Any Church Can Become Progressive: Part One
It is interesting that the 8 Points of Progressive Christianity say so little about faith, belief or doctrine and so much about the relationships we experience every day. To me, this says the heart of Progressive Churches is all about love; the ontic, exquisite love that is manifested in Jesus, and which Teilhard de Chardin called the “glue that holds the universe together.”
If you want to build a progressive congregation; if you’re going to enliven love and wisdom in your congregation, don’t even think about trying to change people’s minds.
Following the lead of George Lakoff in his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, don’t think about the apostles’ creed, don’t talk about theology or prayer or liturgical practice. All that accomplishes is keeping everybody thinking about the old days. Change comes when we work at ways to enliven love and wisdom among our people.
After several years working as Missioner in the Diocese of California where I was responsible to the Bishop for the oversight of 15 missions and aided parishes, I decided to get back to parish ministry. I was elected Rector of one of the most moribund parishes in the Diocese. The week I started the senior warden told me I should not take the recorded attendance as reliable. The service register read ’55 people’ a Sunday, the number reported to the Diocese. He said the attendance was more like 24 and that was for two services.
The Bishop laughed when he said, “We’ll now see what Peter can do when he’s in charge instead of being a roving expert.” Three years later when the church was the fastest growing church in the Diocese, he said, “I don’t know how he does it, because he’s so liberal.” He didn’t know about the heart of Progressive Christianity.
When I left nine years later, the average Sunday attendance at two services was 150; more than the seating capacity of the nave.
Enlivening love in a congregation is not about theology or doctrine. It’s about nurturing love, trust, and connectivity. It’s about strategies to build a community where people are accepted as they are, supported and loved by their peers and encouraged to embody the love, trust and connectivity of Jesus in all their relationships. That’s the core of Progressive Christianity.
We used these strategies to build a progressive church:
Accessibility: The first strategy was to make sure that there was parking available. Studies show that people will drive as far to church as they do in their morning commute. But there’s no point in driving if there’ no place to park. On Sundays near our church, the only place to park was along streets mostly filled by the resident’s cars 24 – 7. ( Like most of us, their garages were used for storage.)
My wife, Danielle, waltzed over to the nearby elementary school and asked if they would be open to our using the playground/parking lot on Sunday mornings and negotiated special occasions. They were delighted because the small fee we paid for Sunday parking went right into the principal’s discretionary fund. No surprise; attendance shot up.
Welcoming: The second strategy was for me to stop greeting people after the service in the narthex and greet them before the service outside the front door. It has several benefits. In the first place, you get to read the folk’s body language, facial expressions, tonality as you greet them. You avoid the discomfort that people have when they feel pressured to make some kind comment about your sermon or the service. You also have an opportunity to offer a positive greeting to the people who are trying out the congregation. The ushers are encouraged to do more than hand out bulletins. Their job is to make folks feel welcomed and comfortable.
Open conversation: The third strategy was to have a very simple breakfast after the 8 A.M. service; coffee and doughnuts, coffee-cake, cold cereal, and milk. The tables were set up in U shape with chairs only on the outside to stimulate whole group table talk. The un-announced breakfast theme was “Any question is acceptable and is welcomed.” After people settled in, I would say, “The first order of business is that I have to preach again at 10 o’clock and I need help with the sermon.” At first, I got kind comments, good suggestions, and questions, but after a while, nobody was interested in giving me feedback. What they wanted was to ask questions like; “Why do we still say the creeds?” “Does anybody believe in the virgin birth anymore?” “Why do we read the Old Testament Lesson?” Because I was involved in the Jesus Seminar and the Westar Institute, I would not attempt in any way to defend the practices and theology of the church, but try to find a way to turn it into an open discussion with all involved.
Within a short time, the 8 o’clock congregation jumped from four or five people to 25 or 30 and sometimes more.
