By: Fred Plumer
I recently taught a summer class for a group of enthusiastic seminarians. It was not a required course so it was self-selective. They were very excited about the progressive Christian movement and my heart ached a little as I thought of them in their soon to be new positions in churches and the struggle that they were going to go through in their attempt to move their congregations out of the 19th century. I tried to warn them and at one point said; “You know the progressive church is still an experiment.”
A couple of people got defensive assuring me that they knew of several progressive churches that had moved way beyond an “experiment.” But when I refer to the church as an experiment I am referring to its ability to sustain itself over a long period of time beyond personalities and even to be able to reproduce.
The question is: Can a church with a truly open and progressive theology, with a unique Christian spirituality, with an ethical consciousness for the Creation and its creatures, and with a social responsibility for the welfare of all citizens of the world, survive in our society today? The Christian church has survived for nearly 2000 years in part at least, because it provided easy answers, held eternal damnation over people’s heads and had, what the church explained, was an exclusive offer of life after death. The Christian church was built on dogma and doctrine created by the ambitious and powerful men who got to interpret those doctrines. Little has changed in our institutional churches. The church thrived for nearly 1600 years throughout the Western world as a socially dominant institution that was modeled after the hierarchy of the Roman Empire.
Up until the last few decades being part of the “right” religious institution allowed one to participate to some degree in its power. Most churches in America today still build on this model. And even though our current knowledge of the universe, our understanding of the historical roots of the church, and the growth of the anthropology of religions and mythology have changed scholars views and many of us, little has changed in the doctrines and dogmas that hold those institutions together.
Progressive churches have separated themselves from that model. They admit that they do not have the answers, only some of the important questions. They agree that there are many ways to be in relationship with that force or energy that we chose to call God. But they cannot accept the concept of a God that would punish “her” own children eternally because of a different belief. And they assume that whatever happens after death it probably has less to do with our beliefs in a church and more to do with the way we relate to all sentient beings and the Creation.
Today in churches people come and people go with little denominational loyalty, with even less theological sophistication and a variety of expectations, both objective and subjective about what church must be if they are going to stay. In the meantime the majority of young adults younger than twenty-five, have never been in a church. Although most of the current research indicates that there is a real and sincere hungry for spirituality,even “Christian” spirituality in Western World today, it appears that there is still a very small percentage of the general public who are willing to make a serious commitment in time or finances to fulfill that hunger. It should come as no surprise that fundamentalist churches have a much higher giving per capita then progressive or liberal churches. I suspect that the incentive is less from their love of Jesus, for spiritual fulfillment and more from their fear of God, however.
Maybe progressive churches will find new ways to get our message out to more people who are searching for a new expression of Christian Spirituality that fits their current understanding of reality. There are some indications that the Internet, websites like TCPC.org and scholars are helping that endeavor. Perhaps the progressive movement will continue to find language and terminology that can better communicate the unique nature of a religion that does not depend on a belief in a “sacrificial savior” but rather on a trust in a path taught by in an enlightened teacher, a belief in themselves and a faith in life. Perhaps we will discover a way to maintain spiritual communities that do depend on buildings, overhead, staff and administration.
Or maybe we will discover what part of the first century church discovered more than 1900 years ago, that without the myth of the fall of humankind and the resultant need for a human/God/Savior to fix things, and the fear of damnation, the church cannot survive over the long term.
But in the mean time, trust me, the progressive movement is an experiment, albeit an important and beautiful one, but an experiment just the same.