The Gift of Progressive Religious Movements

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
September 2009

• An article in ‘Cross Purposes’ – a journal within the Uniting Church, Victoria


Seven years ago the American theological journal, The Christian Century, ran an editorial on ‘growing churches’.

It reported a German church consultant who, after collecting data from one thousand congregations in thirty-two countries, concluded that
"all growing congregations have eight traits in common:  leaders who empower others to do ministry; ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of members; a passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice; organizational structures that promote ministry; inspiring worship services; small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced; need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of people the church is trying to reach; and loving relationships among the members of the church”
(Quoted in Hoover 2004).

But as my reporter, Roy Hoover (Professor of Biblical Literature), pointed out, noticeably missing from the list
“is any mention of teaching and learning, any reference to biblical or theological literacy, or any reference of any kind to what people have come to know and understand about their faith.  Apparently churches today can flourish even though their members do not know or believe anything important enough to be perceived as a significant factor in their growth as organizations or in the lives of their members”
(Hoover 2004:22-23).

Now, far be it from me to imply or even suggest the German consultant mentioned in the journal Editorial, and the one referred to in Mr Deverell’s review article (last CP issue), are one and the same person.  I am sure they are not.  But both articles raise again the issue of ‘being church’ and in this case, being the ‘emerging church’ and its companion, the so-called ‘alternative worship’ experience, which are receiving both energy and support in many places today.

But first just a couple of brief passing comments on Mr Deverell’s response to Wolfgang Simson’s “15 Theses toward a reformation church”.  And a word or three of my own.


The word count of the Mr Deverell response is significant.  Mr Simson’s suggested “15 Theses…” number approx. 2,387 words.  Mr Deverell’s argument: 6,190 words approx.  A combined total of around 8,580 words.

I am not sure such a Nicean/neo-orthodox ‘sledge-hammer’ is required as the response to the kernal of the evangelical/emerging claims of the “15 Theses…”.  Sure some of Mr Simson’s arguments seem a bit thin on the ground, if perhaps not careless, which undermines his cause.  But sweeping responses and assumptions including usage of the phrase “the Early Church” and the mixing of “Christ” and “Jesus” do not, in my opinion, show helpful avenues for dialogue.  Instead they point more to propaganda for a certain point of view.

On the former there was not one Early Church.  Modern biblical scholarship shows the origins of ‘Christianity’ are not at all clear.  What agreement there is, suggests there were several Early christianities, even after Nicea.  But power and sword and politics sought to exterminate any different point of view or practice.  On the latter, there is a gap between the ‘historical Jesus of Nazareth’ and the ‘Christ of orthodox Christian faith’ – a gap which became a chasm in the 20th century.  Indeed, such a difference has been around in serious biblical scholarship since 1865!  And is getting exposure currently through the ‘progressive’ (rather than ‘emerging’) Christian movements.  Such studies has caused Religious Studies professor Charles Hedrick to suggest:
“At some point, historians will need to examine whether the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth, has common ground with the Christ of faith.  The agreements, if any, between these two figures may help us understand how, and perhaps why, Jesus was elevated in the church’s faith from Jewish peasant to Messiah to God”
(Hedrick 2004:93).

In other words neo-orthodoxy does not have the final say on what is or is not “genuinely Christian… or Christian worship”.  But, and yes there always seems to be a ‘but’, poor scholarship is not scholarship at all and Mr Deverell is right to challenge Mr Simson’s theoretical (if not theological) underpinnings when they are inadequate.  Without the full-stop!

However, all this is a preamble to saying: the church has seldom handled critical scholarship (biblical, theologically, liturgical) well in the congregations.  Being a product of the former Presbyterian Theological Hall/United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne in the late 1960s the one thing I can say about my ministry/theological formation is: we were taught to think theologically (thanks Harry, Nigel, Robert, Norman).  We were introduced to creative critical scholarship.  But… we weren't given an adequate model of how to present it in our preaching and teaching.  I, along with a few others, have had to work that out for ourselves.

Observing colleagues, drinking coffee with them and sharing stories about ‘grassroots’ congregation/ministry life, as well as listening to the multiple stories from those who belong to the ‘church alumni’, the gap between pulpit and pew frustratingly remains.  When it comes to sharing the results of critical biblical scholarship with one’s congregation, the options seem to be: (i) ignore it, (ii) resort to confessional apologetics (especially attractive to fundamentalists), or (iii) escape into postmodern doublespeak (tell the story and don't worry folk with facts).