Vulnerability and Compassion: The fourth strategy was that I changed a long time liturgical practice at the congregation; namely the celebration of birthdays and anniversaries. Instead, we had a Celebration of Life Changes which I introduced by saying, “Who’s lost a job or found a job, had a birthday or anniversary or any other of life change. Come on up to the front.” There we formed, as had been the old practice, a line-up facing the congregation. We started at one end, and one by one people would tell us what they were celebrating or facing or dealing with, and we ended with a prayer. ”Watch over your children, Oh Lord, as their days increase. Guide and protect them wherever they may be, strengthen them when they stand, comfort them when discouraged or sorrowful, lift them up if they fall, and may your love guide them for all their days. Amen.”
On about the third or fourth Sunday, a needy young woman, who had been discharged from the United States Army on a mental health disability, said, “I just need you all to know that I am mentally ill and I need your prayers.” Someone called out, “You’ve got ‘em.”
A month or two later a young mother, who was seen as very together and competent, told us that she was celebrating six years of sobriety. The congregation applauded. Very soon there was new freedom for folks to divulge their vulnerabilities as well as share good news. Sharing vulnerabilities has the not so surprising effect of stimulating compassion; empathetic, loving responses. With every expression of vulnerability, the natural response is caring and generosity.
Preaching: The fifth strategy was a series of small steps to change the practice of preaching. Given that the time between television commercials is 13 minutes or so, I decided that was the allowable time for a sermon. Jonathan Edwards may have been the only entertainment in town when he preached for an hour. Those days are gone forever. A 20-minute sermon is too long today.
Worship can be a cornucopia of gifts. Preaching can be a gift if the preacher starts preparing for it by asking, “What is the gift I’d like the folks to take away from this sermon? Is it hidden in the Gospel, the Lessons? Or in the newspaper? In my canon, an explication of the sources of Luke’s Gospel is not a gift.
I made another change when I read a great book on presentations called ‘I Can See You Naked’ by Ron Hoff, I abandoned the pulpit and lectern for moving around on the same level as the congregation. Among other things, Ron says, “Podiums are poison, Lecterns are lethal.” “Standing in one place is boring.” If you haven’t read Hoff’s book, run, do not walk, to the nearest local bookstore or computer and order it.
No lectern means no text, no notes. I wrote every sermon out and identified three blocks, each with a specific theme. The structure is beginning, middle and end. Then I memorized key phrases in each block. That makes three four-minute blocks all in my head. In at least one bock there has to be a story. When I was through writing, my good wife always wanted to know if there was a story that illustrated the gift I was attempting to offer. If I didn’t know a story from my life experiences, I made one up. Stories are the vessel carrying the essence of the gift the preacher can leave. The truth is that people long remembered the story and forgot the rest of the sermon.
When you don’t have to look at a manuscript, you can make eye contact. If the eyes of the folks out there are dancing, you are getting through; if they are glazed over, you’ve lost them. Eye contact enables you to see the comments coming silently back from your audience.
The closest analogy to preaching is stand-up comedy; it’s an entertaining,
Any Church an Become Progressive:Part Two
Enhancing the Loving Wisdom of Jesus in congregational life.
I assume that the purpose of any progressive Christian assembly is to help members better know the person of Jesus; to follow his path and teachings and lead them to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.
How can a congregation replicate the love that flowed through a meal with Jesus and his companions?
How can we structure our life together so that we experience unity with one another and come to know more richly the sacredness and wholeness in our ordinary life?
How can our life in the fellowship teach us how to better love and care for one another?
I don’t think it can happen in a hierarchical organization in which the leaders are presumed to have the authority to guide and regulate the life of the community.
I don’t think it can happen in large or small bureaucratic organizations where formalized processes, rules, procedures and regulations prevail. Bureaucracy suffocates souls. Unfortunately, contemporary congregations can become mini-corporations, not focused on profits, but on the bottom line of a budget that at least assures survival, if not prosperity.
