Picking a Label to Replace “Progressive”

Picking a Label to Replace “Progressive” August 4, 2011

So, yesterday’s post has generated lots of great suggestions for a label to replace “Progressive” Christian.  Below is a survey in which you can vote for your favorite.  But before we get there:

  • Yes, we need a label.  Words shape us; words do things; words have power.  It’s no mistake that conservatives have captured the term “evangelical.”  They did that because they know that words matter.
  • Calling yourself a “Christian” or a “follower of Christ” is fine, but when your local paper quotes you in an article about the next presidential election, they’re going to put a qualifier on that, whether you like it or not.  Trust me, the organizers of the Wild Goose Festival didn’t want it to be considered primarily a gathering of “emergent Christians,” but that’s what it said in every news report.
  • We can’t be “post-evangelical” or “post-conservative,” because then we’re just defining ourselves over against others.
  • Of the suggestions that came in, I have chosen five for a vote.  I eliminated the non-theological terms (except for one), and I eliminated the theological-but-obscure (soterial, basieleia, hodosian).
  • I already have my favorite, but let’s see what you think.

Please vote below, and feel free to justify you vote in the comments (and rally others to your cause!):

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  • I’m going to have to go with Lilly Lewin on this…

    My wife and I consider ourselves “free-range” Christians. 🙂



  • Alan K

    “Open” is a word with problems as Chesterton made clear. It does have a theological ring to it (I immediately thought of Revelation 3:20) but again a lot of baggage. The rest are good but still don’t hold a candle to the word “evangelical.” Why not fight for the word?

  • tom c.

    I voted for “prophetic”, but even there I have misgivings. I would want its meaning to clearly indicate that we stand in need of hearing prophetic messages as much as (or more than) we may wish to convey those messages to others. Labels, and their meanings, do have a way of taking on a life of their own…

    As a college-level instructor, I have found that many of my first-time religion students don’t know the word “evangelical”, or if they do, they only know that it refers to “those people” (i.e. conservative Christians). If the label is a “flag to rally under”, as Tony put it in the comments on his previous post, then isn’t that already a political designation? I doubt if the political and the theological can be separated ultimately.

    Still, I like the conversation over labels. Is there a coherent community here? If so, we may be able to find an appropriate label; if not, then not. It could be that a lot of us here are disgruntled non-evangelical (in the dominant conservative sense of the word) Christians. I know I am. But that may not be enough to have in common to make the people following this conversation a coherent, lasting community. Even so, I would find it worthwhile to struggle over these words.

  • Bluetexan

    I like prophetic the most. I think we all have an idea of what it means, but I believe the term can be easily misunderstood. Sort of has some Pentecostal conotations that a lot of us would maybe not be comfortable with (at least I wouldn’t).

    The problem with all the choices is that it takes explaining for anyone to understand it. That is why “progressive” is probably just better. Emergent is also becoming commonly used and understood, so I also think that would also be a better option.

  • Ideally, labels should serve to clarify and offer more precision. None of these really do. Every “Evangelical” Christian would say that we are to be all of these things (Kerygmatic, Incarnational, Trinitarian, etc.).

    “Progressive” is a good label because it brings out the socio-political nuance of liberal protestants who bear it (i.e. heterodox views of sexuality, left-leaning emphases in social politics, anti-corporate sympathies, etc.).

    Unless robustly defined, usually via some type of manifesto or doctrinal statement, self-chosen labels rarely stick.

  • Tyler

    The only qualifier that normal people would understand would be ‘open.’ ‘Prophetic’ just brings up negative associations like Nostradamus and Left Behind.

  • Tony, you said “We can’t be “post-evangelical” or “post-conservative,” because then we’re just defining ourselves over against others.”

    The problem with saying this and then choosing any of those labels is that you’re still essentially defining yourselves over against others. And most of them (with the possible exception of “Open Christian”) wouldn’t necessarily be untrue of other groups. For instance, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Evangelicals aren’t Trinitarian. But calling yourself Trinitarian as a qualifier suggests that others aren’t. And we all know that this is an exercise in defining yourself over against conservatives/evangelicals in the first place. The same is true, at least part of the time, for Kerygmatic, Prophetic, and Incarnational (I mean, are you really going to swipe that one from Young Life?).

