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Spirituality And Evangelism In Progressive Churches


dblad
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It's my hope to begin a discussion about the practice of Christian spirituality among progressive Christians; I'll share a little of my experience, and then pose some of the questions I've been pondering. I haven't searched the forum much to see whether these ideas have been covered before, so please forgive me if I'm resurrecting something that ought to stay entombed.

 

Like many progressive Christians, I have one foot in more primitive religion. My parents became active in the Charismatic movement of the 60s and 70s, so I am familiar with contemporary American conservative Protestantism and fundamentalism (I don't care to use the word "evangelical" to describe these folks, only because I want to believe that there are "evangelical" progressives as well) and understand their insider language fairly well. We did everything from Pentecostalism to Southern Baptistism.

 

I grew up, went to college and then to seminary, and over the years my education and experience led me to more progressive ideas about Christianity, and in many ways, that's what has kept me from jettisoning religion altogether. I found the religious ideas of my childhood to be incompatible with my sense of how the universe works. My dad considers me to be excessively liberal now, and so we don't talk much about religious ideas.

 

My experience with the liberal mainline churches was better in many ways than what I had known in my childhood, but it wasn't perfect either. I don't suppose it's the fault of "liberalism" per se, but within the churches I attended and/or served, it seemed that there wasn't much of a personal, emotional investment in either spirituality or evangelism. I encountered a lot of "the church is a business" nonsense; the idea that the church exists to earn a profit seems to me to be a non-sequitur. I also encountered other painful attitudes from folks who believed that the mission of the church was to serve its own members, or to keeps its own doors open, or even to raise money for the denomination's agenda.

 

I arrived at a place in which I really missed some things about my childhood religious experience. Where was the joy? Where was the sense of being loved by God? Where was the idea transformative spirituality? I can't go back to the theology of all immanence with no transcendence, but I also don't want to live with all transcendence and no immanence. I need to be able to hold those ideas in tension: yes, God is incomprehensible and unknowable, but also yes, I believe that God knows and loves me as an individual. Yes, God is far beyond anything we can express in human language, but also yes, I love to tell the story. I don't need the ubiquitous "miracle of the car keys and parking space," and I certainly don't need the personalized demonic underworld, but I do need to be able to say "God is, and God loves creation, and God's love has transformed my life."

 

Now I serve a congregation (very small, about a dozen folks) very much like myself: we've moved beyond tolerance towards inclusiveness and understanding, but we grew up with a joyful, vibrant understanding of God's nearness in addition to God's "other-ness." We are progressive, but we are also given to contemporary music, and prayers for the sick, and laying on of hands, and washing of feet, and deep personal commitment to a living and active Christ.

 

Are we unusual? Am I missing something? Are we hideously out of step with reality? I would love to hear how other people have approached this, and what things people did to work it out. It looks to me as though this approach gives us a niche in our community that no other congregation seems to be fulfilling. Progressive churches around here seem to be more liturgical and more cerebral; we worship like churches that regard themselves as "evangelical," but none of them seem to be theologically progressive. How can I explain this to seekers and inquirers in a succinct and meaningful way? And how do progressive churches feel about evangelism? How is it done? I know that we try to be evangelistic by encouraging random acts of compassion and kindness, and then being ready to give our story if someone asks and shows interest, but I also know that some churches think of evangelism as "marketing" and gaining members for the sake of the institutional budget.

 

Well, this has been a bit of a ramble, but if you've made this far, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

 

Thanks for thinking!

 

--Dennis

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Dennis,

 

I would be interested in how you define 'evangelical.' Some of the features described in the book Religion in America by Julia Corbett include "salvation only though faith in Jesus Christ," "the importance of missions and evangelism," and "the truth of inerrancy of Scripture." Some of these would seem to be at odds with Progressive Christianity, especially inerrancy of the Bible and exclusive salvation through Jesus.

 

George

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Welcome to the community Dennis,

 

No, I don't think you are out of step nor from what i can gather from your post that you are all that unusual from other progressive churches. Perhaps , you will have to tell us more of exactly how you see yourself different or as George says... define evangelical. Reading through some of the threads in this section may give you a better idea of where members stand which can be very diversified. Progressive Christianity is not stagnant where one can say it is this or that and each progressive church may be at a different point in their evolution. I would recommend the pinned thread http://tcpc.ipbhost.com/index.php?/topic/2457-just-what-is-progressive-christianity-to-you/ to give you a basic flair for what Progressive Christianity is for others here.

