Progressive Christianity Forum – An Exploratory Workshop

Background: For several years, and especially in the few years since I retired, Bill and I have talked about our frustration with most conventional worship services. We find the traditional language depicts a God in whom we cannot believe, and we find the whole enterprise of worship to carry too much emphasis on propitiation, guilt, and a sort of abject deferral to some being to whom we are supposed to owe praise and subservience. We have attended services in other traditions, read widely about variant understandings and experiences of God, but we’ve found little out there in books or practice that looks at worship in radically new ways.

We are searching for a way to practice something we might call worship that is genuine to our own experience and intuition as well as our thinking about God. We are interested in finding others who share these concerns and who might want to explore new ways of being together in worship. We are not wanting to entice people away from their current religious affiliations (if any), and we do not want to limit our exploration to the Christian tradition. But there may be a kind of home gathering on a regular basis for a fairly small group that could experiment with worship and develop some forms of language, music and ritual that would be meaningful to the group and perhaps to other worship communities.

Where to Begin: In terms of process, we had thought to invite a list of some 20 folks we thought might be interested to commit to a series of meetings to explore some very basic questions for this whole project. Ideally, about twelve of us would comprise the group. We would hope for an intimacy and candor in these encounters that would help us define us project more clearly and give us a good indication of who might want to be part of any ongoing community.

​We are actually beginning to meet with such a group on February 18, and will meet monthly through June. We are calling it a Progressive Christianity Forum. Only after these preliminary meetings will we assess whether this group would want to continue on a regular basis in the fall. Another possible title for such a gathering is “Addressing God – An Exploratory Workshop”. This would be more suitable if the group included non-Christians of either no other affiliation or from another tradition. We’re avoiding calling it worship at this point, and addressing is a non-religious word. It also carries a possible double meaning. It can mean to speak to, but it also can mean to face or to embrace, as an issue. It seems very apt for what we’re up to in terms of figuring out what worship is all about.

​Our first session will focus on how we, as Progressive Christians think about, experience, and believe in (or not) God. The following questions will structure our conversation:

1. What do we think about God? How do we define, imagine God?

2. Talk about how you might experience or have experienced the God you’ve talked about.

3. Given what we’ve said, how do you address this God? Do you call it prayer?

​The remaining four session will focus on Jesus, Holy Spirit, worship and next steps for the group. We are hoping that some new practices that feel like worship will emerge organically from these sessions.

​The exploration which begins tonight is a long hoped for attempt to search for new forms of worship to express progressive theology. I see such a project as something that could flourish alongside someone’s existing church affiliation or take its place, with costs and promises either way. I’m hoping it will plant seeds that may thrive in the rich earth of our combined discontent with traditional church and longing for authentic relationship with God. I’m hoping this forum take its place among many other such initiatives and will offer hope and sustenance in a time of enormous ferment in the church as we have known it.


The Rev. Susan Mann Flanders

Washington, DC

Review & Commentary

  • Hi Susan,
    I’m glad to see you doing this. I look forward too hearing how it goes. I am discovering that the more I think about how fraught so much of our “God” language is, the more problems I see. I am still working in a congregation and believe more and more that the church needs to be offering the kind of alternative language you are talking about. Best to you and Bill. John Baker

    and….I left a blog address, don’t know if you will get it. A new start for me growing out of my time at St. Mark’s. Peace

  • Bill Parton

    I am very interested in your experience.

    I would like something like what you have described in our community. We have a small group of four or five (all lay people) that meets at our town’s (ca. 30,000 ppl.) Episcopal church. We only meet once a month and generally talk issues now, though at the beginning it was more theology, doctrines, other religions, etc.

    I would like to hear what works and, even more, what doesn’t.

    Bill Parton

    • Susan Flanders

      Hi Bill – Thanks – I’ll keep you posted through this web site or by email. Susan

  • Jim High

    Susan, the problem as you well know is the word God. What do we mean when we say it? What does that word refer to? And you fell into that trap when in your first paragraph you said, “We find the traditional language depicts a God in whom we cannot believe” and by the last paragraph you said, “longing for authentic relationship with God.” I think this perfectly illustrates the problem we have with a most powerful word “GOD” that means so many different things that it has got to be replaced if we are to move forward. Maybe some of these comments will be helpful in that regard.

