Fred’s Full Presentation from the Common Dreams 2 Conference – Are We Living the Progressive Faith, or Are We Just Dreaming?

As a group of progressive Christians, we have a lot of things we can be celebrate while we are all gathered here for the next three days. For many of us, this gathering is represents achievements that were just dreams decades ago. It might be helpful if I share with you just a few of those things that are happening now that we were simply dreaming about back then.

In 1994 when Jim Adams and a few friends started the The Center for Progressive Christianity, they could find no other organizations that were using the term progressive Christian in their name, in their mission statement or their self description.  Now in all fairness, those dates predate Google but there were no obvious exceptions.  But today, on our website alone, we link with 75 organizations that self describe themselves as progressive Christian organizations and new ones seem to pop up every few weeks. This is a dream come true.

Our first gathering in 1994 as progressive Christian had approximately 50 in attendance and most of those folks were from the host church and were there out of curiosity. Today people like Jack Spong, Marcus Borg, Greta Vosper, John Dominic Crossing manage to attract crowds by the hundreds where ever they go. Common Dream 2007 had over 1500 people attended at least one event.

Numerous well known biblical and theological scholars are now using the term “progressive Christian” as if it is a given. There is now a publication called the Progressive Christian Magazine that produces a monthly, printed journal. And the bloggers who call themselves “progressive Christians,” seem to be increasing at an exponential rate. We link with a nearly dozen of them and we have been very selective.  At least three graduate seminaries now refer to themselves as “progressive” and two even pay us to advertise as such. People calling themselves progressives Christians gather all over the world in small and large groups, study, pray, eat together and find comfort and community in knowing that they have a new common understanding of their faith.

Let me share some other numbers that demonstrate that we have much to celebrate. Five years ago The Center for Progressive Christianity had less than 2,500 people and churches on our mailing list and our website experienced approximately 2,000 unique visitors a month.  Today there are over 11,000 people who have signed up to receive our eBulletin, a monthly newsletter and we average over 30,000 unique visitors on our site every month… and these numbers seem to be going up every month.  There are some good reasons that the pundits are now referring to Progressive Christianity as a “movement.”

We just recently finished the children’s Sunday school curriculum that we have been working on for over three years. We already have over 300 churches that have indicated that they are planning to purchase the materials and we add churches every day.  We are excited and proud of the quality of this truly progressive curriculum that focuses on behavior rather than on beliefs.

And here is the really good news! In the last year, the conservative religious bloggers discovered us (and me) and we are now under serious attack.  Every day with their inflammatory remarks, they send new people to our website to learn about the horrible heretics and guess what? A few of those folks decide to ask some serious questions…a few of those listen and some even stay.

Yes, it might be easy, for those of us who have been working in this arena for decades to think that we have finally won…we have realized our dream. It is time to open the Champaign bottles and celebrate! But before we get too excited I have to admit that I am not certain if this movement is real or still just a dream? Maybe we will have a better sense about that when we leave here in a few days but I am not quite ready to uncork the bottles yet. I have some real concerns I think we need to address.

For one thing there is still confusion about what we all mean when we use the term, “progressive Christianity.” Fifteen years ago I was actually part of two organizations that referred to themselves as progressive. As I worked with one group and listened to some of the early organizing members talk, I kept hearing theological things that made me uncomfortable. At one point, I suggested that maybe we should develop some common understanding of our theological/Christological foundations about what we mean by progressive Christianity before we started telling people what they ought to do.

I was essentially told by the founders of the organization that they wanted create a large umbrella to enhance the chances of making a more significant social change. I no longer took an active role in the organization. These folks have gone on to do some noble things. They proudly have a large umbrella working for social justice in several areas…a commendable thing. But is it progressive Christianity?

