by Roger Wolsey
And if you’re a young adult in America, you probably shouldn’t be either. The odds are increasingly against it. Few friends who went to high school or college with me, and even fewer of my more recent friends and acquaintances, identify themselves as being Christian. Many of my peers who were raised in the church have shifted away from Christianity toward other religions — or increasingly, to no religion.
A few years ago, the Barna Research Group conducted a study of young people asking them what they think of when they hear the word “Christian.” The top three answers were, “anti-gay,” “exclusive,” and “judgmental.”
If that’s what Christianity were all about, I wouldn’t want any part of it either.
Happily, it isn’t. Over the past 20 years, there has been a growing movement to reclaim Christianity from those who’ve distorted it into something that Jesus and his earliest followers wouldn’t easily recognize — conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The movement has emerged on two fronts, roughly simultaneously. One wing comes from the mainline Protestant and Catholic Churches that, due to the shift from modern era mindsets into postmodern ones, have shifted from liberal theology to “progressive” Christianity. The other wing comes from young people within the Evangelical communities who are questioning and redefining their tradition and is known as “emergent” Christianity. Combined, these movements are a new Reformation.
Scholar Dr. Phyllis Tickle asserts that every 500 years, Christianity has experienced such renewal movements. We’re due for another one — and it’s happening now. Emergent Christian pastor and author Doug Pagitt suggests that human society is now entering the “Inventive Age” and this correlates with reformation in the religious realms.
I’m a part of this reformation. As a proponent of progressive Christianity I’ve come to question some of the things that have been written about it. The description of progressive Christianity on the website Religioustolerance.org conveys several misnomers. It begins by stating, “progressive Christianity represents the most liberal wing of Christianity, just as fundamentalist Christianity is the most conservative.” I challenge that statement in two ways. Progressive Christianity is influenced by a postmodern mindset and liberal Christianity is a product of the modern era. Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal phenomenon.
Moreover, people are increasingly not seeking to be convinced by logical or rhetorical evidence in order to come to Christ. They sense that faith isn’t something that one comes to through debate, data, or arguments. Instead, they realize that faith comes by noticing the lives of people who have faith and then living into it themselves. Today’s generation embraces a more nuanced, experiential, paradoxical, mystical, and relational approach to faith and spirituality. We like it relevant, down-to-earth, and real. This is the same approach that the early Christians experienced and understood. What’s referred to as “progressive Christianity” isn’t really new. It’s a reformation of the Church to its earlier, pre-modernist and pre-Constantinian roots. Rather than focusing on exclusion, judging, and damning, progressive Christians reclaim our original values of inclusion, grace, acceptance, justice, and unconditional love. In reality, it is progressive Christianity that is conservative — conserving what made Christianity such a beautiful gift to the world in the first place.
Progressive and emergent Christianities are trees that have been growing parallel to each other — largely without much awareness or inter-action. It may be fair to say that progressive Christians are more unanimously pro-LGBTQI while emergents are of mixed minds on those matters. However, we’re now in a “mash-up” culture where the lines are increasingly being blurred and emergent Christian writer Brian McLaren appears to now be identifying as a progressive Christian. The recent Wild Goose Festival held in North Carolina was a national gathering bringing together leaders and participants from both traditions.
Unlike the dated description from ReligiousTolerance.org (“they are not particularly vocal about their beliefs”) progressive Christians are increasingly loud and vocal.