Progressive Christianity Today: A Widening Current
In my job at a university, I often have contact with young evangelical Christians who are done with homophobia, done with religious exclusivism, and done with sitting quietly while their pastors say things they can't believe. In the past, these students would just drop out of their churches. But I am noticing that they have achieved a critical mass in their churches and para-church organizations, so that they feel empowered to speak up and demand change.
It is no longer as clear in the public mind whether "progressive Christianity" is a theological position, a social/political perspective, or both. The term is weakening due to the ceaseless and highly effective efforts of the conservative political movement to manipulate the media to demonize its opponents as dangerous socialist radicals. What happened to the word "liberal" is now happening to the word "progressive." As a consequence, some people in the progressive Christian movement have distanced themselves from the word, even as they continue to hold the original TCPC perspective.
A current development in progressive Christianity is its accelerating convergence with "emergent" evangelicals who aim to maintain a fervent personal devotional faith while moving toward a more intimate form of community that is friendly to questions, open to creative expression, and focused on service. Within conservative Christianity, there is a current of dissent and dissatisfaction with the "mega-church" model, with over-emphasis on sexual morality issues, and with a lack of concern for social justice.
This is beginning to translate into dissent about biblical and theological issues, too. A recent cover of Time magazine featured a well-known young evangelical pastor who has gone public with his abandonment of belief in hell. The new book, American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, reveals the rapidly growing belief gap between evangelical pastors and their parishioners. Lay people, especially young ones, are abandoning belief in the exclusivity of Christianity as the only true religion, and are embracing the idea of same-sex marriage and full inclusion of LGBT people in the church. The followers are starting to lead, and the leaders are just beginning to follow.
I believe that very creative and positive things will emerge from the collaboration of progressives and emergents. We'll get livelier music in churches once known as liberal, we'll get preaching that doesn't require leaving your brain in the parking lot at churches once known as evangelical. In February of this year, a gathering of progressives and emergent evangelicals happened in Phoenix. "Big Tent Christianity" was a high-energy, fruitful event that did not settle all differences but found common ground.
I believe that the common ground is humility. St. Paul said that the Christ "emptied himself" to become a servant. How can a religion founded by an empty man get so full of itself that it would claim to be the only true religion? Jesus called us to a humility that makes such claims about our religion impossible. Abandoning hubris about our religion is integral to our faith; it is the essential for worship and devotion. Progressives join with all others who want to practice a gentler, kinder, humbler Christianity. To be a progressive is to be comfortable with fuzzy boundaries, and that is a good thing, because the edges of this movement are getting ever less distinct.
In its many manifestations, progressive Christianity is a widening current in the faith. More and more individual Christians are finding a voice, a language, to express their faith in terms that transcend the narrow doctrines and circumscribed social agendas of the religious right. They are no longer embarrassed to be Christians, because they have discovered they are not alone in leaving literalism, exclusivism, and chauvinism behind. They are not defined by walls that mark who is Christian and who is not; they are attracted to a glowing center in the heart of the Christ. They are finding friends everywhere who share their desire to be emptied, so they can be filled with Jesus' good news of justice, peace, and radical welcome.
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.