However, as a ministry colleague reminds us, and in the spirit of Roy Hoover’s earlier comment on the journal Editorial, there is a fourth option: embrace critical scholarship.  Be honest.  Speak openly and publicly about it in teaching and preaching.

The problem seems to be such scholarship is viewed as a threat to faith.  Well, that’s right.  It does make people question and doubt their confessional heritage and re-evaluate what they believe and what they think is important.  That is excellent.  “Critical scholarship,” my colleague goes on to suggest,
“is a gift to the church.  It is our friend.  Whether or not the church embraces this friendship [still] remains to be seen”.


There is a change emerging within the grassroots of the church, mostly within main- or old-line churches.  It is called a ‘new kind of Christian’ and is reflected in efforts which are either called emerging (often identified with ‘evangelicals’) or progressive (often identified with ‘liberals’) movements or paradigms.  Both these visions are existing side by side
“with an earlier vision of being Christian that has been the most common form of Western Christianity for the past 300 to 400 years”
(Borg 2006:9).

A spokesperson for these emerging/progressive movements, Marcus Borg, says “it is a time of exciting Christian renewal and deep Christian division” (Borg 2006:10).  He goes on:
“The division is not only deep, but often acrimonious.  Followers of the earlier vision… see the new way of being Christian as a watering down or even abandonment of Christianity.  From their point of view, it makes too many concessions to modern thought, producing an anemic, politically correct, and vague theistic humanism.  On the other side of the divide, emerging Christians often see the more rigid forms of the earlier vision as anti-intellectual, literalistic, judgmental, self-righteous, and uncritically committed to right-wing politics.  The division is so great that it virtually produces two different religions, both using the same Bible and the same language”
(Borg 2006:10).

I openly place myself within the progressive/liberal movement.

This emerging/progressive movement does not make up the majority of Christians, but as biblical scholar and researcher Hal Taussig says:
“some astonishingly new developments with promise for a very different future
(Taussig 2006:2) are being explored and developed.

Taussig also says the current progressive movement is not the action of theological seminaries or religious bureaucracies:
“[it comes] from an unorganised but broad-ranging kind of Christian response to felt needs for vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, new ways of expressing gender, an alternative to [the] Christian sense of superiority, and a desire to act more justly in relationship to the marginalized [and the environment]”
(Taussig 2006:2-3).

A robust Christianity shaped around those (above) five characteristics.  Because of my own particular interests, the blending of these characteristics into the liturgical life of a congregation has consumed much of my energy and imagination over the past 10 years or so – out of a 40+ years of ministry.  A combination of a renewed spirituality coupled with intellectual integrity.

So, in my understanding of ‘progressive’ liturgy, it is not about the past, but life in the present.  Thus, worship or the “Sunday Morning experience” (Funk 2005) is about celebrating life in the continuing, creative presentness of the sacred we metaphorically call ‘G-o-d’.

Hence, when invited to share some thoughts on a colleague's paper, I suggested:
• worship is a human activity, celebrated in the presentness of God/sacred.  Rather than praise required of us by God/sacred;• it must be broad enough to create a cooperative experience (rather than collective) - cognitively and emotionally.  What ‘process theologian’ Bernard Loomer calls 'size’;
• be a celebration of the whole of life;
• have form/shape.  (I have been influenced by the models offered by Von Ogden Vogt and Henry Nelson Wieman - both relatively unknown outside their time or place);
• make use of artistic media/symbols;
• be 'landscape' and 'intellectually' honest, plus
• what is brought to the service can be as important as content.

And the goal of worship?  To help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, others, the world, the universe.  To celebrate that relationship.  To touch sources of creative transformation.  To reinterpret our experiences.  To reaffirm living in this world.  Finally, the form or shape of such liturgy will offer six encounter points: Gathering, Centering, Exploring, Affirming, Celebrating, and Scattering.

Meanwhile, the founder of the Westar Institute, better know through the work of the Jesus Seminar, the late Robert Funk, in his editorial in the January/February 2005 issue of The Fourth R, issued this radical call to a group of scholars and associate church leaders:
"throw the old forms out and start over [again]...  design a new Sunday Morning Experience from the ground up...  new music, new liturgy, new scriptures, new ceremonies, new rites of passage"
(Funk 2005:2).

