What is Progressive Christianity?

Today we examine the term Progressive Christianity.  In particular, I will look at (a) what it is (b) what that term is most widely understood to mean today (c) how that label is evolving, and (d) how we can still build communities around it.  As well as what it might imply to label and situate one’s self among progressive Christians in today’s growing post-modern context.  I will also explore whether there can be any hope in progressive ideas about Christianity.  As well as why it can be nice to have progressive communities around to help facilitate conversation with others of similar mind, background, and experience. 


Since the time that I decided that I no longer could identify as a traditional Christian, I’ve been exploring this concept of progressive Christianity…


I started looking for a new spiritual community to hang around with (or a “tribe” to use a chic word).  I found that progressive Christians can be a good general community to be with after deciding to consciously distance one’s self from mainline, or fundamental forms of Christianity.  I found that many of the folks who identified with the progressive label seemed to range from thinking slightly more outside the box, all the way to calling themselves atheists (the non-militant type, that is) or even Buddhists – or Jews!  I quickly came to understand that what defines a progressive Christian can really mean anything other than a fundamentalist / conservative-evangelical Christian, and it has been a label that has been evolving since the turn of the 19th century.  Generally speaking, a couple common denominators of progressive Christianity seem to be (a) some level of background or identification with Christianity or Jesus, either currently or in the past, and (b) a general openness and appreciation for the potential in Christianity or following Jesus or the concept of the Christ.


There’s another similarity too, and it may actually be the most important one to many people who identify as progressive Christians.  Which is that progressive Christians seem to understand and sympathize with the plight of those who have come out of fundamental Christian backgrounds, and what a difficult and complex journey that it can be.  So progressive Christianity can be as much a support community as anything else.


But I’ve also come to find that the Progressive Christianity label carries some misunderstood stigma.  


The word progressive can have all types of political or social connotations, which one may or may not want to have associated with them within a community (similar to the words liberal or conservative).  And the word Christian can often be associated with believing a prescribed set of beliefs or creeds.  


I have now met enough progressive Christians over the years to conclude that neither the common definition of progressive, or Christian, can be automatically assumed about Progressive Christians.  I’ve even met a number of Christian Progressives who also describe themselves as “Christian Agnostics,” or “Christian Atheists!”


So personally, to the mild degree that labels are helpful, I don’t mind being labeled as a Progressive Christian…


I don’t mind the label, and even choose to keep it, because it can help to narrow communities to at least the same area code of relevance.  For me, progressive Christianity is an amorphous and intentionally ambiguously defined community where I can say “I am open minded theologically – come from a Christian background – and haven’t figured it all out yet (and never will).  It says that I value others insights, and still seek to explore the spirit and the sacred from many perspectives, including a Christian one.”  It’s a place where others will generally know where I’m coming from with that.


As an aside, a couple years ago I put some deep thought into “what I was,” and I decided that instead of saying “I am a Christian” I would juxtapose the words and say “Am I a Christian?” when asked to classify my religious affiliation.  I invite you to read more about that in this post titled “Am I A Christian.”


That’s progressive Christianity as I have come to see it.   Now if you care to keep exploring, I wanted to look at whether progressive Christian theology can still offer any hope.


One of the questions I often hear is that once you make it optional to believe the Bible as an inerrant instruction manual from God, and once you make it optional to subscribe to a substitutionary brand of atonement, what hope is there in Jesus anymore?  And I can offer some insight on that by my own story.  When I was twenty years old I had a job delivering construction materials, and I often spent hours in a truck just driving around by myself between job sites.   It was boring, but it gave me a lot of time to think, which I probably needed at that time.  A couple reoccurring thoughts that I had at that time were along the lines of:


What am I doing with my life?  (If I died tomorrow, would I be proud of the life I lived?)

What’s the purpose of life?   (Was there something more valuable that I could be doing than just going out every night until 3am trying to have fun?)

