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Progress Toward an Open Church

By Published On: April 9, 20060 Comments

Helping a congregation to identify itself as a Progressive Christian Church can be a challenge. In September of 1999 I was called to minister at the Church of Universal Fellowship in Orono, Maine. This church has identified itself as a Christian Community Church and believes that it is on the cutting edge of ecumenical Christianity by being “post-denominational”.

In its formative years during the 1940’s, nondenominational tolerance of Christian diversity was highly prized in this university town and the congregation thrived. One could attend church and thus identify oneself as a good citizen, active community participant and good Christian without subscribing to irrational creeds or divisive denominational distinctions. This way of church life, popular with those born before 1945, largely assumed a “don’t ask – don’t tell” approach to personal religious beliefs.

The church proclaimed and lived its tolerance while adopting a very traditional Protestant hymnody and worship style and a classical instrumental and choral repertoire. The political and social attitudes of its members and the message of its pulpit have not been particularly progressive, but the tolerance for diversity carries over to these areas as well. Since younger people do not see church attendance as a “given” or necessary in order for one to be a good citizen, an active community participant or even a good Christian, their need to find a “tolerant” church is much diminished. In spite of talented pastoral leadership, high quality music and many wonderful and active members, the congregation has been aging and slowly shrinking for decades.

We are in the midst of a major effort to update our presence in this community. Among other things, we brought a consultant on board to aid in our sharpening our mission statement, revamping fund raising, and to guide us in raising the resources for a $1.4 million program enhancement and building project scheduled for completion in 2002.

Our new mission statement says in part, “Our mission is to support each other’s spiritual journey and those of members of the wider community.” To begin, I have encouraged the congregation to participate in something new to them: a congregation-wide theological conversation. I have hoped that this conversation would help us discover together what we have to offer that might be compelling to younger members of the larger community. I launched this effort in January of 2000 by initiating a study of “Mourners or Midwives”, a video course outlining the challenges to traditional congregations in this changing world. I also introduced TCPC and the “eight points” in our January 2000 newsletter and began an eight week sermon series covering each of the points. Even though I had only been on board for a few months it was already clear that this congregation was not self-consciously progressive in any way other than the “tolerance” cited earlier. A culture of open dialogue needed to be established. We began a small group ministry, which has attracted a growing number of participants for Sunday and weekly noon and evening discussion series.

In January of 2001 we revisited the TCPC eight points in the monthly newsletter and a new eight week sermon series on each of the eight points was introduced. This time discussion guides and questions for each of the eight points were included in the Sunday bulletin. Also included was a consensus form on which members of the congregation were invited to register their responses and comments. There were six levels of consensus indicated on the form from which to choose:

1. I give an enthusiastic and unqualified “yes” to the statement with satisfaction that the statement represents the wisdom of our congregation.
2. I find the statement perfectly acceptable.
3. I agree to live with the statement, but I am not very enthusiastic about it.
4. I don’t fully agree with the statement and will need to state my view about it, but I choose not to oppose its adoption. I am willing to support the consensus of the majority.
5. I do not agree with the statement and feel the need to oppose its adoption.
6. In order to increase my level of consensus, I would change the statement to read_____

The results were published in the March 2001 newsletter and revealed that almost all respondents agreed with the statements at either the “1” or “2” level of consensus. There were, however 2 “5s” and 9 “6s” which revealed more dissatisfaction with the way the statements were framed than substantive disagreement.

In our April 2001 newsletter, we introduced and recommended Jim Burklo’s Open Christianity: Home by Another Road. I used his “creed” in my newsletter meditation on the resurrection and connected his approach to our ongoing consideration of “progressive Christianity.”

In our May 2001 newsletter, I revealed my response to the consensus survey: I recast the statements of the eight points as questions and invited response.

By calling ourselves open, we mean that we are Christians who open ourselves to the questions raised by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, including (but not limited to):

1) Are we respectful of the faithfulness of other people whose lives are guided by other teachers and other traditions?

2) Does our sharing of the bread and cup in Jesus’ name represent our commitment to share and care for all people?

3) Do all sorts of people find a warm welcome to join in our worship and common life as full partners, as they are, regardless of race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, class, spiritual condition, etc.?

4) Is the way we treat one another and other people a positive expression of what we say we believe?

5) Does our life together honor Jesus, those who have gone before us, and those among us who are: Renouncing assumed privilege, conscientiously resisting evil, striving for justice and peace, bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers?

6) Are we a spiritual community in which the resources required for costly discipleship and our work in the world can be discovered?

By calling ourselves open, we mean that we are Christians who find more grace in the search for meaning, in the questions we have yet to answer, than in the answers we already possess.

Responses have indicated a great deal of appreciation for the question format which seems to fit the “questioning” tradition of the pulpit ministry here. Our plan is to have another sermon series in January 2002 on each of the framing statements and the six questions. Once again we will use our “consensus” forms and this time we will also have small group discussion before and after worship. By Spring of 2002 we hope the congregation will be ready to wholeheartedly vote for application to TCPC for membership and listing in the directory.

Certainly, this has been a long and involved process, but it has allowed us to make progress toward being a church that is open to the aspirations of a wider community and a younger generation. When we approach this university community with the message that we are an open church espousing a progressive Christianity, we will be speaking the truth about our ongoing process.

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