THE PROGRESSIVE CHURCH DILEMMA


Troubled Church

Progressive churches are in a dilemma, caught between fundamentalism on the one side and secularization on the other side.  While progressives have dismissed any interpretation of the Bible that is based upon fundamentalism, it can be very hard to decipher what that post-fundamentalist message actually is.

THE MESSAGE

Recently I attended a United Methodist Church (UMC) that had an energetic outreach ministry to drug addicts, homeless people, and a host of others who were in various ways the outcasts of society.  I went to worship because I had heard good things if this incredible ministry.  But the “worship” service had little sense of worship.  In her sermon she made only the most offhanded mention of the scriptures that had been read earlier.  The worship seemed more like a 12-Step meeting or perhaps a self-help lecture from a non-credit adult education program at a high school or community college.  There was no sense of Christian teachings or concepts.  But the biggest void was in the utter lack of transcendence.

Recently I was speaking with a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor, who said with obvious exaggeration to make his point, that in the UCC it was impossible to speak of Jesus anymore because half of the UCC Pastors are Unitarians and the other half are Buddhist.  The UCC has as its motto that “God is still speaking,”  meaning that there are yet fresh insights emerging from the scriptures on such topics as global climate change and lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) issues.

The UCC has been unabashedly progressive for many years.  The conservatives have long ago left that denomination leaving a Church where progressive ideas are the mainstay.

My own home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has a rather different problem.  While the bulk of that church is progressive, there remains a stubborn rear-guard of fundamentalists who would rather stay and fight then retreat to their own more conservative grouping.  Sometimes I wish that the fundamentalists would have been tossed out way back in the 1930’s when this conflict first heated up the church.  For the last 80+ years the PCUSA has been locked in a tedious and ruinous battle between conservative and progressive camps.  This battle has kept the church from moving forward and has usually generated more heat than light.

But there has been one positive effect of this ongoing battle. Progressives in the PCUSA are forced to turn to the scriptures and our faith traditions in battling the fundamentalists.  In the PCUSA it is not sufficient to pursue a modernist agenda, such as women’s rights, LGBT, global climate change, etc. without appealing to the scriptures and our faith positions.  Thus, global climate change must be addresses as a defense of God’s creation.  LGBT issues must be addressed as a call for justice, acceptance, mercy, and hospitality towards those who are different from us.

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • What does God require of us but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?
  • What God has called clean let no one call unclean.
  • Judge not that you be not judged.

PASSION AND COMMITMENT

For some reason it is hard to hold people with progressive ideas together.  What can the progressive churches do to hold congregations together in a progressive witness as opposed to spinning off into secularism?  The more conservative churches seem to benefit from an unquenchable fervor that seems rare in the progressive churches.  How can we progressives fix that?

One thing that keeps us from passionate participation is that the progressive agenda is quite broad.  Progressives are free thinkers, not group thinkers.  For example, one of my progressive colleagues that I deeply respect has come out strongly against the Keystone Pipeline.  While I would agree with her on 90% of what she believes in, there are still points of disagreement.  I understand her concerns that the pipeline may lead to more global warming.  Also, a large part of Alberta Canada will need to be strip mined to get at the tar sands.

But on the other hand I want to say that America needs to end its dependence on foreign oil. And, we need to stop buying oil from terrorists. If this Canadian oil is not burned in the US it is likely to be burned in China or some other place with environmental regulations that are much weaker than we have in place.

Our alternative energy sources are not yet in place.  Recently we have seen the virtual implosion of the ethanol industry due to droughts and high corn prices.  We have found that ethanol is a very inefficient way of producing energy, and it also depletes a portion of our food supply in a world filled with famine and drought.

I believe that reasonable people can disagree about the best course of action.  But how can we build a congregation or a denomination if we are about everyone doing his or her own thing in his or her own way?

What can we do as a church that will get people genuinely excited?  To some progressives, being the church means opening a food pantry in the community and sending a medical mission to Guatemala.  And surely both are important forms of Christian service.  But the Church must also be more than just another social service agency.

But food pantries and medical missions can also be a way of building relationships of dependency.  They can create a dichotomy of US vs. THEM.  Instead we need to do mission in a way that builds communities out of diversity.  That is a tough issue.  The takeaway from a medical mission to Guatemala should be in the building of transcultural bridges, and not just in giving vaccines to an indigent people.  In short, these efforts need to be transcendent, lifting us out of ourselves and creating new families and communities not bound by culture, nationality, language or economic circumstances.

POST CHRISTIAN ERA

“The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2008 determined that only 9% of Americans said religion was the most important think in their life, compared with 45% who said family was paramount in their life, and 17% who said that money and career was paramount”

(Wikipedia Article:  Religion in the United States)

It is not surprising that many today find religion to be irrelevant.  The fundamentalists want to drag us back to the 18th Century (pre-Darwin) and the Romans want to drag us back to the 15th Century (the time of absolute world domination by the Bishop of Rome).  Even fundamentalists need to eventually admit that dinosaurs were real, and that the Garden of Eden was just a story.  Many have yet to learn how to take the Bible seriously without having to take it literally.

Neither Billy Graham nor the Pope nor Rick Santorum will ever persuade people to stop having sex, no matter how hard they might try.  And, they will use contraception.  This applies to married and single, young and old, gay, straight and bisexual.  So we might as well get used to it.  No amount of moralizing will ever overwhelm a most basic human drive which is necessary for the continuance of the human species.

In my own small town of nearly 9,000 people, there are only two churches that could be labeled as progressive.  There is a UCC congregation with an average attendance of about 30.  The pastor there refuses to preach.  He will say that he used to be a Baptist fundamentalist, but that he got over it. But he seems unable to describe the subsequent chapters of his faith journey.

There is also an Episcopal congregation with less than 10 people in worship.  There is also a Southern Baptist Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and a conservative Lutheran Church (not ELCA).  There is an unbranded Pentecostal church that seems to be like an Assembly of God congregation.  There is another Pentecostal church and another fundamentalist Baptist church.  There is also a Mormon outlet, but I will not count this as a Christian church.

So, in a town of nearly 9,000 people there are perhaps 40 people worshiping in progressive Christian congregations.  I am guessing that in total of all the other churches combined represent perhaps 500 worshippers.

But then again, this is California.  And here if a person wants an intense spiritual experience, he or she is more likely to select a nude hot-tub encounter weekend over a Christian retreat.

THE FUTURE

If the progressive wing of the Christian Church is to survive it must find its message.  But more than that, a church is not just a message, it is an avenue to the divine.  Worship must connect the human soul to the divine or else it is nothing but a self-help class. If people only want advice they can sleep in on Sunday mornings and listen to Dr. Phil or read Ann Landers.

We cannot rely upon an affinity of interests to keep a church together.  Rather, the impetus must come from our connection to the divine.  If we ever lose that we can no longer be a church.

It must take its roots in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and our faith traditions.  That is where we must find our commonality.  Otherwise we simply break up arguing over the Keystone Pipeline or other worldly matters.  We must find our roots.  We must find our passion.  We must be as diligent about our prayer and Bible study as any fundamentalist.  We must be as passionate about sharing our message as any evangelical.  Our ministries of compassion must connect us viscerally to those whom we seek to serve.  And in all things we must find Jesus in our midst, and know that it is through him that all things are made possible.

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