    As long as you’re adding a qualifier to the word “Christian,” you’re defining yourself over against others, and potentially doing violence to the body of Christ.

    I’m fine with being called an evangelical, if people want to say that. Or a progressive. But it’s mostly all nonsense to me now. I’m just trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, and sometimes that puts me in line with some of the really conservative people who I grew up with. Other times, I fit in perfectly with the progressive Presbyterian church where I work. But none of the labels really matter. The first part, trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus–that’s what matters.

    Not exactly along the same lines, but I think still helpful for this discussion, Jamie Smith recently wrote on the state of contemporary theology here: http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2011/07/on-state-of-contemporary-theology.html

  • greg

    I like to call myself human. My faith/mystery eludes definition by definition.

    Progressive Xtian is the best solution.

  • One of those Zen guys said, more or less, “If we’re doing it right, we are just Buddhists. If we are doing it wrong, who cares what we are?”

    In giving up on “Evangelical”, which has a proud history going back well before 1910, you are letting yourself be defined out of the picture by others and abandoning history.

    No publicity outlet in the world can be counted on to spell “Kerygmatic” correctly, and nobody but you will understand what you intend. (I’ve been hanging out around here trying to figure that out myself, so far I couldn’t really say… )

  • CJ

    Trinitarian is already used to refer to the core body of Christians that hold to the Nicene and Apostolic creeds.

    Prophetic is tied too strongly to certain popular eschatological beliefs.

    I’m all but a seminary student and I had to look up Kerygma. Lay people absolutely won’t get it.

    I could see incarnational working but again it has the problem of what exactly are you getting at.

    Open is clear, concise, easy to understand and accurately descriptive.We’re open because we welcome everyone. We’re open because we listen to opposing views. We’re open to new & old learning on the Bible. We’re open to documents other than the Bible (I’m thinking didache here not nag hamadi). And we’re open to using personal experiences and reason in how we understand God. And it’s descriptive in the same way that Methodological was descriptive of the early Wesley movement. Actually, It reminds me a lot of the motto of the United Methodist Church, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” (Bet you can’t guess my denomination.)

  • CJ

    Does anyone else find it amusing that there’s an ad for Liberty University on this page.

  • Ok, I admit it. I cheated. I voted twice. (In my defense, I do live in the Chicago area.)

    Why? Because, as Tony writes, language matters. Having read yesterday’s post, I was all set to vote for Open. Then I reread the question. Best description of the type of Christianity I practice? I think (hope!) that’s Incarnational: Striving to follow God in the way of Jesus. Loving God by loving neighbors. Seeking to set the oppressed free and…well, you don’t need me to delineate all the ways we can embody the love of God.

    As was said yesterday by others, Incarnational seems to me a good counter-point to the “say the magic word prayer and evacuate the earth” type of Christianity.
    But, when I’m not being polemical, I know that others more conservative and evangelical than I are also seeking to embody their faith.
    And I know that “full gospel” churches always bug me – What? The rest of us only have part of the gospel?!? So I want to try to avoid that here.

    Which brings me back to Open. If the question is “what’s the best word to describe us, especially for use with the general public?” I think that’s Open.
    Like the UMC marketing campaign: Open hearts, open minds, open doors.
    Open to new ways of understanding and following God. Open to other paths to God (perhaps not wholly dissimilar to open marriage?). Open source as we seek to close the clergy/laity divide. Open to being wrong. (Ok, that’s probably a pipe dream. But we want to be open to being wrong, right?) Open to dialogue where we truly listen to others…so many possibilities.

    I really like Open.

    • Justin F

      I agree with Dave’s point, and I am torn on how to vote. At the same time we define ourselves, what does the label say about those on the outside? I am a True Christian, you are a False Christian. (Or I am a Christian, you are not. Hence you are going to hell) I like the idea of a label as a rallying flag, and also the pragmatic idea of if we don’t label someone else will. But at the same time I would hope that the label doesn’t stand as a challenge for further division. I think we all agree that the ideal is unity despite our disagreements. (And if you don’t agree with that, well screw you 😉

  • Merideth

    Great discussion. But I wish you had left in “Basieleia” or opted for the English “Kingdom” Christian. While yours are all viable possibilities, I think they miss the essence of what we’re ultimately striving for: the Kingdom of God.

