Is “Progressive” the Right Term?

Is “Progressive” the Right Term? June 17, 2011

Earlier this week, while teaching a Doctor of Ministry course at Fuller Theological Seminary with Lauren Winner, my class joined with a class taught by Dallas Willard and Keith Matthews for an evening discussion.  One of their students asked me, “What’s the difference between ’emergent’ and ‘missional’?”  He continued, “When I’m asked by my congregation, I tell them that missional is primarily a theological corrective to the church, and emergent is primarily an ecclesiological corrective.  Is that right?”

I was slightly taken aback by his own description because, to be honest, I’ve heard just the opposite.  Evangelicals haven’t turned on proponents of emergent church like Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and me because of our ecclesiological innovations.*  It’s not the couches and the non-hierarchical forms of church to which they object.  It’s our theology.

I told him this, and I went on to opine that the terms have become so theologically fraught that they are damn near meaningless.  Five years ago, evangelicals were gaga over emergent.  Then, as our theological explorations continued, evangelicals quickly turned on us.

I used the example of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA.  Biblical at first embraced emergent thinking and emergent leaders, using both Tim Keel and Brian McLaren as special consultants.  Then a small group of alumni went on the attack, and David Dunbar and Biblical Seminary retreated.  Now they are “missional,” mentions of Brian McLaren have been scrubbed from the site, and John Franke is leaving the faculty.

My question: Is “missional” a safer term than “emergent”?  Should it be?

Thinking about Patheos’s decision to rename the “mainline” portal the “progressive” portal reminded me of this conversation.  “Mainline” doesn’t work, I’ll admit.  Lauren Winner told our class this week that “mainline” derived from a train line in Philadephia in the 1920s.  The big, rich churches in the suburbs were associated with the rail line that took the white collar workers out of the city to their big homes and big churches.  Look at today’s “mainline” churches and you can see that term is increasingly anachronistic.

“Liberal” doesn’t work either; it’s become a dirty word.

There is simply no equivalent word that countervails “evangelical.”  (More on the meaning of “evangelical” in a future post.)

For now, I suppose, “progressive” works.  It’s less politically fraught than the alternatives, yet it still means something.  Just what it means, however, only time will tell.  The biggest challenge will be whether those of us fall under the progressive rubric define it, or whether we let conservatives demonize the term, just like they did with “liberal.”


*Please forgive the shorthand.  I know there are LOTS of people who affirm emergent ways of doing and being church.  I’m simply making a point that the three of us get lots of the criticism.

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