Vision, Promise, and Practice: A Response to Rodney Stark

by Bruce G. Epperly

While it’s easy to dismiss Rodney Stark’s interview entitled “Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?” as insulting, inaccurate, and unworthy of a scholar of his stature, I have always followed the principle that a stopped clock is accurate at least twice a day.  Although Stark gives a diagnosis without a prescription, his words inspire a thoughtful response on behalf of faithful pastors, seminary professors, and congregants whose theology is moderate to progressive.  While not always factual in his hyperbole, Stark makes some interesting comments.  I will leave it to others to respond to the factuality of Stark’s comments, while I will focus on a creative prescription for the ailments Stark identifies among moderate and progressive Christian seminaries, ministers, and congregations.

I believe that lively preaching and teaching involve the integration of vision, promise, and practice. I think that those of us who claim to be moderate or progressive need to reclaim the importance of theological reflection and preaching.  While post-modernism rightly tells us that there are no universal perspectives, applicable to all people in our pluralistic age, we can boldly formulate “good enough” theologies and witnesses in our preaching.  When I share what I believe to be the fundamentals of moderate/progressive theology, most seekers are surprised and resonate with a theology that proclaims the universality as well as intimacy of revelation; the gracefulness of God; the affirmation of God’s presence in diverse ways of life; the creative interplay of faith, science, and medicine; God’s love for the earth; our ethical mandate to seek justice and healing for the earth and all people; and the importance of Jesus as healer, teacher, spiritual guide, social transformer, and prophet, whose ministry reaches out to all creation.  This theology preaches and should be shouted from the mountains.  Our hallelujahs don’t need to be half-hearted, but can ring forth from every moderate to progressive congregation.  If there is a significant dissonance between pulpit and pew, theologically and ethically, part of this is due to a failure of theological education in the church.  Pastors who share in accessible ways what they learned in seminary about God, Christ, justice, and healing provoke creative conversations that seldom occur in more conservative congregations.

If I have a critique of my own moderate to progressive tradition, it is that we often expect less from God and ourselves than our more conservative brothers and sisters.  While their prayers for cures of life-threatening illnesses often appear to end in “failure,” they continue to expect great things of God.  If God, as progressive and moderate Christians believe, is subtly active in our world, not supernaturally, but within the processes of naturalistic cause and effect, then our prayers and faith can be tipping points between health and illness, justice and injustice.  There is a lot of room for lively adventures in prayer and social transformation between the unhelpful extremes of deism and supernaturalism.

Along with theological vision comes the importance of a promise.  While I challenge the theology of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life in my Holy Adventure, I appreciate the boldness of his claim that reading PDL will change your life and awaken you to your life purpose.  We are seldom that bold in our moderate and progressive pulpits.  In a cultural context where experience is considered an essential aspect of faith and persons claim to be spiritual rather than religious, we need to promise people that they can experience what we teach and preach about.  People need more than recipes for theological reflection, they need the bread of life – they need to experience theology first-hand.  They need to live the faith we affirm.  This was my goal in presenting a lived form of process and progressive/moderate theology in Holy Adventure. People can experience the world as filled with possibility, adventurous, open-ended, vocationally-inspired, interdependent, and justice-leaning.  People can experience God as source of hospitality, adventure, creativity, and love.

Finally, moderate and progressive Christians need to more fully embrace the practices of faith.  As Diana Butler Bass has so ably demonstrated, congregations that practice their faith are vital and welcoming to seekers.  We need to make practice a part of every teaching and preaching opportunity – we need to share the vision (this is the way the world looks if God is the loving source of possibility, hospitality, and justice), the promise (you can experience this God in your life today), and the practices (here’s how you can open to God’s presence and possibilities in your life – including practices such as prayer, healing, meditation, hospitality, justice-seeking).

Moderate and progressive Christianity is not dead, though we have pushed to the margins.  If Stark’s provocative and hyperbolic words are to have value at all, we must go beyond his somewhat inaccurate diagnoses to claim pathways of spiritual, congregational, theological, and social healing and vitality.  The future of progressive and moderate Christianity may be at the margins, but remember, the margins can also be the frontier!  Conservative Christianity and Islam will continue to grow in part because they promise a world in which pluralism and change are irrelevant and untrue in light of the truth we possess.  Living in a pluralistic world can – and has been – debilitating for many progressive and moderate Christians, but we can also see pluralism as a gift inspiring us to be bold and imaginative in theology and practice – an opportunity to share our vision of God, the world, grace and sin, salvation and healing; an invitation to experience holiness and prophetic challenge in daily life; and a challenge to claim and transform ancient spiritual practices for the twenty-first century.

Bruce Epperly is  professor of practical theology and director of continuing education at Lancaster Theological Seminary.  He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  a progressive/moderate spiritual response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.

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