Of course this matter gets even more confusing when Jim Wallis the founder of the Sojourner evangelical organization, now a confidant of the President of the United States, refers to himself as a “progressive Christian” in his speeches across the country, on TV and in his own publications. Don’t misunderstand me I believe, Jim has done some wonderful things, and frankly has helped a whole lot of evangelical and conservative Christians rediscover the compassionate side of Christianity…the side that seemed to have been lost in their obsession with two issues, homosexuality and abortion. In some ways Wallis has help more people “progress in their faith,” than I will in several lifetimes.  But can someone who still believes the Hebrew Scriptures represent holy laws from God that God expects us to follow and that salvation comes only through Christ…can that person still be considered a progressive Christian?

Well you can see that we have identity challenge, if we are indeed going to be a certified movement.

The second reason I am reluctant to celebrate is our apparent lack of success with most churches. The primary mission of TCPC has always been to focus on helping churches transition their respective congregations into what I like to refer to as a twenty first century church. Earlier I mentioned some pretty incredible growth figures for the TCPC website and emailing list, with over a 500% growth in both. However the number of churches that have actually affiliated with the center has barely increased in those same five years. We know that close to half of our individual affiliates are clergy or are connected to a church. That is over 5,000 people and maybe that many churches. But fewer than 250 hundred churches have officially identified their respective churches as progressive on our site or any other progressive site as far as we know.  We hear all kinds of reasons why they have not taken that step but the constant theme is that the leadership does not want to go through anything that might cause waves or conflict. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard pastors tell me that their church is just not ready to identify themselves as progressive.

On the other hand I could write a book about the people who contact my office who are members of a church and want their church to change but cannot get the leadership to change, especially the ministers. I have had too many conversations to count with a lay member or Christian education director asking for tips on had to make changes without the minister being involved. I suspect that is why we continue to experience growth with small groups within churches affiliating with our organization.

This would be fine if our churches were vital and thriving and transforming lives. But most of us know that this is not the case…in the States, in Canada or any other place that I am aware of other.

Statistics are boring but let me share just a few here so you will understand why I am suggesting that we don’t uncork the Champaign bottles yet. Today the average age of congregants in mainline churches in the US and Canada is estimated to be around 65 and the average age of clergy is estimated to be 61. Nearly 70% of mainline churches in the US and Canada have a hundred members or less and most those have gone to a part time clergy person. Since TCPC began 15 years ago, the United Church of Christ has lost 21% of its membership, Episcopalians 16%, Presbyterians 17%, United Methodist 11% to name just a few of the Old Line denominations.  I have recently been told that same denominations are closing approximately a dozen churches a week across the continent.

There are some very exciting churches that are indeed thriving and growing and transforming lives but they are not the kind of churches that you are used to seeing. I am not talking here about putting a new carburetor in the 1955 Chevrolet. Don’t get me wrong. I owned one of those cars and it was a very good car 55 years ago. But even with a new engine I would not drive one of those cars on the freeway with my grand kids in the car. We are not going to cut-it by adding or subtracting something to “the way we have always done things.” I am talking about significant change that includes building a viable theology and dynamic, pluralistic Christology and welcomes input from other spiritual traditions.  I am talking about new wineskins.

There are ample models and examples and even workshops to help churches make this transition but it seems that too many of our clergy are frozen or have their hands tied by denominational structures. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  And yet that is exactly what we are doing in the vast majority of our churches today.

Thirdly I am wondering if the young adults are just going to pass up Christianity of any form and move on to some hybrid, or fused form of spirituality because they will never have been introduced to a rational Christian theology or a compelling Christology…and is that a bad thing?

Today we have hard data that shows that there is an intense hunger in the western world for some kind of spiritual path and desire for spiritual community. A simple look at the sales of books on spirituality would confirm that. The fastest growing group in the US in terms of religion now identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. There are several new web organizations now catering to this growing group. James Herrick, in his book The Making of the New Spirituality, and Heelas and Woodhead, authors of The Spiritual Revolution,   have tracked and reported on this growing segment of predominately young adults in two countries.  The new age spiritual genre has also found its way onto the Internet, spawning what North Atlantic Books sales and marketing manager Allegra Harris calls a New Age “golden era” for book sales.

