by John Gunson (see some bio details at the foot of this article)
John is the author of God, ethics and secular society (2014) which will be reviewed on the UCFORUM soon. This piece is a timely challenge to progressive thinkers about the need to demonstrate change beyond just conducting a discourse. We hope Explorer groups and individuals will use this paper in some practical way.
Progressive Christianity has lost its way. And it seems to have ground to a halt. Why? While it has been a wonderfully enlightening and liberating movement for Christians within the churches, and some who have left, it has failed to recognize its two fundamental blind spots.
Progressive Christianity has focussed on reforming and restating the church’s mythological, supernatural theology, and recovering the original Jesus Way before Jewish, Greek and Roman influences reshaped it into what became formalized and forever fixed at Nicea.
It has done this because it now has to exist in a secular world, especially in Europe, the USA, and above all in Australia.
Its first blind spot is that it doesn’t really understand the secular world’s attitude to the church and to religion itself. The average Australian isn’t simply put off by either the church’s theology or its boring Sunday worship, but by the church itself, and by religion generally (except for recent migrants), regardless of theology.
Reforming theology can be liberating for existing church members, but is irrelevant to secular Australians. They will not be attracted to the existing churches, no matter what we do. To them, the church as institution or God-worship centre in the main street is a discredited and irrelevant anachronism from the past.
The second blind spot is Progressive Christianity’s failure to understand that the existing historic church itself is part of the “Constantinian” theology that must be left behind. Under the Constantinian settlement churches were defined by large buildings (worship-of -God centres), clergy, hierarchy and theology, and as part of the establishment rather than the counter culture. This church has to be left to die, not modernised or reformed.
The future church has to look nothing like the existing church, and because the membership of the existing church is largely over 70 years of age the new and future church must be started from scratch from “young” secular Australians currently not only outside the church, but from among those either hostile or indifferent to it in its present and historic form.
So, how and where do we start?
Progressives recognise that we need to go back to “the life and teaching of Jesus”,
or “the teaching of Jesus”.
However, historical Jesus study, and especially Crossan, identifies the life, teaching and PROGRAM of Jesus. I believe that this not only gives a more complete and accurate picture, but that it is in fact Jesus’ program that is the critical aspect for defining a future Christianity and especially a future church.
So, what was that program ?
Crossan summarizes it as “healing and hospitality”, and within that program, Jesus teaching as “justice and righteousness”.
Healing & Hospitality (Compassion), & Justice & Righteousness (Right Relationships).
People responded to Jesus because their lives were damaged or broken.
Much of this damage or brokenness was societal in origin, i.e. large numbers of people were suffering from the consequences of the defeat and occupation of their nation by Rome. This resulted in dispossession, poverty, hunger, destitution, loss of status and personal significance, and physical and mental illness. Today’s world is full of brokenness, emptiness and loneliness.
These people were also suffering from the current practices of their Jewish religion – priestly, temple religion, which instead of giving them support and hope, condemned them to further poverty through religious taxes, and to hopelessness and despair because, unable to meet their religious requirements, they were condemned as “sinners” by their own religion – outside of salvation and God’s blessing.
In this context Jesus offered healing, both via his teaching (that their God loved them, that they were accepted just as they were, and at the same time he condemned both Roman and Jewish injustice and oppression), but also via acceptance (not condemnation) and hospitality, i.e. community and physical support (food and shelter).
However, what is often overlooked, is that the secret of Jesus giving hope and healing to people was that wherever possible Jesus then challenged those seeking healing to find that healing, not in ongoing dependency on others and their “love”, but in going out and seeking out others in need of help and healing, and being the source of “love” for them. True healing comes from the losing of self-concern in the service of others.
So, the “ingredients” of a progressive church, seeking to be true to the Jesus Way would be :
a community of acceptance and love, in which –
– all were welcomed and accepted,
– all were offered whatever ‘healing’ and ‘hospitality’ they needed,
– all were introduced to the life and teaching of Jesus,
– all were encouraged and supported in engaging in both community programs
and individual acts of both helping and healing others in need, and inviting
them into the “compassionate” community, and in programs and individual
actions seeking justice and healing in society.
What form would this community take?