 

Joseph

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Thanks for thoughtful replies.

 

In the conversation about religion in the United States, "Evangelical" has come to mean what Corbett describes, as George referred to, but its original, biblical meaning has to do with a sharing of the good news about God's love for humanity. I admit that I don't care much for the way it's been co-opted by the conservative wing of the church, and I'm also not fond of how people in the more progressive areas of the church have ceded it to them in the way Corbett and others have. I'm fairly progressive, I think, and yet I find that I believe that my life has been changed by God's grace as I've experienced it. If I am able to share my own story of God's grace with someone else, it is an example of evangelism; churches that offer a message of God's grace, it seems to me, ought to be able to call themselves evangelical. I don't want to think I'm only being cranky about a word whose meaning has changed because of usage, but I suppose that's what it may boil down to. :rolleyes:

 

In any case, I'm more and more convinced that progressive Christians need to have a better understanding of evangelism and of personal spirituality; it's wonderful not to be bound by exclusive ideas about salvation, so the sharing of alternatives is a happy thing. Clearly we haven't found any particular value in the idea that 'salvation' is about what happens to us after we're dead; we think of salvation as something that gives meaning to our current lives, and we tend to be somewhat agnostic about afterlife in general. We are also freed from the need for a personalized and malevolent Beelzebub; when it comes to evil, human beings require no supernatural assistance. These ideas are quite liberating, so it seems to me that we do have good news (euangellion) to share. As for spirituality, many of the progressive Christians I know are fond of the medieval Christian mystics, and that's fine, but I think congregations could be more intentional about teaching spiritual disciplines, and could have a more contemporary approach to them that emphasizes the presence of the divine in our lives.

 

Of course, it's also possible that I'm full of beans, and that my experience is too limited to say anything at all about what progressive congregations do or don't do about evangelism and spirituality, and I think it'd be good for me to know that, too.

 

Blessings!

 

Dennis

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Dennis,

 

Thanks for the clarification. I don't think anything you have said would not be 'progressive.'

 

I would comment that perhaps an alternative word to 'evangelical' might be useful since as you say, it has been "co-opted." The meanings of words do change over time (example: gay), so misunderstanding of older definitions can become more prevalent as the newer meanings become more established. (FWIW, I think Corbett is being descriptive, not prescriptive.)

 

George

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I'm fairly progressive, I think, and yet I find that I believe that my life has been changed by God's grace as I've experienced it. If I am able to share my own story of God's grace with someone else, it is an example of evangelism; churches that offer a message of God's grace, it seems to me, ought to be able to call themselves evangelical. I don't want to think I'm only being cranky about a word whose meaning has changed because of usage, but I suppose that's what it may boil down to. :rolleyes:

(snip)

Dennis

 

I for one am in agreement. I think it is a most wonderful thing when we share our personal story with someone else. Real personal sharing is in my view more powerful than quoting scriptures. What one wishes to call him/herself for doing so is of little consequence or carries little weight if any to me. The sharing is enough as when done at the right place at the right time with a willing audience, it can be the catalyst for a transformation in the other. It's okay with me if you want to be cranky about a word. :wub::)

 

Joseph

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  • 2 weeks later...

It is interesting how we get caught up with words.

 

When our congregation re-planted itself 2 years ago we call our self a Progressive, Missional Faith Community. We spent considerable time studying what it meant and used the 8 points as the starting point for the progressive discussion. Toward the end of the discussion on of our older ladies rose to say that she agreed with the 8 points but had some issue with the word progressive stating "we have always followed those". Sometimes I think we like labels not because they say who we are but rather who we are not. In my case it is the latter.

 

To me the word "evangelical " means one who consciously spreads the word because it is a core tenet of ones faith. with the emphasis on CORE TENET. To me there is a difference between spreading the word because I have been commanded to (and it will get me to heaven), and spreading the word because I find it to have enriched my life and maybe it would enrich yours.