Andrew Cohen, who started the web organization “EnlightenmentNext” reports some astounding statistics on the growth of their sales with their on-line magazine, the workshops, the web visitors and donations. They now have close to a dozen people on their staff who are writing, teaching and doing workshops on spirituality and are referring to their organization as the magazine and website for spiritual “evolutionaries.” All of this was accomplished in about the same time TCPC was formed and is still trying to find the funds to hire one full time paid executive director.

I would like to share a more personal story. Last year while I was chasing all over the country trying to find money to finish our children’s curriculum, I was invited by a friend to meet with the board of a small non-profit foundation he chaired to discuss our project.  We set up a time to meet and I flew down to southern California. When I got there I was introduced to the young woman who was actually in charge of weeding out grant requests that do not meet the foundations criteria.  She let me know that my grant request had not gone through normal channels, but she would be at the meeting.

From the very beginning she hammered me with questions like how is this curriculum going to help the world, the homeless, and the women in the Congo. I knew I was on the defensive pretty quickly but was surprised by her emotions. At one point, she stunned me when she asked: “Why does it have to be Christian?”

Frankly it was not her question that startled me. It was the way she said it. It sounded ugly.  I have run into some of that hostility with young adults whose primary encounter with Christianity had been through the conservative, evangelical and mega-church type of Christianity. Most of the time they just want to ignore the issue. But for this young woman, Christian had nothing but negative connotations. I don’t think she is so unique with young adults in our respective societies.

I am afraid that a lot of the leadership in our churches is still hoping that the young people will come back to the church when they have children. Unfortunately the facts are that approximately 60% of young adults between the ages of 18-25 have not been in a church, a synagogue, or a temple in their lives-not for a wedding, a funeral or certainly a Sunday church service. They have no roots in the church and there is nothing that they have to “come back to.”  Unless we develop a compelling message, a meaningful and clear purpose and fresh dynamic ways of sharing both of these, a growing majority of our young adults will never cross the threshold of a mainline Christian church.

So the next question might be: “Is there any hope?” I think to answer that question we have to first ask is: “Hope for what?”  Are we talking about hope to restore our dying churches back to the golden years of the fifties? Or are we talking about reconstructing a meaningful and dynamic message from the Christian perspective and learning to share it in ways we have not yet imagined?

Sadly, many of us who have been working with churches promoting a new ways to tell the Christian story and new ways to communicate that story,  have come to a similar conclusion. It is just extremely hard to change church institutions and congregations. Greta Vosper asks in her book, “Can the church slough off the encrustations of a millennia of ecclesiastical doctrine and theology in order to address the world’s most urgent needs?” Note that she leaves that question open. Please do not misunderstand. I am very aware of some absolutely wonderful examples of churches transitioning with a new vision and new ways of expressing them. You may even be from one of them. But these churches are few and far between.

The fact is that the vast majority of people in the pews really do not want to change although they usually complain because there are no young people. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say, “What’s wrong with young people today?” There is nothing wrong  with them except you have nothing to offer them that makes sense or even interest them.

I do understand and feel badly for our loyal Pilgrims. Many of these same people have been supporting their churches for 50-60 years. They deserve something that feels like church to them. If the kind of painful changes were made that might attract young people, it would no longer bring the pioneers spiritual support. In simple language, it would no longer be “their church.” On the other hand, as we know, what we are doing is clearly not working and there are identifiable reasons for that.

It is human nature to be attracted to the familiar but I believe that part of the reason that people remain so entrenched with what they have is because they have never been offered a new, imaginative vision.

Changing existing churches is difficult and takes commitment and hard work by both leadership and clergy. It probably comes as no surprise but some of our best examples dynamic churches are either new start churches or churches that were in such serious decline that the existing members realized that something major had to change. They were reborn in essence.

I have hope that something very special is happening in our world and I would like the Christian tradition to be part of that positive, evolutionary change. But I believe there are things that progressive leaders, progressive teachers and progressive Churches, have to do immediately, if that we are going to have a chance to make it work.