Progressive churches need organizational structures that encourage expressions of vulnerability, nurture loving responses, value the wisdom and talent of every member and enable members to sense their individual and corporate power.
During a ten year ecclesiastical sabbatical during which I sold my services as an organizational development consultant, I discovered the power of sharing circles to effect change in both large and small systems.
The sharing circle process.
¥ Includes everybody in the process, no one can dominate.
¥ Everyone participates, and everyone owns the outcomes.
¥ Enables consensual truth to emerge.
¥ Maximizes consensual wisdom.
¥ Makes hierarchy and status irrelevant.
¥ Encourages expressing vulnerability and evokes empathetic caring.
I introduced the circle process to our church when we began a monthly men’s breakfast. I just suggested the process, and they bought into it. Soon the Women’s group wanted to use it, and we introduced it to the Sunday Breakfast. We began to use it in committees and finally it became the norm for Vestry meetings.
About two years into using circles, we decided to select our Senior and Junior Wardens by using the process. As convener. I said 0ur task was to identify the members of the Vestry who were to be the Wardens for the next 3-year three-year terms. We went round and round for about thirty minutes, and it seemed clear that Sandra was the new Senior Warden. When Sandra’s turn came to speak, she said she was sorry, but wasn’t ready to take the office. We continued and finally knew it was, Jack. Someone asked, “How about Sandra as Junior Warden?” In the next round, it was clear, and she accepted. Everybody owned the choices and love abounded.
Not many months later the parish was shaken by rumors that two active, well-known women, both in clearly committed relationships, were engaged in what seemed to be an affair. We called an open meeting to deal with the confusion and hurt that was distressing to so many. The two women agreed to come. About twenty others showed up. We went around, one at a time sunwise about three or four times. Group members offered their comments to the center. The couple heard us, we heard them. As people spoke openly about their feelings, their hurt melted away. Finally, it came clear. We are all OK, and we cared about each other. The session ended with hugs and affirmations. Love and acceptance prevailed. Healing had happened in our midst.
A sharing circle is a simple process. It is NOT like any group meetings we are accustomed to.
The Norms of the Circle Process
First, on leadership: Convener is probably the best term to identify a circle “leader’. But the term convener needs an adjective the Group Life movement conceived of some seventy years ago. Maieutic Leadership is an evocative function that seeks the maximum potential from any group process. ‘Maieutic’ is derived from the Greek word for a midwife and suggests the sense of gently easing out what is coming naturally in the first place.
Until an organization is well seasoned in the Circle process, it is wise for the Convener to restate the norms before each meeting.
The group gathers, and after the usual pleasantries, everyone takes a seat in a circle, the order doesn’t matter at all. Avoid sitting at a table if you can.
Throughout the meeting responses always move from one person to the next sunwise (clockwise—to the left) around the circle. It is perfectly acceptable to pass (that is not to comment) to the next person on the left. The best way to tell the person on your left that you are finished with your contribution is to touch that person lightly.
First, there is a time of silence and centering to let go of the anxieties, noise, and distractions we usually carry with us all day long and to see if we feel safe and secure in this place.
Check-in sunwise – Members respond to questions like these: Can you tell us how it’s been for you since the last time we were together? Can you tell us what’s happened in your life since our last meeting?
The convener identifies the topic for the session or the issue to be resolved and the agreed time for ending.
Offer your gift to the center of the circle. The convener begins. All contributions are made to the center of the circle. It is as though I am offering this part of my wisdom to all of you by placing it on the table, that is, in the center of the circle.
NO CROSS TALK is an essential norm of the circle process. It makes no difference how much I need to respond to your comment. I have to wait for my turn in the circle.
Confidentiality—what’s said in this room stays in this room.
An Ending Ritual — There may be a final round, for comments like, what this session has meant to me, or what I have received from you during this session, or I am thankful to this group because…
A progressive congregation is not about belief or tradition.
A progressive congregation is all about replicating the commensal community of Jesus so we can make his compassionate healing love real among us.