Our Journey to an Identity as a Progressive Christian Church

The First Congregational Church of Berkeley (FCCB) has a tradition of welcoming diverse viewpoints and accepting into our community anyone sincerely seeking spiritual growth through the Christian tradition. Over the years we had developed a way of helping people to understand who we are. A member might describe FCCB by saying: “We don’t require members to be baptized, don’t demand a dogmatic set of beliefs, and don’t treat the bible as a literally historical account of events.” Although we could differentiate ourselves from other churches in this way, our consensus as a congregation had migrated more to what we are not, than to what we are. So, we set out on a journey as a congregation to find our center again.

We affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity in mid-2002, and begin to work intensively with the ideas of Progressive Christianity in the Fall of 2003. Patricia de Jong, our senior minister, preached a sermon on progressive Christianity and the eight points, and we addressed progressive Christianity in our weekly newsletter. We have a very active adult education program at FCCB that also serves the wider community, and were fortunate to be able to arrange programs at the church with Marcus Borg, Bishop John Shelby Spong, and Karen Anderson. Then in the Spring of 2004 we had a discussion series using Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity, as a guide. Both the attendance at our series and the enthusiasm that congregation members brought to the discussions told us that we were onto something important for us.

Just a year into the process, as we prepared for our Fall 2004 welcoming Sunday, we found that the term “Progressive Christian” had already moved from something a little mysterious to a natural way to describe our church. It had become a term that we were comfortable enough with to start using on our website and in our answering machine message to describe our church. Over the summer, we had moved from identifying ourselves as, “a liberal religious congregation,” to describing our church as “a progressive Christian congregation.”

People definitely noticed the change! There was a buzz of excitement in the congregation, and we were ready to continue our momentum with a six-part series on Progressive Christianity starting on welcoming Sunday. We began the series with three outside speakers on consecutive Sundays: Delwin Brown, Dean of the Pacific School of Religion; Tony Robinson, former Senior Minister at Plymouth Church, and Jim Burklo, who is the author of Open Christianity and a pastor at the Sausalito Presbyterian Church. These talks were some of the best attended of any of our adult education programs. We set aside the next three programs for small group discussions around eight questions, that roughly line up with the eight points published by TCPC:

  1. How do the life and teachings of Jesus relate to your faith journey?
  2. Is Christianity the best religion for all people? Do you believe that other religions are also true paths to God?
  3. How would you explain communion to a non-Christian?
  4. How do you feel about the diversity in beliefs, race, culture, intelligence and sexuality in a church? What is lost and what is gained?
  5. How does our behavior toward each other relate to our beliefs?
  6. How do we deal with the mystery in our spiritual life? How does it serve us when we hold the questions or settle on definite answers?
  7. What is the role of community in spiritual life?
  8. Is there anything that we are asked to “give up” by following Jesus? Is there anything we are called to do? Is it worth it?

We used the format of eight questions, because it seems on-purpose for us to listen to each other in an open-ended way. To make the eight questions fit into three sessions, we grouped the questions as follows: Jesus and Communion: 1 & 3; Diversity: 2, 4, & 6; and, Community: 5, 7 & 8.

We asked a congregation member to speak for 15 minutes as the beginning of each one-hour program to share their own personal experiences, followed by individual journaling on the questions for 10 minutes, and sharing in small groups of 4-5 people. When we share in small groups, we put the emphasis on listening to each other, and try to avoid discussions.

Through this process we are revitalizing our church.

Kevin Mann is responsible for the Ministry of Education at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, California. If you have questions or comments send them to jkmann [at] us.ibm.com

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