First thing on the agenda is we need to develop another whole paradigm for our understanding of God. I believe the New Atheist movement has done progressives a great service. For the first time some very intelligent people who proudly call themselves Atheists are getting a lot of attention and that attention has forced people in the pulpits and people in the pews to actually give some serious thought to what they mean when they use that term.

Last year I was walking through an airport in the Midwest and small group of people milling around a huge stack of books. I was stunned when I realized that stack was the book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.  Folks I was in Ohio, not Berkeley.

Dawkins and his gang are having a ball making religion in general and Christianity in particular look silly. I know he and others have created a “straw god” so he can easily knock it down but let’s face it, he has a lot of silliness to work with.

Our biblical God was created in a time when ancient people believed in a three tiered universe. They believed that a being or beings were up there, above a dome, that this being controlled everything from lightening and rainfall, to plagues, and good crops. Naturally these ancients believed that this anthropomorphic being needed to be pleased. Not only did this God want us to act certain ways, wears certain clothes, eat certain foods but he insisted his creatures give him sacrifices to prove their fear. And if they did not do these things, they would not please this God and “he” would punish them. And it is from these people and the writers of their scriptures, that we still derive most of our understanding of this word God in our churches.

I ask you, would you go to the same texts for medical advice or marriage advice or child rearing advice?

While most progressive Christians no longer hold on to this simplistic, childish concept of God, with rare exceptions we still talk about what God wants from us. When I travel across the country to progressive churches my teeth are constantly on edge when I listen to readings from lay people, prayer, songs, rituals that seem to say that God is waiting for our correct action or God wants to do something like feed the hungry, take care of the poor; or God is going to do something for us because we have done what ought to do. Most pledge drives start with God’s call upon us to give. We still do petitionary prayers in most congregations.

With what we now know about the immense universe, black holes, evolution and our teeny, teeny little planet, isn’t time to change the entire paradigm? Do we really think that there is some entity, some power that needs to be pleased? It seems to me that at best this is an arrogant, superstitious and even an idolatrous assumption. Even the traditionalists tell us that God is unfathomable, all powerful. Why would we assume that this “I Am God” needs anything from us? Any such idea suggests a theistic and dualistic model that we must let go of. We have not come very far when we think it is a big deal to call this entity Mother/Father God…

You see I think we have had a wrong for a long time. I don’t think Jesus was telling his followers how they are supposed to act or behave in order to please God. I believe he, like other inspired wisdom, teachers was offering his teachings about how to experience this thing we so casually call God. What did Jesus mean? We have no way of knowing but I suspect he meant something very different than what we normally perceive. I believe it is far more likely that he told his followers that by living a certain way, by extending themselves on behalf of others, by loving generously, they could experience Alaha (“God” according to Neal Douglas-Klotz an Aramaic scholar.) Douglas-Klotz suggests that his Alaha term would best be translated as Sacred Unity or All-ness or Oneness.

I do not believe that his teachings were channeled from God so that he could tell us what God wanted from us. Rather, they were the result of his profound, life changing experience of a complete Unity of all life.  Wisdom teachers tell us that this phenomenon cannot be known, but can only be experienced and anyone has the opportunity to have that experience. There are many paths and they are teachable. These can lead ultimately, to an experience of that sacred Connectedness that I believe young adults are searching for.

Secondly, it is time to publically reject that whole idea of substitutionary or vicarious Atonement theories and repent for the harm this religious relic has caused over the centuries .

I have always thought that it was more important for progressive Christians to talk about what we are rather than what we are not. But I think it is time to publicly repent for the pain and suffering that the whole idea that we as humans are born faulty and unworthy by some vindictive god who demanded that there be some severe punishment to make up for this same god’s mistake. Therefore, according to creed this God would have to sacrifice his only begotten son, (who is actually himself) to avenge something that really never happened. Do you have any idea how many people throughout history have suffered in fear, humiliation, doubts, at the hands of sick clergy, mobs, abusive husbands, and anybody into power because of this flawed piece of our theology. It is way past time separate ourselves from this delusion to make a clear and public statement for allowing it to go on for so long.

