Missed Opportunities

I have become more interested lately by what appears to be a growing number of people who want to learn more about the newest biblical and religious scholarship. In large part, these folks want to know how the latest scholarship has impacted our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a postmodern world. Last year approximately, 1,500 people attended the Common Dreams conference in Australia where I was one of several keynote speakers. It was an amazing number of attendees for any progressive Christian event. Last spring Westar set a record for the highest number of attendees in their history for their spring meeting. Authors like Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, continue to draw large audiences where ever they speak. Their books, along with dozens of other challenging progressive scholars, continue to sell extremely well to the general public. The activity of the TCPC website increases every year, both in the number of visitors who go on the site each month and the number of articles that they either read or download, now an average of over 90,000 pages a month. These days we receive far more emails then we have ever experienced from people who have serious questions about their Christian faith and they want to have dialogue with someone who will respond with an educated and thoughtful perspective.

The part that I find so interesting is a significant percentage of these people apparently do not attend a church on a regular basis and are not part of a faith community. Admittedly, the information that we have gathered would not qualify as scientific research. The data has been mostly anecdotal and it is possible that the people who shared their information with us may have been self selecting. I did ask, just about everyone I came in contact with at the Australia conference, what church they attended. It seemed that nearly 30% of the people responded that they were not active in a church at that time. The percentage of people who indicated that they were not affiliated with a church was even higher at the Westar event.

And yet these people continue to attend progressive Christian functions, they buy progressive Christian books, and they go to the TCPC site by the thousands and read articles and write emails asking for more information. I have no way of knowing their reasons or their desires in this regard. They may have no interest in being part of a church community and are just curious, or they may not have been able to find a church that provides something that they are looking for. But it seems like they are missing something. Maybe that is why approximately 3,000 to 6,000 people each month go on to the TCPC site and then immediately to the “Directory of Affiliates” and search for a progressive church in their area.

It seems that there are also a significant number of people who are part of some local church, but only attend a small group that meets at the church to study and discuss progressive Christianity with each other. These folks do not normally participate in regular church services. I recently addressed one of these “small groups” at a midsize church that meets every week an hour and a half before the regular worship services. I was little surprised when over half of the forty-five people who attended the class left the church immediately after the class was over. Wherever I travel, I continually come in contact with people who identified themselves as being part of such a group within their local churches. Of course a lot of people are choosing different alternatives.

Over ten years ago David Elkins wrote years ago in his book, Beyond Religion that “millions of Americans have left traditional religion to pursue alternative paths to spiritual development.” Elkins explains that these people are forming small groups or helping create them to study and practice together.

James Herrick reports in his book The Making of the New Spirituality, of the growing small group phenomenon across the country. According to Herrick these people of all ages are creating a synthesis of spiritualities. Even with his concerns that these spiritualities may have some dangerous side effects, notes that people are hungry to have these kinds of discussions and they are finding ways to have them outside the church.

It seems ironic that so many people are extending a lot of effort to find and create opportunities to learn and talk about their faith rather than going to churches to have those kinds of conversations. I suspect that one reason people feel more comfortable in small groups without an ordained minister present, is the assumption that the “educated minister” knows so much more than they do, that what they have to say is meaningless. It is likely that many people make the assumption that if they stray too far in their beliefs from the creedal or assumed “truth” of their respective church dogma, that they will be met with criticism or worse. They may be worried that they will be “out scriptured.”

I must admit that it seems strange, in a time when religion, beliefs, faith and spirituality are such a common subject on a regular basis in our mainline media, so many people feel uncomfortable going to church to have open discussions about these subjects. It certainly appears from our data that there is such an obvious hunger that most churches do not seem to be feeding.

On the other hand, we have discovered that some of our churches are responding to this hunger in a very active and open way. And I suppose that it should be no surprise that these churches are also some of the most vital and exciting affiliate churches in our organization. In a survey we completed last year, we found that one of the most common characteristics of these special churches was an active adult education program. I do not think that this is a coincidence. Most of the churches reported that these educational programs actually brought many visitors and often they stayed and became part of the church body. This phenomenon is often called “side door” evangelism by church growth experts.

While most of these churches have regular scheduled classes throughout the year, the form of these educational opportunities is varied and broad and not necessarily confined to any one type. Based on our survey, the most common examples were classes based on a progressive book, some led but clergy and many by lay people. Some had guest lecturers with name recognition and invited the public and people from other churches to attend. Frequently speakers were brought in from nearby colleges, universities and seminaries. Many of these church have taken up the opportunity use the talents and gifts of the Westar scholars by holding a “Jesus Seminars on the Road” event. A couple of our larger churches reported that they did all of the above.

One church reported that they had a three year program with three classes a year that rotated each year. When someone took all nine classes they were given a certificate achievement in front of the entire congregation. These classes were taught primarily by clergy but other speakers where brought in on occasion. In every case however, it was pointed out that everyone was given an opportunity to share and dialogue about their own perspective. One thing researchers like Heelas and Woodhead (The Spiritual Revolution- 2005) have discovered is that a great deal of this spiritual hunger is motivated by a search for “a spirituality which engages the depths of personal experience rather than a religion that requires conformity to a higher truth or ancient beliefs.”

Certainly these days there is an abundance of materials available that make the job leading progressive classes a lot easier and more interesting. Probably the common example we found being used in these vital churches was the variety of video materials available from the organization, Living the Questions (LtQ). You can see the reviews on these materials and order them on our site. Another wonderful video resource that creates opportunities for conversations and meaningful dialogue is Asphalt Gospel. It is a high quality DVD that tracks the walk that six ordinary people took on a 2,500 mile walk to Washington, DC to share and discuss progressive Christianity. It is an excellent product for study and discussion groups, youth groups and adult education classes.

There are some wonderful books now available that make leading a class on progressive Christianity very easy. For example The Historical Jesus for Beginners, A Primer of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, by William Linden, The Phoenix Affirmations, by Eric Elnes, The God I Don’t Believe In, by Gary Wilburn and one book that continues to be one of my all time favorites for small groups, Remedial Christianity by Paul Laughlin.

There also dozens of study guides that are available and virtually hundreds of articles that would stimulate opportunities for conversation. Some churches report that small groups have signed up for this monthly TCPC eBulletin publication and the members use the materials for weekly conversations.

There are literally dozens of other wonderful examples, many of which have been reviewed on the TCPC site. The point is we know there is a hunger and we have a variety of foods available that might satisfy that hunger. The question is: Why are we not serving the banquet that is available in more of our churches?

Review & Commentary