  • Is openness really so central to who we are and what we feel it means to follow Jesus that it becomes the primary word we use to identify ourselves. It feels more like a by-product. Following Jesus makes us more open, rather than being open making us better followers of Jesus. I appreciate what the term suggests, but it feels like a differentiation from ‘fundamentalist’, not ‘evangelical’.

    But then I have my own horse in this race. 🙂

    • I resonate with your description from yesterday, Dan: “we are Christians who, through actively seeking to get in on creating the kingdom of God on earth, proclaim the kingdom of God.” That’s who I am (or at least who am trying to be).
      I just don’t know that Kerygma is going to mean that for most people.
      And I want to back a winner! ;p

      Also, yes, following Jesus makes us more open. But I think being open makes us better followers of Jesus too. Couldn’t the same be said of all the qualifiers offered? e.g. Following Jesus makes us more kerygmatic and being kerygmatic makes us better follower of Jesus.

      Finally, just how much difference is there, really, between fundamentalist and evangelical? At least among the non-Christians I know, the terms are used interchangeably.

      • I agree. Most people use fundamentalist and evangelical interchangeably. One is more of a mindset and the other a process by we interact with the world around us based upon that mindset. I think that open and kerygmatic have much the same relationship to each other. One is the attitude and the other is the approach that flows out of the attitude.

        I do think the term ‘open kerygmatic’ is a great counterpoint to the term ‘fundamentalist evangelical’.

  • Daniel

    Trintarian Christian is the only term listed that isn’t cacophonous (Kerygma), complicated (Open/Prophetic), or messy & possibly self-serving (Incarnational).

    Trinitarian is a pleasurable word to say. Another pleasurable word is evangelical. Prophetic has too many negative connotations for me but I do enjoy saying the word: pro – fet – ick.

  • Of the choices listed I like “open” the best (and what is a “trintarian” Christian?), but don’t really like it all the much. For one thing it can be confused with open theism, which not all emergent types agree with. Maybe something more along the lines of “inclusive” might work better? Or to build on the “open” them, how about “open table” Christian?

  • i like prophetic christian the best..but think it is severely limited. i like Koininia Christian i think…here is wikipedia’s definition

    Koinonia is the anglicisation of a Greek word (κοινωνία) that means communion by intimate participation. The word is used frequently in the New Testament of the Bible to describe the relationship within the Early Christian church as well as the act of breaking bread in the manner which Christ prescribed during the Passover meal [John 6:48-69, Matthew 26:26-28, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 1 Corinthians 11:24]. As a result the word is used within the Christian Church to participate, as Paul says, in the Communion of – in this manner it identifies the idealised state of fellowship and community that should exist – Communion.

    • I like that too, Mike! Great suggestion.

  • matteo

    For myself, as a member of a UCC church, I prefer Christian. Frankly, I don’t care who associates me with whom, especially a non-believer. If that means that people think I am like Fred Phelps or Anders Breivik, or even a Domininist (yuk), well, all I’d have to reply is that these people are far off track as far as Christians go. I won’t argue whether they are Christian or not because I can’t get inside their heads and seem to have some basis in belief about God and Jesus. I say belief and not faith, which are different. I’d even welcome the chance to show them what a Christian is, or should be, according to my Savior. I worry sometimes that “progressives” care too much about what other people think. I worry that “liberal” Christians don’t make stands on issues – which is not what Christianity is supposed to be about – but based on solid, moral and biblical grounds, as vocally as “conservative” Christians do. They think they’re right, but no one seems to be able to use scripture to correct them. Why not? Again, are we too worried about what others will think of us? Are we too much concerned about things of this world and not allowing our hearts to be overflowed with the Holy Spirit, as conservatives appear to be? If we make our Way, our faith, about Jesus and make it all about Jesus, wouldn’t we really be calling some, or most, culturally conservative Christians out and hopefully show them that we are all misguided to some extent and need to refocus our attentions to Jesus first?