I think that most progressives believe that they have quietly set that part of the Christian story aside, but when I visit churches across the country I notice that it comes up in rituals, worship bulletins and of course in the hymns. We may think that we have let it go because it does not get mentioned from the pulpit, but people sitting in the pews or more importantly, visitors may not see or experience that fact.

Each month TCPC sends out a free email newsletter with book reviews, articles and special features. We always have a common theme and try and feature articles and books that tie in. Several months ago our topic was, “Recovering Christians” and in my article for that month, I mentioned that it was time for progressives to let atonement go.  It was the first time I suggested that we really needed to publicly repent. We were astounded by the number of people who opened the newsletter, how many people forwarded them and by the follow up emails we received.  All of the numbers were double and triple any of our previous eBulletins. The email responses were about five times our normal response and many of them included touching and painful stories. Many wrote to thank me for being so honest.

If my read of Jesus’ teaching is correct he was very clear that if we make a mistake we should repent…that is, make amends when possible for any damage or suffering we have caused and change our actions and behavior in the future. According to his way, if we did that we began to heal and we had a clean slate. We have presumably learned our lesson…no sacrifice of animals or humans for that matter are needed. It was the first step to new life.

The atonement story was a myth attached to the Jesus story to give more power to the church and its leadership.  It should never have been there. But I think if the progressive Christian movement is going to progress, we need to repent for the pain that has caused and clearly separate ourselves from this damaging part of the Christian story. Simply ignoring it no longer seems like an option. We need to clean our hard drive of this virus. And then I have hope that we can experience new life in our progressive churches.

Thirdly, I do have hope in a new generation of young adults that I continue to meet. But it is time we actually observe and to listen to our young adults and begin to make changes that reflect their world and their needs instead of telling them about ours. We have three people in their thirties on our staff and we have been doing a lot of listening lately. We have been asking, interviewing and listening to a fairly large number of young adults who care about what we are doing but can find no way to experience it in community. We have several message boards on our website that average over 10,000 messages a month. These come primarily from young adults. Likewise our new TCPC Facebook page currently has 31 topics being discussed by thousands of participants. The vast majority of these participants are young adults.

In short, they tell us that they have little or no interest in being part of something that focuses so much on the past as opposed to the present. They are more concerned with current events than they are with myths and traditions that have no meaning for them. Even though some of them grew up with a church experience, they find little that is relevant to their lives in their occasional attempts to find a church.

They believe that we are using meaningless metaphors, rituals and god awful music. Most of these young people will get up and run if there is an organ, robes and a cross on the wall. In large part they have no comprehension about why we put such sanctity in the Bible in the church services. A few of them have read some of the Bible in their college classes or church services that their parents dragged them to years ago and are appalled at some of the horrible things they have read. They actually would like us to purge the word “church” as it is such a negatively loaded term for them.

They have no interest what-so-ever in sitting in a church pew or chair and listening to someone preach a sermon for twenty minutes while they stare at the back of some one’s head. And most of them are suspicious of anything that suggests an absolute truth as they have grown up in a world where “facts” are always changing. Most of them have absolutely no idea why there is any dispute about the welcoming gays and lesbians into a church and wonder why we go to the bible about advice for anything.

On the other hand they still want spiritual community. They are very aware of the interconnectedness and the interdependency of our tiny little planet floating around in the universe. They want to gather with other people who care about the same things that they do and share some of the same values of life. They want to talk about how to change the environment, how to create peace in the world, how to raise healthy, wise and compassionate children.

We have had young parents contact us about our new children’s curriculum wondering if they can purchase it for use in their home. Sadly, few of them so far have asked us if we can help them find a church where it is going to be used. I hope that will change someday.

Although most of these young people have little interest in bible studies, they are interested in hearing something about contemporary books and films that relate to our new world setting. They would have some interest in getting together and discussing those same things. They have a growing interest in what Jim Burklo is referring to as “intra-spirituality.”

