Progressive Christianity Today: A Widening Current

"Living the Questions" (LTQ), a progressive alternative to the well-known evangelical "Alpha Series," grew out of the strong progressive Christian movement in Phoenix, Arizona. LTQ was adopted by thousands of churches and study groups around the U.S. as a DVD and web-based introduction to progressive Christianity. Writers, myself among them, began to produce explicitly progressive Christian books and blogs that solidified the identity of the movement and caught the imaginations of people both inside and outside the church.

At first, writers like Bishop John Spong blew big holes in the battleship of evangelical dogma, motivating people to seek an alternative. Now, the focus of many progressive Christian writers is on translating the new theology into new hymns, liturgies, and ways of personal devotion. Hal Taussig, in his 2006 book A New Spiritual Home, identified 1,000 thriving congregations of many denominations around the country that have gone public with a clearly progressive identity.

By 2004, the term "progressive Christian" was being used in the mass media to describe a distinct form of the faith. The presidential election in that year put a great deal of media focus on the role of evangelical Christianity in politics. The media found in progressive Christianity an alternative voice for the faith in the public square. The Democratic Party made a belated but strong effort to engage with politically progressive Christians during the campaign.

The voice that dominated during that era was that of Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community. I listened to Terry Gross interviewing him on NPR in early 2005, after the election. His book, God's Politics, which had just come out, stirred up politically liberal evangelicals, particularly young ones, in anger against the takeover of their faith by the religious right. He became an overnight rock star as a result. When Terry Gross introduced him on the radio as a "progressive Christian," I knew instantly that she had changed the meaning of the word. Wallis is not theologically progressive, and only partly progressive politically; he has a traditional view of scripture and doctrine, and has never embraced full equality and inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and society. But since that interview, more and more evangelicals, particularly young ones, became comfortable being known as "progressives" or have in other ways distanced themselves from the religious right.

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.

6/13/2011 4:00:00 AM