Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Bold Directions for Dangerous Times

 

In a recent article in progressivechristianity.org Jim Burklo wrote about the possibility, if not likelihood, that there will be a flood of disaffected folks leaving the evangelical churches and that progressive congregations should be ready “to attract them by making changes in our styles of worship and congregational life that are necessary to seize this remarkable moment.”

I couldn’t agree more, but there are two other groups that we need to attract, although I’m not sure that “attract” is the right word or attitude. I would rather speak of “making sense to” and “working alongside”, but we surely do need to make changes. Millions of people have left the churches for a long time, and multiple millions more were never interested in the first place. There may be a lot of ex-fundamentalists looking for a new home, but we have been surrounded by “church alumni”, the result of decreasing membership, on the one hand, and an increasingly secular population, on the other. But no matter what group we belong to, we are all human beings who share a search for a meaningful life, and most of us are what we might call good people. The challenge for the church is to find both a common language and a course of action that includes both disciples of Jesus and secular humanists, not to mention reaching out to other religious traditions as well. 

I described one such possibility in an essay, “Ways to Gather”, also found in progressivechristianity.org, and in another piece in progressingspirit.com entitled “Big Change”. From the former:

“Given the trend of society toward secularism, and given the fact that we all share a common and searching humanity, is there anything new that the church can do that would better the planet? 

I think there is, and the answer lies in creating two parallel gatherings. In this scenario, on the one hand, the local congregation continues to gather in the traditional fashion, with its order of worship, Bible reading, prayer, music, reflection, etc, albeit hopefully with a new theology.  In this context, the members study, learn, act in society, and care for one another.” 

On the other hand is a gathering that has no reference to God whatsoever. In the online journal Progressing Spirit I recently published an article in which I try to envision what such a gathering might look like. 

“In the first place, the weekly gathering, perhaps still on Sunday, would be a gathering of folks concerned about the deep issues of life. It would not be limited to adherents of any one religion, or religion at all, but would be open to any and all who choose to sound the depths of their own humanity with others who do the same. At different gatherings, the speaker of the day might be a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, a Muslim, or whatever, who would offer a perspective on the meaning of life, including reference to God, or not. If that person were a Christian, the narrative could be about the life and teaching of Jesus and could include the concept of an incarnate God, or not. Because of the variety of persons present, there will be no prayer either petitioning or thanking God. Everyone is free, of course, to speak their mind about self and God, but without imposition on any other. There will be silence. There will be music. There will be food and drink. There will be joy, fun and happiness. There will be whatever that gathering, with its particular mixture of persons, decides to do. (edited)”.

Of course, such a gathering need not arise within the context of the local congregation, but why not? I proposed this idea to some Vermont church leaders  earlier this year. Here is one response. “We have a group that started here last year (was intended to be a 5 week Lenten series but it moved online during COVID and just kept meeting). About 12 of us meet weekly and we are all quite different.  Some have no connection to the church, or very little.  There are atheists, agnostics, those with a more conservative theology, and liberal UCC’ers like me.  Most were born in this country, but not all.  Most have a mainline Protestant background, but not all.  We eat, drink beer, sip wine and talk life and faith in an informal way.  We’ve come to know and love one another.  A gift from COVID.”

This is a perfect example of what can be: the church helping to create a new type of gathering parallel to and independent of the existing congregation. The one would be deliberately based on the life and teaching of Jesus, the other based on the shared dimensions of our common humanity. It could very well be that a member of the first would also be a member of the second. And it could very well include disaffected evangelicals.

The issue goes way beyond thinking about the future of the church. Our nation is in an extremely dangerous place.  We need a renewed model of what it means as a country to be a secular, caring community, and the church has resources to offer such a vision. Who knows what might emerge? Following up on Jim’s article, it is time for the church to be bold and to experiment, and I have no doubt that progressivechristianity.org will continue to be a leader in this movement. 

 

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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