Yes, they would like to have something different than what most of us offer in our worship services. In fact they are in large part uncomfortable with the term “worship service.” A pretty common comment was, “get rid of the old outdated hymns.” While most of the people we interviewed did not like the mega church “praise hymns” they would like to see more local folk singers, poets and artists participate in the activities. Drums, tambourines, and other participatory instruments would be a positive for them.

They would like a community that gets together and dances, sings and shares occasional meals.

In essence what they are suggesting is something that does not and will not feel like church for most people in the pews today. While there may be such a community in the future, I doubt if it will be called “church.”

I could go on but I think you have an idea of both the challenge and the promise. I have a tremendous faith in these young adults who will be running the world in just a few decades. I hope that we impart some wisdom and finds ways to participate in their future as long as we can.

I have a lot of hope about the future of a new Christianity emerging. There are a growing number of dedicated thinkers and spiritual leaders who are writing, speaking and teaching of a new world view and new ways to interpret the Christian story in it. Dynamic theologies and renewed Christologies are springing up often stimulated by our scientific and philosophical thinkers, with a few theological revolutionaries thrown into the mix. The word “Christ” is taking on a new meaning.

These creative people are talking, writing and teaching about a major shift of consciousness. In the words of Michael Dowd, “It is a shift from seeing ourselves as separate beings, placed on Earth,(the world was made for us,) to seeing ourselves as a self-reflexive expressions of Earth, (we were made for the world)…it is a major shift in our understanding of who we are and what we are. It is a shift at the deepest possible level: our identity or sense of self.”

Somehow these folks have been able to find the words and concepts to describe and define this shift, something that many people, particularly young adults, have been feeling for some time but have been unable to find the words or even a point of reference to express it.  People like Lloyd Geering, Brian Swimme, David Suzuki, and Diarmuld O’Murchu are helping us create a whole new world view…actually a whole new universe view. People like Bruce Sanquin, the late Thomas Berry, Don Cupitt, and Michael Dowd, among others, are helping us retell the Christian story with a freshness, in a contemporary and compelling ways. People like Cynthia Bourgeault,   Jacob Needleman, Jim Marion, Greta Vosper are helping us rediscover ways to live it.  And people like Ken Wilbur and others are giving us ways to organize in our pluralistic world and the expanding pluralism in our Christian traditions.

I have had the opportunity to work with many of these gifted folks over the last couple of years and find their enthusiasm, their creativity, their depth and breadth of information more than impressive. Their openness, their positive outlook and faith is outright contagious.  If people sitting in the pews could catch some of this, I believe our churches would be overflowing.

I receive approximately 6 new books a month from some of the most creative and downright exciting spiritual and often Christian authors who are rethinking everything from cosmology to daily ritual, from theology to praxis and all new ways or at least in rediscovered ways with the advantage of a very different perspective of the universe we live in.

One of the most interesting things about this shift is that young people seem to be able to relate. Not only does this form of Christianity meet with their understanding of reality, with their education and their contemporary understanding the universe, it is founded on a deep appreciation of all creation with particular attention to Mother Earth.  I have seen young students and even adults getting very excited when Michael Dowd is speaking and some of them for the first time realize that their bodies are made up of stardust that tracks back millions of years. Dowd suggests that our scientific knowledge of the universe is the contemporary language of god.

I am not certain what form the churches may take or if there will even be churches as we understand them in the future.  But I have come to believe that there is a new kind of spirituality evolving that is based upon an understanding of who and what we are as humans co-habitating with all creation. It is based on values rather than creeds…on behavior rather than beliefs. It is grounded in an understanding that we are part of one whole organism and that we are all interconnected and interdependent. When we are given the opportunity to existentially experience that profound truth, everything changes. We need to focus on fostering that experience by drawing upon the great wisdom teachers of the past, present and the future.

It is my hope that Jesus remains one of the central wisdom teachers of this shift.

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