and then officially begin in July. I can’t wait to partner with this congregation to reach out to our neighborhood and see what God might do with us.Bo sketch sm

Is Your View Of God Demanding?

This is my 3rd and final semester in my year of being a seminary professor. I have loved it and have learned so much about faith formation and the local church (more on that this fall).

It is rewarding to introduce students to concepts such as the Surplus of Meaning and the god revealed in Christ (GRIC). I get lots of feedback on my 5 min. video about the 5 Gods That People Believe In as I rank them from highest to lowest in ‘level of commitment’.

The schema goes from ‘highest’ to ‘lowest’:
5 – SuperNatural Agent
4 – Divine Being
3 – Ground of Being (GoB)
2 – the Go(o)d
1 – Event

A student reached out to me for clarification on the ‘level of commitment’ schema. Here is part of my response: 

A little background:  I was raised Billy Graham-style evangelical. I eventually got caught up in Charismatic renewal. I came through the Emergent conversation of the early 2000’s and landed in a Mainline-Progressive set up, not because I agree with it but because there is theological freedom-autonomy.
So one of the things that I have noticed in my theological wanderings/migration is that certain concepts of god are more demanding or invasive on the believer’s daily existence. It has nothing to do with being intellectually rigorous but on the level of how specific the claim on the daily affairs of your life it is.
Here is an example that I have in mind. If you believe in a Divine Being (level 4 in my schema) then you certainly want to make decisions and live in such a way as to please that divine being. If you hold to a SuperNatural Agent who intervenes in human affairs (level 5) then you really have to be careful about each decision, the state of your heart, and even your intentions and motives (right actions are not enough). Because if that god doesn’t like something you do, ‘he’ might interfere and do something about it.
Hold this in contrast to someone like John Caputo. Caputo says that ‘God doesn’t exist, God insists’ because the name of God is an event. I have placed this at Level 1. That is not to say that it is not rigorous – it is very rigorous and takes much effort to work out. Caputo spends hours a day on this concept and has made an entire career out of it.
What I mean is that one who believes in ‘the event of the name of god’ doesn’t have to worry about having an extra glass of wine or upgrading to an expensive cable package or even discerning which school to go to because god’s will is that you meet your future spouse (the one god picked out for you) there.
Let’s take someone who holds to the ‘Ground of Being’ idea from Tillich. If this idea has gripped you, it can encompass and inspire your entire day and life. It can add sacredness to existence that is mystical and fantastic. It can consumer your thought life and change everything from your library or your friendships to your church loyalties. So it is both rigorous and impactful.
What I am mean by ‘level of commitment’ is that it doesn’t necessarily make demands of you or your neighbor the same way. Wine consumption, cable packages, and school selections aside – your neighbor can hold a different view and you can absorb that into your view. Diversity is accounted for within GoB (Level 3) and unlike the SuperNatural Agent view – you don’t need it to be this way which affords you to be a little looser.
It is similar to views about the Bible: if you believe that the Bible is ‘God’s Word’ (even though it says that Jesus is the Word of God) and that it is how God speaks to us – then you will read it every day to see what God speaks to you. Then, when people get a little scholarship about the Bible – unfortunately this new awareness doesn’t lead them to read the Bible differently, it leads to them reading the Bible less and getting less out of it.
This new view just doesn’t require the same level of commitment.
Is there a way that I can say ‘level of commitment’ more clearly?  I would love some feedback. 

Mapping the Theological Landscape

There are some helpful ‘spectrums’ about theology. I use Grenz & Olson’s formulation of:

  • Folk
  • Lay
  • Ministerial
  • Professional
  • Academic

as a starting point to initiate those who are entering the conversation. This summer I am teaching an Essentials of Christian Theology class online. It is the same class that I just finished teaching in Portland this past semester.

There are some crucial elements that help frame the reading for the class [link to our text – also in kindle] that I will be making a series of videos for.

I am suspicious of ‘spectrums’ generally and find ‘maps’ to be more accurate and more helpful. Here is my 23 minute attempt to map the theological landscape (as a protestant) for the 21st century.

We begin with Creedal, Confessional, Constructive, and Critical approaches.

Let me know if you have thoughts or questions 

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