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.)