The Future of Progressive/Emergent Christianity: Three Steps Toward Shaping The Future

The Future of Progressive/Emergent Christianity: Three Steps Toward Shaping The Future February 4, 2014

As I’ve said before, I am extremely optimistic about the future of Christianity here in America. The old guard is fading into the sunset, and a new chapter is coming. However, I do believe in many ways we are at a crossroad and that this could be a 50/50 chance scenario. There’s a 50% chance that the future generation will pass on an antiquated, Americanized version of Christianity to the next. There’s also a 50% chance that emerging expressions of faith will continue to help the next generation rediscover the radical Jesus no one ever told them about.

I think the next ten years will perhaps be a decisive decade as this current reformation continues, and much will hinge upon how well we navigate these waters. Like the reformations of past, some things will depend upon whether or not we’re willing to make the most of the opportunity and see this transformation to the other side.

Here are three steps for us that I believe will be crucial for shaping the future of American Christianity:

 1. Learn to be right where you’re at (be a missionary to Christians).

This is perhaps the hardest one, especially for me. Yes, I know that I’m the guy who publicly broke up with Evangelicalism, but in hindsight I am realizing that the key to affecting change is to learn to be right where you’re at. As people who have often found themselves on the margins, it would be easy to walk away and to become separate from everyone else– which actually would be a death blow to change. Instead, as much as possible, we must learn to stay put where we’re at. I am beginning to view this as being a “missionary to Christians”. Good missionaries don’t separate themselves from culture but instead completely submerge themselves within it and affect change from the inside out. We must embrace this idea of coming alongside other Christians and gently help them to experience the same type of paradigm shift we have experienced. This takes relationship, work, and time. However, if we don’t learn to be right where we’re at and affect change from the inside out, we might forfeit this opportunity. We must not give up on so many Americanize Christians who are perhaps primed for a radical paradigm shift to embrace a more radical, counter-cultural, emerging expression of Christianity. Many of us found this new kind of Christianity because someone took the time to walk beside us– we need to make sure we don’t leave people behind and that we pay it forward by walking beside those who haven’t made such a discovery yet. We must have the long-term vision to realize that as much as possible, we need to stay put if we truly want to change things on a large scale.

2. Reject positional power while embracing personal influence to shape people.

Within most movements is a quest for “power” and “control” but such things are not part of the way of Jesus. When Jesus said “blessed are the meek” he was teaching that the ones who will be blessed are the ones who reject power and control in favor of something more subversive. We should embrace the influence of subversive roles instead of desiring any type of power or control, if for no other reason than it’s actually more effective. When I taught Airman Leadership School in the Air Force, I remember teaching my students that there are two types of influence: positional and personal. Positional influence has the ability to bring change because you have the positional “power” to direct change, but people largely follow such change because they have no other choice. Personal influence is much different and runs much deeper. This type of influence creates change because people trust and respect you relationally– it is a more difficult type of influence to achieve but it is far more effective. When we learn, as much as possible, to simply be where we’re at– while rejecting power in favor of personal relationships– we have the ability to deeply affect change in an upside down, subversive way. If we all embrace this idea, I think we’ll see a massive shift within American Christian culture before the next ten years are over.

3. Get involved with Youth Ministry

This is a tough one to write about, because I’ve never enjoyed youth ministry– it’s just not my bag. However, as cliche as it sounds, the reality of the future is always found in the youth. One of the reasons why I am so optimistic about the future, is now more so than in the previous generation, youth tend to be realizing that the old rigid ways of doing things and some of the old ways of understanding God, don’t work anymore. They understand that something is deeply broken within American Christian culture and are waking up to the fact that the Jesus in the New Testament isn’t the same person they’re learning about at Youth Group. Kids today tend to realize there is a disconnect between violent portraits of God in the OT and the nonviolent God we meet in the NT, and know that we must uncover a better way of reading, understanding, and interpreting the OT. They understand that men and women were created equal and that it is always wrong to discriminate, especially in church. They understand that the idea of “eternal conscious torment” doesn’t jive with a loving God.