    “What we need is an entirely new way of understanding what the thing we call God actually is. God is no longer that character or being described and worshiped, and feared in the Bible, but is the Life Force of the Universe Itself. The old ancient God concept is holding us back from the truth of the reality in which we actually find ourselves.” –Jim High

    “Most Christians cannot envision giving up the word God. But hasn’t the meaning and concept that the word now points to changed so drastically that the only reason to hold on to the word God is because people are still holding on to those old Creator God concepts? That is why the Christian religion has struggled with ways of expressing the new meaning and concepts about a god. From “Ground of Being” to Universal Presence or Infinite Intelligence, it is very hard to keep your new words for a god separate from the idea of a god of some kind somewhere. That is why I personally use the phrase Life Force of the Universe when I think of the self creating evolving world and universe in which we live. A Creator God has never existed, as we now know and understand, but the Life Force of the Universe has always existed and has caused everything we know, see and have to bloom into existence, and the Life Force of the Universe will continue to do this forever.” –Jim High

    “The God of the Bible (Old and New Testament) is not dead. How could “He” be, because this invented God was never real, except in the minds of ancient people who were trying to explain their existence. But the God that is the Spirit of Life Itself everywhere present throughout the Universe, that connects all Life to all other Life, and that created and continues to create all that we know and have, that’s the real God. I rarely think about that old God, or even use the word God anymore, but I’ll talk to you for hours about the Life Force of the Universe, which for me explains what God really is.” —Jim High

    “Religions grew up in the far distant past mainly around two things. First, whatever man didn’t understand, which in the beginning was most everything, was attributed to the action of the gods. And second, man had no understanding of life and death. We have learned about most things including all about our physical life. But death and any realistic understanding about it evades most people because religion is now mostly about what happens after our death. What we need is a new religion about life, not one that focuses on death and some eternal afterlife.” –Jim High

    “What we need now in the 21st century is a new God concept, one based on what we now know about our universe and the way it operates, the laws of nature and the way they operate, and evolution and the way it operates over eons of time. The word God does not fit anymore, which is why I say what has been called God since the beginning of the human animal’s conscious thought should now more correctly be called the Life Force of the Universe, or some other term that more correctly reflects our right relationship with reality.” –Jim High

    • Susan Flanders

      Jim, I think your definition of God as “the Life Force of the Universe Itself” is a good one, but no one formulation can really capture fully what we are trying to express. Sometimes I think of God as “an embracing, inhabiting mystery”. Other times I can go with your definition, or the power and presence of love in the world, or the essence of being – and on and on. And still, we end up with the word God as a symbol, an “uber word” as Bultmann called it, standing for a multiplicity of understandings and experiences that people have felt to be the essence of what they’ve called God over the ages. I am reluctant to cede this word to those whose definitions I can’t accept; I still want to be able to talk about, experience and love God and all that that name means for me – probably quite similar to what it means for you. Thanks for your input.

  • Allan Bopp

    Rev. Flanders,
    I would love to see the outlines (questions for discussion) for the rest of the scheduled “Addressing God Gatherings”
    As I am organizing just such a gathering your article is just what I need to stay the course instead of the opposite.
    God Bless Namaste

    Pastor Allan Bopp

    • Susan Flanders

      I will send along our next forum plans as we develop them – they will only occur once a month between now and June. The next one we are planning is on Jesus and we’ll probably be asking about how and why Jesus is important, perhaps supremely so, or not, for Christians, and what it means to claim that and live as a follower. Does Jesus have a superior stature to, say, other revered prophets/martyrs/holy ones in history and in our own day.

  • Susan Flanders

    Great to hear from you, John! I’ll report on how these forums go through the PC web site, and I’lll check our your blog. Susan

  • Thanks for sharing about your initiative. Wish I lived in DC! I’m inspired by your process as I’ve been dreaming for a few years about gathering some folks that I know to explore the idea of non-traditional Christian community. Until last year (when I was laid off for financial reasons), I’d worked in traditional church settings as pastor or associate pastor. Now that I’m away from that environment I have a clearer sense of what I don’t want and what I do desire in community. Just waiting for more of sense of call to be an initiator. Looking forward to hearing more about your group discussions. Blessings on your work.