What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive Christian?
In the spring of 2016, I left the fundamentalist denomination I had been a part of for a decade and started attending a nearby congregation of one of the lesser known “mainline” churches. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had originated from the same historical movement as the church I had left. If you look at the two denominations today, though, they could hardly be any more different.
The people at my new church do not see themselves as something distinctive from the rest of the Christian world. The way they worship, believe, and love is—in their minds—simply what it means to be “Christian.” However, as I read blogs, listened to podcasts, and studied books on my newfound version of the faith, I realized that these were no ordinary Christians after all. They were “progressive” Christians.
It wasn’t long before I started calling myself a “progressive Christian” as shorthand for “I’m not that kind of Christian.” I used it as a way to disassociate myself from radically conservative and politically-motivated pundits like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, James Dobson, John Piper, and Robert Jeffress—who represent the broader Evangelical culture in which I was raised. But the more I threw around this label, the more I realized that other people used the label too—and some in wildly different ways.
After spending some time thinking about this subject, I’ve decided it’s time for some clarity. Bear in mind that this is only one perspective—the view of a 30 year-old, cisgender, white, male ex-Evangelical living in the midwestern United States of America in 2018. But I’d like to share with you what I think people tend to mean when they describe themselves as “progressive Christians.”
In general, I would define a “progressive Christian” as a worshipper, believer, and/or follower of Jesus who believes that, rather than remaining exactly the same as Christians were in the past, she should make an effort to change in light of developments in technology, new evidence regarding the way the world works, and evolving sociocultural norms.
In other words, the extent to which Christians may be classified as “progressive” all boils down to their orientation toward tradition. Non-progressive (or perhaps we might say “conservative”) Christians believe traditions should be preserved as carefully and closely as possible. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, believe that traditions (and here I’m including traditional understandings of the Bible) are merely a starting point—a foundation to be built upon and a seed to be grown.
3 Types of Progressive Christians
While I think most Christians would agree with this definition, the disagreement comes when we consider the kinds of traditions that Christians opt to either preserve or develop. Obviously, there are no hard and fast categories but, based on my observations, these forms progressive Christianity can take come in at least three different types…
A liturgical progressive is a Christian who breaks tradition regarding the manner in which Jesus is worshipped. It’s all about a change in aesthetics—not in beliefs or behaviors. Actions liturgically progressive churches may take include offering a contemporary worship service or starting a praise band, permitting congregants to wear jeans and flip-flops to services, taking communion less frequently or using different kinds of bread, using PowerPoint for sermons, and allowing skits or theatrical presentations in services.
I would assume that most churches in Evangelical Christianity today are liturgically progressive. Certainly, every depiction I’ve ever seen of a mega church leans in that direction. Growth in size almost inevitably leads to progression in liturgy. In my experience, such churches have often used these changes in their marketing to make them seem more appealing. They market themselves as “progressive,” because they incorporate new technologies and have less structure to their worship services. The problem is that the people who come looking for a “progressive” church often mean something else entirely by the use of the word “progressive.”
A doctrinal progressive is a Christian who breaks tradition regarding the manner in which Jesus is believed. It’s about challenging orthodoxy, or being flexible in the more speculative truth claims of the faith. Actions doctrinal progressives may take include questioning inerrancy and the perspicuity of scripture, the literal six days of creation, miraculous events in the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the immutable nature of God, substitutionary atonement, eternal conscious torment, and even the divinity of Jesus.
Most Christian churches steer away from being doctrinally progressive as a matter of official policy. You will seldom find a “statement of faith” that includes many of the items listed above. Most doctrinal progressives will be individuals inhabiting otherwise conservative spaces, keeping relatively silent about their evolving beliefs. Or, they may be the people who don’t go to church anymore in the conventional sense but meet in pubs to discuss theology or join in online communities to talk about unorthodox ideas surrounding the faith.
An ethical progressive is a Christian who breaks tradition regarding the manner in which Jesus is followed. For these kinds of Christian, the focus is on orthopraxy (right practice) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). It’s all about how people are treated. An ethical progressive is more or less a humanist who really likes Jesus. Actions ethical progressives may take include supporting the rights of LGBT+ people, disabled people, people of color, women, children, and other socially vulnerable groups—as well as providing aid to refugees, people who are hungry, people who are victims of natural disasters, and so on.
As a general rule, ethical progressives tend to be at least somewhat doctrinally progressive. When an interpretation of the Bible, Church creed, or conventional Christian practice comes into conflict with treating another human being with kindness, these kinds of Christians opt to err on the side of love. When pressed, many of them still may confess that they believe conventional things such as Jesus dying for the forgiveness of our sins or that there is a literal heaven and hell. But, generally, those questions are simply less important to them. Ethical progressives are focused on the work—following Jesus by building a better world in the here and now, and trusting that will God sort out all the heady theological stuff after all is said and done.
What Should a Progressive Church Look Like?
If you can’t tell, I’ve arranged these types of progressive Christianity in a particular order. In my view, being ethically progressive is the most important, being doctrinally progressive is moderately important, and being liturgically progressive is hardly important at all. But, of course, this is only my opinion. I guess it all boils down to what exactly your goals are with “progress.” Are you trying to enhance the experience of what it’s like to worship as a Christian (liturgy), get closer to understanding the nature of God and how God is revealed in Jesus (doctrine), or build a better world by following Jesus more closely in authentically loving humankind (ethics)?
For most Christians, being “progressive” will incorporate elements of all these categories—but one will always take precedence over the others. In my current church, a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I would say that the percentage split between being progressive in liturgy, doctrine, and ethics is about 10-30-60. Worship services are fairly traditional. Theologically, there are very few compulsory doctrines and, while most people entertain very fluid notions of God and interpretations of scripture, there are many who still believe conventional things about God. Mostly, the church is focused on service and ministry—helping people just for the sake of helping them, believing that’s what Jesus has called us to do.
While I have not personally experienced other denominations, the books I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to, and people I’ve interacted with have led me to believe that there are other churches that generally share this composition of progressiveness. Not always but often, the most liberal churches in terms of social ethics and theological doctrines tend to be the most conservative in terms of liturgy. For the purpose of providing direction to Christians who may be interested in participating in these kinds of churches, I’ll list out a few of them here:
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
The United Church of Christ
The Episcopal Church
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America
The Presbyterian Church (USA)
There are many other churches like these of which I’m simply unaware. There’s the Unitarian Church, which is not distinctively Christian but would otherwise fall in line with these kinds of churches. There’s also the United Methodist Church, which appears to be moving in a progressive direction but that still contains a large number of theologically and ethically conservative congregations. Even the churches I have listed above contain varying levels of conservativeness and progressiveness of all types within and among them.
All in all, there is great diversity in the Christian faith and there is no way to clearly put an entire group into one box or another. Still, it’s helpful to try. Those of us who still want to be part of the faith but don’t want to be forced to believe or practice certain things need to know where we can go. Hopefully, this piece will give you some direction as you begin your search.
People mean many different things when they say they are “progressive Christians.” When I use the word, though, I mean primarily in the sense of being progressive in my social ethics, secondarily in the sense of being progressive in my theological beliefs, and not really at all in the sense of being progressive in my liturgy. Is this how most of the people you’ve encountered use the term, or has your experience been different than mine?