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The “Next Big Thing” for the Progressive Church: Putting the Horse Before the Cart

“So, now that we have LGBT equality in the progressive mainline church, what are we going to do now? What’s the next big thing?”

I get asked that question from time to time. The tide seems to have turned in many ways when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and in our country as a whole. Doors to ordination are opening, marriages are being blessed, and the church is growing more comfortable with talking openly about sexuality and gender. And so, the question is already being asked by some: What shall we work on next? What big issue does the church need to face?

I have a few thoughts. First, I don’t think the church is anywhere near coming to the end of discussions about full inclusion for LGBT people. Yes, we are far better off than we were ten years ago, and even further from where we were before that, but we aren’t close to being completely inclusive yet. (By the way, we’re not quite done with debates over the role of women or confronting our complicity in racism, either.)

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

But, for purposes of discussion, let’s just say it is time for the mainline church to start looking for the “next big thing” that will unite us in purpose and divide us in debate. What will it be?

I have some ideas. Caring for the environment is on the top of the list. Responding to immigration and other humanitarian crises is too. So is interfaith understanding. And I don’t think it will be too long until the church seriously begins to discuss economic inequalities. There are a lot of possibilities.

I was thinking about that last week. I was sitting in a discussion talking about my views on why it’s important for progressive ministers to be able to talk about our faith, and about what Christ means to us. I was talking about discipleship, and why it matters for our often progressive church. And I was talking about how we’ve lost so much of our theological heritage, and language of faith. And then the question came, part-curious, part-suspect:

“But what about social justice? Does that not matter to you?”

Like I said, the person who asked didn’t know me. They didn’t know that for the past twenty years I have been openly gay. They didn’t know about the times anonymous anti-gay hate letters showed up in my church’s mailbox during my last call, or about how I’d grown up in a place where being gay could literally get you blown up, or about how Heidi and I had needed to file separate federal tax returns even after we got married.

And they didn’t know about the times my faith had compelled me to take action. They didn’t know about how we had stood in the New York State Capitol for the better part of a week as right-wing Christians protesting against equal marriage had yelled at us that we were going to hell. I’ve gone a few rounds in the social justice arena.

But the person who questioned that? They aren’t alone. So many times when I talk about why the church needs to reclaim discipleship, starting with asking ourselves “who do I believe that Jesus is to me” even my progressive Christian friends look at me sideways. Those of us who see ourselves as progressive evangelicals often find ourselves being told that we are too dogmatic, too conservative, or too focused on what doesn’t matter.

Except, I think it does matter. I think it matters more than we know.

I often worry that the progressive church has begun to define itself not by our affirmations, but by our repudiations. When compared with our more conservative brothers and sisters we are so quick to say “we aren’t like that”. We proclaim “not all Christians believe that way” with ease. But when it comes to talking about what we DO believe, we often find we lack the words.

I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.

I am glad that churches stand up against anti-gay measures. I wish more would. But I want us to talk about why our Christian convictions are compelling us to do so.

I give thanks for every church member that stands and protests against the death penalty, but I want us to be able to talk about what the crucified Christ taught us about the value of human life.

I respect every minister who holds a placard in front of the White House and speaks about climate change, but I wish I heard more about how God created the world and called it good, and why that’s why we can’t be silent.

When I walk into a voting booth, I take my faith with me. When I cast my votes, I do so in accordance with what the Gospel has taught me. I cannot separate the two. And I give thanks for that.

But before I got to this place, I first had to become a disciple. I had to read the Gospel for myself. I had to want to follow the Christ they talked about. And only then could I go about the work of living my faith in the public arena, both in the larger church and in the world.

And so when people ask me what the “next big thing” in the church will be, I tell them this: discipleship.

There are a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t wield the influence we once had in the public sphere, but I think the main one is this: we have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten what it means to be disciples. And people can see through us.

Few people are interested in joining just another public advocacy group. And those who are can find far more effective ones. The progressive church is not the Democratic Party at Prayer, to borrow a phrase. And if we continue to lose our theological literacy, and our ability to talk about our faith, that’s all we will end up being. Without a bedrock of belief, the whole enterprise of church-based social justice will crumble.

But that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s time for progressive Christians to claim discipleship. It’s time to get radical, not about our politics or our policies, but about our faith. It’s time to stop throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water, and start putting the horse before the cart. It’s time to remember what, and who, we worship. It’s time to develop the language of faith. And it’s time to see our social justice work as a natural product of our discipleship, not something that competes with it for the church’s time.

And only then, when we have gone back to the source and found what ultimately binds us together with God and with one another, can we go out and find the next, next big thing. And whenever that happens, we will be better for it. And we just may find that when it comes to changing the world for the better, the Gospel of Why We Are Different Than Other Christians can’t hold a candle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

12 thoughts on “The “Next Big Thing” for the Progressive Church: Putting the Horse Before the Cart

  1. Nice. I have been saying for years that we need to balance our headiness with more heart in the United Church. More discipleship is spot on. And in my opinion, the next big thing (long overdue) is acceptance and full inclusion of persons with disabilities…both in society and within our church. The days of being excluded need to end.

  2. Not to be corny, but how about if the next big thing were among the first big things: poverty, death from hunger related causes. In fact how about if we stopped naming the next big thing. As you yourself know this (LGBT issues) became a big thing because of the impact it had on people’s lives. But so few seriously impoverished people have the wherewithal for political action. (nor did much of the gay community until AIDS.) My extensive experience in the UCC affirms that yes for many the theology follows. Or for many in the pews it is rarely expressed, we are not given a language and conceptual frame for it. Our political affiliations came first and we chose a church that echoed them Or some of us were nurtured in liberal families who made that choice and we were raised UCC. (Once I was given a frame for theology my faith deepened to where before long it did come first. ) “Discipleship” is not the language of most churchgoers- it is ecclesial language, and it feels to many like something other. At least call if “following Jesus”.

