Progressive Christianity Today: A Widening Current
TCPC, now ProgressiveChristianity.org, was and still is a very small, mostly volunteer-led organization. But it has had an influence far in excess of its institutional horsepower. Some 400 churches around the U.S. adopted the Welcome Statement and affiliated with TCPC. But the idea that there was a distinct "progressive" Christianity spread far beyond that circle. Now there was language to describe the faith of people who previously had been embarrassed to identify themselves as Christian, out of concern that they would be seen as fundamentalists. Now there was a clearly defined alternative, and a way to talk about it in public.
Out of this emerging milieu, many new expressions of progressive Christianity began to thrive. Regional "Foundations for Contemporary Theology," or similar groups, formed around the U.S. to give forums outside of the church for lay people and clergy to learn about progressive approaches to religious and social justice topics. The Jesus Seminar's scholarly search for the historical Jesus and the historical roots of early Christianity took on an increasingly important role in the progressive Christian movement. It began to produce much more material that could be used to translate post-supernaturalist theology and sound historical/critical biblical scholarship into preaching and worship.
"Living the Questions" (LTQ), a progressive alternative to the well-known evangelical "Alpha Series," grew out of the strong progressive Christian movement in Phoenix, Arizona. LTQ was adopted by thousands of churches and study groups around the U.S. as a DVD and web-based introduction to progressive Christianity. Writers, myself among them, began to produce explicitly progressive Christian books and blogs that solidified the identity of the movement and caught the imaginations of people both inside and outside the church.
At first, writers like Bishop John Spong blew big holes in the battleship of evangelical dogma, motivating people to seek an alternative. Now, the focus of many progressive Christian writers is on translating the new theology into new hymns, liturgies, and ways of personal devotion. Hal Taussig, in his 2006 book A New Spiritual Home, identified 1,000 thriving congregations of many denominations around the country that have gone public with a clearly progressive identity.
By 2004, the term "progressive Christian" was being used in the mass media to describe a distinct form of the faith. The presidential election in that year put a great deal of media focus on the role of evangelical Christianity in politics. The media found in progressive Christianity an alternative voice for the faith in the public square. The Democratic Party made a belated but strong effort to engage with politically progressive Christians during the campaign.
The voice that dominated during that era was that of Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community. I listened to Terry Gross interviewing him on NPR in early 2005, after the election. His book, God's Politics, which had just come out, stirred up politically liberal evangelicals, particularly young ones, in anger against the takeover of their faith by the religious right. He became an overnight rock star as a result. When Terry Gross introduced him on the radio as a "progressive Christian," I knew instantly that she had changed the meaning of the word. Wallis is not theologically progressive, and only partly progressive politically; he has a traditional view of scripture and doctrine, and has never embraced full equality and inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and society. But since that interview, more and more evangelicals, particularly young ones, became comfortable being known as "progressives" or have in other ways distanced themselves from the religious right.
Jim Burklo is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of "Birdlike and Barnless: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians" (2008) and "Open Christianity: Home by Another Road" (2000). Jim regularly blogs at ProgressiveChristianity.org.