At that time there was no XM radio, and very few FM talk stations (and I was just way too cool to listen to anything on AM back then!) so I ended up finding the only FM based Christian radio station, and it was stimulating talk that helped pass the time.  I ended up finding a pastor named Charles Stanley who had a daily radio show, and I began to listen to it almost every day.  He is a fundamentalist pastor, but I didn’t know anything about that designation at that time.


His claim was that we should live this life to help others and clean up our own hearts and minds – with the ultimate goal of going to heaven for eternity.  Granted, there were things he said that I didn’t fully take to heart (mainly literal Bible interpretation and substitutionary atonement type stuff…) but his point sounded appealing.  He said we had no hope to live a good life and go to heaven unless we were “born again.” That was his hope.


So did Charles Stanley sell me enough on the concept to focus on the teachings of Jesus and changing my lifestyle?  Yes he did.  

Was it a refreshing and empowering life change? Absolutely!

Did I think very deeply about the theology behind it at that time?  No, not really.

Did I massively change my life for the better after that point?  Yes!

Am I glad that I found Charles Stanley at that time?  Yes!

Would I recommend Charles Stanley to others?  No…. (You read that right, because I think there can be a different, more realistic path to achieve the same results.)


And here’s what that more realistic path is, and it comes from a “progressive – evolving – enlightened” perspective.  When Jesus said to be “born again” it could be said that he was referring to that point when we intentionally pivot from a primal humanity to an enlightened humanity.  It’s that point where we consciously acknowledge the less evolved and selfish part of our nature (the flesh) and then choose to pursue a higher path, putting ours and others inherent sacredness and value above all else (the Spirit).


Ultimately I came to realize that at the very core Charles and I were saying the same thing, but in different ways.   And here’s more about the alternative way I have come to frame it:


Progressive Christian thinkers have an opportunity to change the future, with the following three key ideas:


One, if there is such a thing as an eternal meritocracy (which most people call Heaven)  There’s probably not much reason to be stressing about it, or whether it even exists.  Because if we instead focus on the here and now, and put love first, eternity will come with the package (in whatever form it might exist). 

Two, the Bible offers next step teachings (via parables, writings, and stories) about how to live a better life, and we humans often need and want next steps when we go through life changes.   Therefore, progressive communities can meet and converse with others in various stages of growth, and learn from the Bible in context without idolizing the book, or any institution that anchors to it.

Three, we can use limited human language to describe a similar “equation” toward life change, but at the same time take the focus off a standard set of required beliefs  —  which means moving beyond a literal interpretation of the Bible (or even one that gives the Bible any special authority at all) —  less obsession with heaven and hell  —  breaking down the contentious battle lines of who’s in and out —  much more open mindedness to science  —  and going beyond judgement toward others who have different beliefs or lifestyles.


There can still be a similar and beneficial path toward positive life change (and world change) that can help the world via progressive Christian theology


At this point, some might ask why “Progressive Christians” just don’t change their name to something like “Jesus’ists” in order to avoid the confusion all together, and I invite you to continue to  Part II of this series which addresses that exact question.


//  Eric Alexander is an author, speaker, and the founder of ChristianEvolution.com     >>Follow Eric on Facebook<<

Review & Commentary

  • Judy B

    After looking through your website, I wonder how you differ from the Unitarian-Universalist principles, practices, and organization? Your 8 points are so similar to their stated Principles.

    • Hi Judith,

      I think progressive Christianity is very similar to U-U principles, and in many ways they overlap. The main difference as I see it is that U-U is a specific denomination / grouping, while “progressive Christianity” is an over-arching way of experiencing & understanding Christianity. Progressive Christians can come in any denomination, including Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic – as well as other groupings such as Buddhist, A-theist, Panentheist, etc… The 8-points are not a creed or belief statement as much as a roadmap to how many “progressive” Christians tend to understand Christianity. I hope that helps clarify it.

      – Eric