When I was a fundamentalist, life faith was much easier.  My pastors and teachers taught me a closed system of doctrines, approaches to the Bible, and ways of thinking.  Most of the questions I asked had answers.  Personal and cultural problems were described and solutions were provided.  I learned this system well and devoted myself to it.

I’m surely speaking in exaggerations, but things are not so easy in progressive Christianity.  The systems are less circular and self-evident.  There are lots of questions without answers.  A seemingly different set of problems are described and the suggested solutions are less sure.

One of the biggest differences is that progressive Christians are less articulate about what is at stake in our understanding of the role of faith in our lives and in the world.  For conservative/fundamentalist/traditional Christians, this question is easy: what is at stake is eternal salvation.  If you believe in Jesus (however this is understood), you will go to heaven when you die.  If you don’t, you will go to hell.  It really is as simple as that.

The simplicity and high stakes of this theology creates a natural zeal among those who believe it.  And for those who are open to believing it, it is compelling.  There is a sense of necessity and urgency.

As a pastor, youth minister, preacher, and teacher, I often wonder what the analogous hook is for progressive Christianity.  Heaven and hell simply do not play a significant role in our teaching and preaching—probably because most progressive Christians don’t believe in heaven and hell as they are described in the Bible and traditional Christianity.  So if avoiding hell is not the goal, what is?

Each year when I teach confirmation, I wonder what it is about the faith I present that is (or could be) compelling for an eighth grader.  The “Do you know where you will go when you die?” message I was given at that age was a lot easier to understand and seemed a lot more urgent that what youth typically hear in progressive mainline churches.  The apathetic faith described by Kenda Dean in Almost Christian bears this out (though by her account, conservative youth ministries aren’t really doing much better).

The same question comes up when I write sermons.  What can I say to my progressive congregation that will inspire the same kind of zeal I remember from my evangelical days?

Progressives tend to think we are too smart and sophisticated for simplified theology.  While I agree that there is much about faith that will always be shrouded in mystery and uncertainty, and while I agree that theology is a necessarily complex enterprise, it still seems to me that we could do a better job of coming up with a shorthand version of our understanding of faith and the world.

Or, to put it better, can we strip down the complexities of our theology and articulate a succinct mission statement (analogous to the way we can strip down the complexities of a book to a single thesis statement)?  What is the gospel we preach?  Why should people care?  What is at stake?

I have some thoughts on this and will offer a follow up post later this week.  In the meantime, I’m very curious what others think.  If you identify as a progressive Christian, please post your thoughts and reactions in the comments.  If you label yourself differently—or not at all—I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.  My hope is that this might generate a fruitful conversation.

So, what is at stake in progressive Christianity?
(Bonus points if you can do it in less than 250 words.  Double bonus if you can do it in one sentence.  Triple bonus if you can do it in 140 characters or less.)

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. Everything. (There, what’s my prize?) I actually spent the summer working on this topic. There is no exact answer in my opinion. Everything is at stake. You automatically open everything up to interpretation. That’s what PC is so scary for those of us trying to do and those trying to avoid it.

  2. The end of my first sermon. Faith.

    God has that faith in us. He knew that Jesus and the disciples would face challenges, and God knew Jesus could and would save them. The test for us today is to understand that faith. It is to understand that we too will be saved because of God’s grace through that very faith which challenges us to be better, to be better by reaching out to someone who needs help, to not ignore the calling of our God and to share that faith with someone else.
    Our church grounds us and calls us. Humankind calls out to us. God calls us to do good works. Thorough all of these things the common denominator is faith. Faith in Jesus Christ, Faith in our beliefs – so as we remember Jesus calling out to the disciples “You of little faith. Why are you afraid?” – Let us not be afraid because God saves us through our faith in Him.

  3. PLove vs. hate, light vs. dark, open vs. closed, question vs. absolute, gray vs. black and white, revealing vs. revealed, fluid vs. solid.