1. If the age of religion is over, then the new community (church) would best be described as “the ethical community”. Its unique purpose – to nurture and support people in the ethical life. Ethical living is acting as if the other is as important as myself.
2. Group leadership would be in the hands of a trained chairperson, rather than a professional or permanent leader. It could be shared or rotated, subject to skill training.
3. Statement of purpose and group standards. Groups need to agree on their purpose, and some operating standards, such as – all are welcome, regular participation, mutual respect & courtesy, care and responsibility for each other, honest feedback, ensuring participation by all, etc.
4. Group size that allows for participation of all. This equates to a maximum of 8 – 12 people. When groups grow to say 15, about 6 -8 would need to agree to divide off to form a new group, and begin to recruit new members.
5. Regular meetings at intervals acceptable to the group, but not less than monthly, probably best fortnightly, or even weekly.
6. Meetings to take place in homes, or other suitable place. (Preferably not on church property).
Links between groups. Informal links might be established between groups to share resources, ideas, and to progress the movement in any appropriate way.
The program of the ethical community.
(The order could be varied and experimented with.)
1. Shared simple food and drink (non-alcoholic), either tea or coffee and cake/biscuit, or each bring a simple plate.
2. Sharing of member’s concerns.
3. Learning about and discussion of the Jesus Way (i.e. Jesus’ life, Jesus’ teaching, and Jesus’ program.)
(Note: Jesus’ life, teaching and program was NOT about “God”, but the Kingdom of God, i.e. living the life of love. The Jesus Way was not a religious activity in any sense, but an ethical activity, i.e. how we should live in relation to others and the society and world in which we live.)
Why the Jesus Way in a secular group?
Well, it is a significant part of our tradition, and Jesus is a significant historical figure and example. His teaching is timeless, and in fact challenges us to go beyond traditional ethical systems. He understood the need for community. /4
* Note. The agenda would not include God, religious worship, hymn singing, preaching, sacraments, Bible readings, etc. (though celebrations of some kind might suit some groups).
4. Studying ethics and the ethical life, and developing an ethical manifesto for guiding the lives of the members.
5. (a) Sharing/discussion of ethical issues of concern – personal, family (relationships, nurture of children), local, national, international.
(b) Strategies and assignments for getting the facts on issues.
(c) Proposals and assignments for personal &/or group action.
6. Proposals for recruiting/inviting new members.
7. Assignment of a mentor for each new member. Discussion of what mentoring might involve.
Note. People with expertise on issues of concern to the group could be invited to address the group from time to time, or at a series of special occasions alongside, rather than at, regular meetings.
Skills necessary before beginning a group (or at least arranged for at the initial meeting).
1. Group leadership skills.
2. Communication skills.
3. Organization & political action skills.
4. Understanding of ethics.
5. Sources/resources for accessing factual basis for major concerns and
6. Knowledge of the Jesus Way.
7. How to nurture one another & children in the ethical life.
Note: 1 &2 should involve initial training for the whole group.
How to get started?
1 Make a list of neighbours/friends whom you judge to be people of good will basically seeking to live ethically/responsibly. They should preferably, but not exclusively, be in the 25-50 age group.
2. Approach each separately (or together) over a coffee or meeting at your home (or neutral ground), and
– explain the concept,
– invite participation ON A TRIAL/ EXPERIMENTAL BASIS.
A form of approach:
1. The world is in a mess. Many people’s lives are in a mess or struggling.
2. Many of us are actively seeking to make a difference, to live the ethical life as best we can.
3. We can do this best with the help and support of other like-minded people, i.e. with the support of a group/community dedicated to this end; and especially if we are trying to nurture children in this life.
John Gunson. October 2018
About John Gunson
The author is a retired minister of the Congregational Churches in Australia (now Uniting Church). John served in the Church, being actively involved in the formative stages of the UCA. He is a graduate in Arts and Theology from Melbourne, and later completed post-graduate studies in Theology and Christian Education in the USA. He has served parish churches in Australia and the USA, and been Director of Christian Education for the Congregational Churches in Australia.
Retiring early he sought to test his growing questions about theology and the church by undertaking secular employment, where his final lob was as Manager Human Resource Development with a major state road planning and construction authority. He has been actively involved in the community on issues of social justice and in particular the conservation of the natural environment.