 

steve

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Steve, we do get caught up in words sometimes. I think it's also true that words are important; they aren't the only way we communicate with each other, but they are the principal way we communicate complex ideas, and if different people have different understandings of what a word means, it can cause great confusion. In this particular case, I confess to a certain amount of curmudgeonliness, simply because over the years I've seen the Christian right become the "owner" of so many words that have traditionally belonged to the whole church. I have always seen "evangelism" as, to use your words, "spreading the word because I find it to have enriched my life and maybe it would enrich yours."

 

Definitions are malleable and evolutionary, so I suppose if churches have the right idea about how to do it, it makes less difference what they call it. I get a pang, though, when I hear it referred to as "marketing," because I've always thought of that as having to do with sales, rather than with genuine sharing. I'm not as interested in convincing people as having alternatives available that have the evidence of positive experience associated with them. One of the implications of my question is whether progressive churches do this systematically. Is there a way to teach people to do this sharing in a way that is consistent with progressive approaches to Christianity? Has anybody come up with an effective evangelism strategy for progressive churches?

 

Thanks for chiming in; I'd love to hear more from you on this topic.

 

Dennis

Edited by dblad
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I had a Latin professor years ago who said the sole purpose of language and words is to communicate thoughts and concepts. It is the responsibility of the speaker(writer) to use words that will most perfectly communicate these thoughts. This conversation was used during a discussion of cuss words and that there may be times and audiences where cuss words are necessary. With respect to this conversation ... if the word "evangelical" does not communicate to the audience what the communicator is trying to communicate then we need to find another word. For me I never call myself a "Christian " anymore due to the fact I don't want to be thought of as being a conservative Christian. I now am a Follower of Jesus.

 

Has anybody come up with an effective evangelism strategy for progressive churches?

 

Lead by example. Our church "evangelizes" by being active and visible in caring for the least of us . Being active and visible in speaking out against religious bigotry to name a few. When people ask "why do you do the things you do? We tell them.

 

We recently watched a youtube debate between Jim Wallis and a Southern Baptist discussing whether faith and justice is at the core of the Christian commandment. It was an interesting debate not for what was said as that was predictable but rather if you read between the lines their ideas of the core purpose of the church was radically different. Jim Wallis's view was the church is what it does and centers around Jesus's directive to love your neighbor and whatever is done to the least is done to me. Where as the SB guy was felt the core tenet is to make converts.

 

steve

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I do think that is one of the primary differences between American Protestant Fundamentalism® and other forms of Christianity: is it about orthodoxy or is it about action? I tend to appreciate the words of Jesus on the topic:

 

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46

 

I know what you mean, too, about calling yourself "Christian," but I can't give up the idea that even the Christians whose theology gives me indigestion are still my brothers and sisters in the same tradition. I do realize that they are not reluctant at all to say that I'm not really Christian, but I think it's a battle worth fighting. Jesus had some things to say about that, too. I think it's important to remember that Jesus loved the Pharisees, too.

 

Dennis

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  • 2 months later...

This is a bit of a problem for me as well. I grew up attending a church that was "Non-Denominational", but was extremely conservative in nature. I know from long talks regarding theology that the pastor at this church believed that the only way to heaven was not only from believing exclusively in Jesus, but that Baptism was absolutely necessary for salvation. He was a dispensationalist (which I was also for some time), and the overall feeling of the church was very tight-knit, and exclusivist.

 

There are many negative things about conservative theology, but the one thing that I truly miss is that feeling of "togetherness". The feeling that we have something wonderful that we must share, that we must tell the world. I am an ordained minister in the ULC (it takes all of 20 minutes if you're interested) and I've been trying to figure out how to recreate this feeling in Progressive Christianity. That even though we are not the only ones who have access to the knowledge and experience of God, we can still be excited, overjoyed, in sharing what we have with everyone without excluding any faith.

 

I've been involved with CCM for two years now, and next month I'm going into the studio to begin recording a Christian album, from the view of a Progressive Christian. I feel like if we are ever going to grow into a majority point of view among those who share our religion, we need to reach out, without over-reaching. We have to become more than a bad rip-off of secular culture.

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