  4. Progressive Chrisitanity, without a message providing clarity as to why anyone should choose to be a disciple of Christ, will continue to be a declining white middle class/upper middle class movement. (One poorly constructed sentence.)

    • Agreed. Now give this a shot: what is our clear message about why anyone should choose to be a disciple of Christ?

  5. My problem with Progressive Christianity is that is has allied hand in hand with progressive politics. There is no difference between the left wingers and mainline religions.

    So, instead of learning about Christ, or contemplating how Christ can fit into my life (or how I can make my life more Christ like), I learn that I should support minimum wage, that I should support illegal immigration, who I should vote for (at a Methodist church), ad infinitum.

    I remember hearing from the pulpit at 4th Pres that a bomb went off last week when the Republicans took control of Congress. It was a terrible sermon and that pastor returned to Atlanta.

    Fundamentalist churches are not the be all end all-but at least they are enthusiastic about being Christian. At my Easter Service this year, the pastor never mentioned that Christ rose from the dead and died for us! He phrased it in politically correct words that danced around the subject of death and rising.

    Leadership means you have to have some standards. It can’t all be mush. It’s okay to say out loud that you are a Christian-even though you are tolerant and understand other religions. Christians are attacked viciously by supposedly tolerant people of other religions. We have experience with this.

    There are certain churches out there, fundamentalist and progressive, that are totally idiotic to me. Rev. Wright isn’t Christianity to me any more than the minister in the south that wanted to stage a burning of the Koran. Both don’t represent what I was taught by ministers growing up in the Pres. church.

    I think the church ought to dump overt politics from the pulpit and Presbytery and concentrate on stimulating people to make their own individual choices. Supposedly this whole thing is supposed to be about my personal relationship with Christ. Not being commanded how to have a relationship with Christ. Fundamental and Progressive churches are both doing that-just from differing viewpoints.

    Your risk by aligning yourself with the far left, you will lose relevance because you will lose most of your members. Nationwide, that’s the case as people leave the progressive mainline churches and go to churches like Willow Creek.

  6. I don’t think there is any value in trying to construct a
    short-hand mission for churches, particularly one that could be put
    into an acronym and placed on a wrist band, however satisfying that
    may be. Perhaps it is because the conservative churches so narrowly
    defined their missions that they are easily dismissed by those who
    acknowledge the complexity of life and the existence of a creator
    beyond our grasp. Our lives in God, our concepts of heaven and hell
    — whether on earth right now or eternal — and our notions of time
    — mortal and eternal — are too weighty to prioritize one over
    another. What if the church stopped trying to define the truth?
    Instead, equip members to live Monday through Saturday, help them
    discover the presence of God in all of life, and then be able to
    develop, articulate and live his/her own faith as a follower of
    Christ. I don’t mean moral relativism but a church that challenges
    disciplined, thoughtful and prayerful discernment of life as a
    Christian. I’d rather worship in a community that reveals and
    challenges me to see the variety of ways God is present and does
    not support what may be my too-simple view of the divine.

  7. First off: I identify myself as a slightly conservative-leaning, moderate Presbyterian — somewhere well between a fundamentalist and a progressive.

    In 227 words — give or take a few depending on which translation you’re using and minus the filioque among Eastern Christians — I offer for your consideration the Nicene Creed (in the 381 Constantinople edition, which clarified and extended the original 325 version) as better describing what is at stake in Christianity in general, progressive or otherwise, than I could do in a thousand.

    It doesn’t cover all theological intricacies, of course, but Christianity is a big tent; the Nicene Creed is broad enough that it conveys the essential tenets of faith in the weekly worship of 1.2 billion Catholics, 228 million Eastern Orthodox, 82 million Anglicans, and many of the 87 million Lutherans. There are around 2.1 billion Christians in the world, and this accounts for somewhere around 1.6 billion (76%) of them…nearly a quarter of all human beings, in other words. Virtually all other churches that do not mandate its liturgical use, including our own, acknowledge its validity to them.


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