  • This an amazing conversation we’re having. I wanted to chime in for Open again. It created some nice parallelism for describing my values and my attempt to create a more progressive approach for churches. See:


    The 6 “Opens” are:
    Open Mind
    The Bible represents the story of God’s interaction with people through certain times in history, and this interaction continues today even in our own lives. With an Open Mind, we seek to understand God and truth itself through these interactions. …

    Open Arms
    The Bible teaches us of God’s hand which is open in an offer of friendship and relationship with us. It shows God’s immense patience with us in spite of our flaws, and acceptance of all those that call upon him. When Jesus came, he taught lessons against elitist religious systems that created barriers to acceptance. He taught that judging others is unjust…

    Open Eyes
    The Bible teaches of principles that guide the lives of believers during this life on this Earth and with the people around us. These principles show us how to resist evil, to make right choices, to fight injustice, to feed the hungry, to aid those in need, to liberate those in chains, and to spread God’s grace to all people….

    Open Spirit
    The Bible teaches us of God’s desire to relate to people. We believe that God’s ultimate desire and call for us is to respond to him by opening our spirit to accept him and by relating to him. We believe in an active and present God that longs to and indeed will, interact with us in our daily lives, …

    Open Choice
    We are created beings, designed by God. In his design, God endowed us with a creative mind that is capable of complex choices involving facts, feelings, and spiritual ideals, so that we can justly lead the course of our lives to bring about his goodness in our relationships and interaction with the world. …

    Open Future
    The Bible describes an unpredictable story, based on actions of an unpredictable God. If we lived in a past time, we could not have, through wise interpretation of scripture, ever predicted or imagined the world as it now exists. God has plans, but he does not choose to reveal them in a clear way through prophets or documents. …

    I think we can put other terms around it or our mission statements to indicate that Open means we really love Jesus, and positioning ourselves to LEAD the world in caring for those in need. This stance comes from a more open (less literal) interpretation of the gospel as meaning God’s kingdom exploding onto this Earth.

    Mostly I’m just excited that this concept is striking a chord with many of you. Maybe we can pick a “motto” rather than an name, and go with something like the Progressive Church, a really open bunch!


  • While we’re at it, maybe Tony could try to help us agree on a mission statement? What’s harder, a label/rallying flag, or a mission statement?

  • Jordan

    While I too like Open, I think it would not be able to last long before it took on the same connotations as progressive and liberal. This would be because of the quick association (however warranted or unwarranted, it doesn’t matter) with Open Theism…which has been attacked/disparaged, etc. Roger Olson has a number of posts about that in his archives. I think it would start a battle probably not worth having.

  • Holly Tieken

    How about something along the lines of “Communitarianism” the sense of community both locally and globally based on a shared interest in Christ.

  • Kristen

    I agree that “open” is pretty clearly going to be understood as “liberal in disguise” and if we’re trying to come up with something descriptive but without the baggage that has been attached to “liberal” or “progressive” that will last for maybe 30 seconds, if that.

    In the public forum, ‘prophetic’ will carry way more associations of ‘Left Behind’ than Jeremiah or Isaiah.

    Trinitarian or Incarnational or Kerygmatic aren’t distinguishing. I know plenty of traditional old-school evangelicals and I can promise you they are all Trinitarian. And I consider myself nerdier than your average bear but while “Kerygmatic” sounded somewhat familiar, I did need to Google it.

  • I tend to describe myself as a “Progressive Evangelical Christian,” but given the choices, I like “incarnational” “Open” and “prophetic” both seem problematic to me. The other ones work, but everybody thinks they are kyerigmatic and trinitarian.

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  • I guess I had to go with “open.” I like “free-range” too. However, I don’t know why “Emergence” has fallen out. Tickle talks about this as the Age of Emergence; why do we not identify as Emergence Christians? On the other hand, I hear Twiss rejecting not just “evangelical” but “Christian.” He goes with something like “follower of the Way,” or “follower of Jesus’ Way.”
    There is kind of a progression: liberal-progressive-emergence….

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