The question becomes: if those of us who struggled through these questions don’t help them, who will? We must be engaged in Youth Ministry if we want to move things forward– and I hope some of you are called to it, because I’m certainly not. If you’re toying with the idea, let me recommend an upcoming conference by my friends over at the Jopa Group called “Progressive Youth Ministry”. I’d strongly recommend anyone interested or engaged in Youth Ministry to check it out and consider attending if you can.

As much as this conflicts with things I’ve said when I’ve been in difficult space, I think these three points are of crucial importance. If we want to affect change and help others to experience a vibrant new faith, we must learn to be right where we’re at. We must reject power but instead embrace the way of influence by personal relationship. And, we must be engaged in Youth Ministry.

If we value the new kind of Christianity we’ve discovered, and love other people who haven’t experienced this yet, we will commit ourselves to these three principles.

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  • Donna

    Thank you for your post–this is one I definitely need to think about and absorb. I’ve felt such a strong desire to just turn away from the church and “follow Jesus on my own,” whatever that means. I know that what you’re saying is the right, and more difficult, thing to do. I’m going to print this out and re-read it when I get discouraged. Thanks again for your insight–

  • For sure, the Christian life was never one that was meant to be lived in isolation. It can be tempting to go off on our own, but I don’t think it is what is in the best interest of ourselves or others.

  • Tlynn

    I can not speak for other religions, but there are plenty of people inside the Roman Catholic faith who would like to see change. The church doesn’t budge on several contested issues, especially regarding women role in church positions of authority to direct change, homosexuality, and contraception. The church response has been to become more conservative. There are times when a person needs to throw in the towel.

  • Al Cruise

    Your spot on here. I have been involved in street ministry for 40 years. You are so right about positional power being a negative. I found that when working with people who have no hope, personal influence comes through unconditional love. You don’t have to force it, and often it happens without you even being aware that you are an influence. I belong to a progressive Christian group, we tell our youth very little, we show them by action. It’s truly amazing to watch how they respond.

  • Just Sayin’

    Some of the new guard are, alas, neo-fundie Calvinists: the “young, restless, Reformed” brigade. It’s like: Here’s the new guard, so much like the old guard . . .

  • JenellYB

    This is causing me to think about what might be the future, if any in the long term, for Christianity, in some ways I hadn’t before. There really is such a divide between any organized ‘churched’ Christians in various denominations, the closed social/sub-cultural world they inhabit, and those of us that have separated from any place within that, there seems to me no convergent course. Will some within those organizational churched communities just ‘evolve’ toward new forms of religion and a changing religious culture, but still within their ranks pretty much closed and separated from those without, and continue, as Christianity has been for centuries, a sub-cultural community culture that is passed down through successive generations of their own descendants, while perhaps, or perhaps not, those ‘old guard’ maintain what they can of their old ideologies and ways, until maybe eventually they die out?

    And then what of those that have left, some even second and third generation of those that left, but who held onto faith, embraced Jesus, Christ, and what He represents, to whom principles of faith has also been passed down, but for whom the organized churched culture is an entirely foreign, even hostile and dangerous environment? I was in a churched family as a child, but left very young, and have never found a way to integrate back into the church religious community, It is as a foreign culture to me, I don’t even understand or speak their language. It has been more the culture, the social environment, than actual doctrines and religious beliefs, that has separated us, kept us out, keep us out. I say ‘we’, because I do know so many that in talking with and relating to them, feel in very much this same place. just quite simply, we are not going to, cannot, go back into that culture, and that is a mutual matter between us, and the organized ‘churched’.

    And then, of I suppose we’d call the ‘third’ class, those with no historical or early life experience of being churched, or religious indoctrinated at all, to begin with? I know I’m throwing a lot in this, but, it seems to me there are at least these very distinct 3 different categories of people, is there ever any possibility of brining them all under a single unified concept of Christianity, and in shared Christian community?