    • There certainly are Christians who long for a depth of theology to accompany their work for social justice. At the end of the day, the church really isn’t that great at doing social action. There are MUCH more effective organizations to work through than most progressive denominations (let alone most if not all progressive churches). If I wanted to just be about organizing for social change, I’d probably be better off staying out late networking on Saturday night than waking up early on Sunday morning.

      As a gay Christian, my heart also breaks for those of us who have to choose between our faith and our identity. More often than not, progressive churches send the message “you know what, your previous church was right, you can’t be gay and Christian but you can be gay and spend time with really old white folk as they sing off key!!!!”

      • Yes! As an active member of a prominent Episcopal church in New York, with considerable experience in the non-profit world, I highly concur. One example, I worked as Director of Development for Housing Works, which provides housing and services for homeless families living with HIV/AIDS. They are targeted and focused on this one mission, and they are very succcessful. Our church has something like 70 programs, many social justice programs- all well intentioned and good, and often our sermons are geared more to the front page of the New Yorki Times, or Meet the Press, and try to weave the Gospel in somehow, depending on the skill of the preacher.

  3. It’s true, Emily, the advocacy groups I belong to speak and organize and lobby well for my beliefs. I go to church to find hope and spiritual eloquence for the Campaign For Love and Heaven. In NYC this Sunday, the UCC contingent will be singing hymns as we march.

  4. Excellent, excellent post. As you so nicely put it, that claiming of discipleship is absolutely key. Because what we find, as we open our doors to women in leadership and the LGBT community, is that–crazy thing–we’re all still human beings looking for meaning. We’re all still in need of the radical compassion of the Way, and the healing presence of the Spirit.

    Blessings to you as you continue your service to the Gospel!

  5. Pingback: The next big thing | UCCLubbock

  6. I could not agree more. As a middle aged person who left the Evangelical church decades ago, I often think that progressive Christianity at some point has to stop reacting to and start moving toward something. And you are also right that many secular groups do social justice work quite well. Churches do not offer a distinct talent or advantage in most cases.

  7. I was part of an ethnic UCC church plant that started up about 20 years ago in NJ. The congregation eventually left the denomination. In part this was because the immigrant parishoners weren’t thrilled with a gay-friendly denomination. But one of the things that I found in attending the state association meeting was that the majority of the ministers who were enthusiastic about spirituality, prayer, and personal transformation were those ministering to gay congregations. Which makes sense, if you are bringing the Gospel to a group which been outside the fold, you will see hunger for it. The majority of pastors in the association, however, seemed like conventional liberals who were basically looking to sprinkle a little holy water over their political beliefs.

    I’m more solidly in the progressive camp now than I was then, but I can’t say that I particularly admire any of the progressive UCC pastors (other than those ministering to gay congregations) that I met at the time. Your post helps explain why- they came across as deeply uninterested in discipleship, prayer, the Holy Spirit, santification, and as feeling superior to those benighted evangelicals who believed such things were important.

    When churches preach the message “we’re basically okay and if everybody would just think like us the world would be okay too” (and this is something that *both* fundamentalist and liberal churches do) they should not be surprised that they don’t have an impact on the world. Church then becomes a dispenser of cheap grace for us to feel good about ourselves without having to actually do anything more difficult than press levers in a voting booth or give $10 to the local food bank.

    It is only when we preach a Gospel that recognizes sin, points to redemption through Christ and challenges us to lives of grateful obedience fueled by the Spirit that we will have churches that can transform individuals and structurally change communities. This will look different for progressives or conservatives because different traditions are better at recognizing different sins. But, if the religious aspect is superfluous than we might as well spend our time study psychology or working for a political party.

  8. The next big thing is the biggest most urgent and most relevant thing ever– feeding people, everyone, in a way that supports their health, supports water conservation, supports carbon emission reduction, and supports compassion. Ethical eating. It is a big complicated topic. The UUs have done a great job creating a congregation study guide on it, and wrote a whole Statement of Conscience (kind of like a position paper on it). See http://www.uua.org/environment/eating/121903.shtml

    They have created a free curriculum to help individuals, small groups and entire congregations learn about these issues and then make personal and collective changes. See http://dovecurriculum.blogspot.com/

    The climate change part of this is huge (more than half of the greenhouse gases are created by the agriculture industry). The call to action is to eat more of a plant-based diet.

  9. To me it seems disingenuous that we aren’t actively connecting the dots between our food system, climate change, poverty/hunger, violence and human suffering in the form of preventable diseases. The single biggest personal action one can take against climate change is to eat a plant based diet, which reduces carbon and methane emissions, practices nonviolence and compassion, conserves water, and restores health. The impact is greater than driving a Prius, greater than letting the lawn die… I am finishing a free resource to help congregations provide fully plant-based “veg options” at their congregational meals and coffee hours, but the pinterest board for it is already up and being utilized ( http://pin.it/6eGdIJl ). The social causes we care about are connected to our dietary choices and the world we live in. Let’s open our eyes about that. There is a free (and wonderful) small group program to help people explore this, called Demonstrating Our Values through Eating, and it’s available at http://dovecurriculum.blogspot.com/

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