The meaning I give to Funk’s call, is that the liturgical reformation needed in the church today must go beyond the “intellectual two-step” called “latitudinarianism” (Davidson Loehr) - preserving one’s intellectual integrity by proclaiming belief beyond literalism, but continuing to use the anthropomorphic language/images of the traditional hymns, liturgy and creeds “in order to remain within the tradition” (Loehr 2000:8).  But playing that game
“[still] compromises our integrity and our religion...  [because] it is another example of keeping what we know and what we believe separated”
(Loehr 2000:9).

I reckon both church members and ‘alumni’ deserve more intellectual integrity and honesty than that!

Such liturgical reformation as suggested by Funk, has not always been easy.  There is much ‘Sunday morning’ baggage that must be got rid of.  And many Nicean nurturing critics and hurdles along the way, not to mention the prospects of either charges of heresy or unemployment, or both, as one undertakes such a journey.

But for all that, I suspect the agenda items that will continue to shape such a brave progressive journey will include:
(i) a spiritual vitality earthed in the Australian here and now;
(ii) non-anthropomorphic prayer, hymns, and God-talk;
(iii) an insistence on church with intellectual/biblical integrity which dances with all the arts;
(iv) a broadening of the religious/biblical tradition to include extra-canonical and progressive contemporary reflections/readings;
(v) community with/for the ‘exiled’ or ‘church alumni’;
(vi) peace, justice and ecological commitments;
(vii) meditation and use of centering silence; and
(viii) a rediscovery of lament.

The task for now is to begin, where it needs to, or continue, where it is already in progress, to “reimagine, reconceive (and) reconstruct…” (Kaufman 2004:126) our Australian liturgical/’Sunday morning’ worship expressions.  And needed are metaphors and images and language drawn from the ways we understand ourselves and experience our particular ‘southern hemisphere’ part of the world, “pervaded as it is by glorious creativity” (Kaufman 2004:127).

Both the ‘emerging’ and the ‘progressive’ movements, it seems to me, are on such a journey, challenging the inherited theology and symbolism “that no longer fits the overall cast of life as it is lived, understood, and experienced in today’s world” (Kaufman 1993:437).  

Indeed, Kaufman continues his challenge:
“What we are speaking about… are quite momentous changes for the churches… changes which form and inform Christian devotion, experience, and worship at deep levels; changes in their understanding and practice of ministry, in their basic rituals… in their attitudes toward the Bible, in many of their hymns, and so on”
(Kaufman 1993:437).

Such is the scale of the required task.  Yet church leaders, state and national, anxious about the decline in church membership, seem unwilling to initiate or support, the changes being flagged by the growing progressive movements.

Returning to the research conducted by Hal Taussig and reported in his book A New Spiritual Home. Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, he concludes on this note:
“…I do not ask of anyone: Is this your only spiritual home?  Is it a final spiritual home?  Rather, is it a place now that you can depend on to hold you, to nurture you, and to help you grow?  The good news… is that progressive Christianity is far enough along that a whole new range of people can answer ‘Yes’ to this question.  Often even enthusiastically”
(Taussig 2006:175).

And that, I guess, is more than enough, for now, for the journey to continue!

Borg, M. “The Emerging Christian Way” in M. Schwartzentruber (ed). The Emerging Christian Way. Thoughts, Stories, and Wisdom for a Faith of Transformation. Kelowna. CopperHouse/Woodlake Publishing, 2006.
Funk, R. W. “Editorial” in
The FourthR 18, 1, 1, 20, 2005.
Hedrick, C. W. “The ‘good news’ about the Historical Jesus” in R. W. Hoover/Jesus Seminar (ed). 
The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Hoover, R. W. “The Art of Gaining and Losing Everything” in R. W. Hoover/Jesus Seminar (ed). 
The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Kaufman, G. D.
In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
Kaufman, G. D.
In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1993.
Loehr, Davidson. “Salvation by Character: How UU’s can find the Religious Center” in
Journal of Liberal Religion 1, 2, 1-14, 2000 (PDF).
Taussig, H. A New Spiritual Home. Progressive Christianity at the Grassroots. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2006