    I often think of two very distinct differences, it seems to me, between the concept of the church, the churched community, as presented in the New Testament, as contrasted with today, and overall Christianity for many centuries now. First, the ‘catholic’ nature of the NT church, in that there was all one church, and the only separation within the one church community was as necessary by geographic proximity. There were separate churched communities, at, for example, Jeruselem, Rome, Corinth, Thessalonia, etc, but only one unified community, congregation, at each. Today, we have separation of many different denominations and even churches of same denominations, within any community, generally segregated by such things as differences in race, socio-economic class, even common secular life interests. There is not ‘one unified church community.’
    The other is the really striking difference between the ‘evangelizing’ nature of the early church, we read someone preached, and a couple thousand new converts, completely new converts, for whom it was a new message, adults not raised in church, joined the church. How different that has come to be, and one could speculate in any number of directions why it is, new converts are very few and far between, the church has become dependent upon indoctrination of the children of each generation within the church for continued survival.

    Is the present movements toward progressive, emergent, whatever called, moving toward one unified church, one unified Christian community, or even further separation, as many that have left the church have begun to explore into, and integrate, principles from other religions?

  • JenellYB

    I think that has happened in pretty much all the traditional ‘conservative’ branches of the religion, as the changes related to modernity, from science discovery to expanding equality of people, has challenged the ‘old guard’, and the traditional beliefs and power structures. It has caused a reactionary move toward even stronger conservatism, fundamentalism, and something of a digging into the trenches to try to stand against the changes, that seem threatening.

  • JenellYB

    btw, to add, although unchurched, I really don’t feel I’m “isolationist”, going it on my own all alone… there are really many others in a similar faith, but unchurched place. And also, even from among the churched, there are many that hang there only on the fringes of ‘being churched’, that are pretty much just normal people when outside the church, and able to interact and communicate on a faith basis that doesn’t get tripped up by details of religious and ideological differences. we just don’t need church, to share faith and fellowship.

  • Chuck Queen

    Ben, good word. Being a progressive Christian minister in the Bible Belt, can sometimes get a little frustrating, but you are right. We need to articulate a progressive Christiam message right where we are. For any who may want to lead a class or a reading and discussion group on progressive Christianity in their church I have written a book with that in mind titled: Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Check it out at http://www.nurturingfaith.info or from my blog at http://www.afreshperspective-chuck.blogspot.com

  • There are not only violent portraits of God in the OT and there is not only a nonviolent God in the NT. Making a big difference between the two testaments is a big mistake I think, let’s not start with it. Plus: If you want to get rid of one of them, get rid of the NT, because the first Christians had only the OT and needed no more. It’s all in there. But if you overemphasise the NT and forget about the OT, you are likely to miss a big part about God and who He is.

  • Fallulah

    Which is a petty, jealous, genocidal maniac.

  • Yeah right, how can he free the Israelites from slavery? Stand by the poor? Care for the weak? Such a maniac!
    Maybe it would help to read a bit more than just the book of Joshua…

  • > ones who reject power and control in favor

    So goes the marketing talking points. Reality is quite different.

    “But the neo-Anabaptists increasingly offer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with the Democratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditional Mennonites. Although the neo-Anabaptists sort of subscribe to a tradition that rejects or, at most, passively abides state power, they now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive state.”
    ~Mennonite Takeover? | The American Spectator spectator.org/articles/38818/mennonite-takeover‎

    “…the new political fervor that some, tongue-in-cheek, are calling “Mennonite mania.”
    ~A new faith in politics | Chicago Tribune chicagotribune.com/2008-05-06/features/0805050494_1_student-union-politics-first-time-voters

    As if Jesus’ ministry was one where he sailed to Rome to lobby the Empire for more commons sense controls on those pesky Jews.