Opinion: A Progressive/Radical Church for Today – Getting Started

by John Gunson (see some bio details at the foot of this article)

[Comments are welcome using the “Reply” option above.]

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
ethical issues.
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.


8 thoughts on “Opinion: A Progressive/Radical Church for Today – Getting Started

  1. paul wildman

    This is a brilliant article i have referred it to my theological friends. I take Gunson’s two points and consider these spot on and worth of much more attention. I suggest his approach could be used for retirement villages and intentional communities generally – challenging and practical.

    Thanks John Gunson

  2. Noel Preston

    Thankyou John. I concur with your analysis and prescription for response. After all, Jesus did not say “Worship Me” or “Theologise about me” but rather (Take up your cross) and follow me”. I worry about whether the Progressives are equipped for this struggle and whether we are “struggling”” in the right arena. Are we agreed on the political implications of the program? What energy do we put into fighting “the conservatives” who are likely to inherit the church platform which, at the least, is a valuable resource? I vote for the priority of engaging in common cause alongside groups who don’t own the Jesus Story but with whom we may share an agenda for social reform. We do not have much time if we are to make an impact on Australian society. The Australian Progressive Christian voice is an initiative worth investing in. Capturing as many church advertising boards like the guy in Gosford and others is a strategy worth aiming for. Must read your book.

  3. Rodney Eivers

    A caution – a case for the institutional church.
    Like a number of other respondents I am very favourably impressed with John Gunson’s posting and in principle would agree with most of what he has to say. I would, however, throw in a few caveats.
    The principal hesitation would be to that of the solution being the desertion of the institutional church.
    John talks about “progressive” Christianity having lost its way. But what way is that? Is it on the path towards forming a new religion? I would argue that progressivism’s main drive can come from influencing what is already there. Change happens. It may be slowly bit by bit. Preachers at funerals these days don’t talk about the option between, going to heaven or hell. They talk of celebrating life. Last month the Uniting Church National Assembly took another liberal step forwards with its policy on marital relationships.
    John seems to almost see ceremony, hymns, preaching as an impediment to a passionate community life. I would argue that it is this lack of emotional commitment and of a “poetic” approach to celebration, which leads to an important lack of enthusiasm about “progressive” gatherings. Many people like a traditional, celebratory focus. Look at the irrational adulation of Prince Harry and Meghan going on at the moment. I could expand on this and may do at some later time, but my observations come from a couple of experiences. The sort of “ethical community” which John suggests, would be very close to Sea of Faith. This has operated in Australia since 1998. It had something of a heyday with the John Spong visits but has now dwindled to an Australia-wide membership of less than 100. Moving on beyond that, one might look at my offer of House Churches. This is very close to the concept of John with his Ethical Communities. There has been so little interest in developing this House Church idea (associated with but not controlled by a denomination), however, that until someone comes along in support, I have largely put it on the back burner.
    So, to sum up, I continue to see opportunities – perhaps the most productive opportunities – for promoting a “progressive” Christianity – to be to hang in there, get involved, and do what we can to nudge our own congregations and groups along the progressive path.

  4. George Stuart

    I too was impressed with the article by John Gunsen partly because he risked going into detail with very practical suggestions as to how to move forward. I find it always dangerous to do this because others will most likely find disagreement with details while agreeing with a general thrust. I think John presents a lot of good helps regarding the possible creation of ‘groups’ to pursue and encourage ‘ethical living’ . I also agree with Rodney Eivers that ‘to hang in there, get involved, and do what we can to nudge our own congregations and groups along the progressive path’. It is my experience at the grass roots level that some people in my congregation are thirsty for some sensible discussion and sharing regarding ‘orthodox Christianity’ because that’s where they are at present and many are not very happy.

    I can agree withy most of John’s practical suggestions as I have been part of a movement in my congregation along just these lines. Some groups have ceased to meeting for various reasons but have been relaced by others, sometimes with different membership. We have had three groups doing just what John suggests and in most of the details. One has been going for a bout 23 years which is quite remarkable I think. The groups, I am involved in meet when it is convenient for the members but it seems to me that someone or two need to make it their top priority to try to keep enthusiasm high when things get a bit ‘down’.

    I think sharing leadership is very important. One of the problems I have faced is trying to get commitment to a regular meeting time. People seem to be so busy these days. Particularly grand-parents who have a lot of family duties to attend to. The other thing I have learned is that to have less than 6 in a group doesn’t work too well. So I have tried to keep membership up around 10 so that if a couple of people can’t come to a meeting there is still point for the others to meet.

    My concern is that groups should not try to form any sort of institution. If they did I think it would spell doom.

    Others may be more able to work with members of the community, outside church membership. I find working with people within my local church community OK. We have about 25 people of our congregation involved in such groups. Most of our group members are very involved in social justice issues which I find is not surprising given the ‘progressive’ nature of the groups. We still have a long way to go trying to initiate celebrations, liturgies, etc. that can give a depth of meaning to our hospitality. A work in progress.

    A plug!!!! Try some of my lyrics to traditional hymn tunes. http://sites.google.com/site/george007site.

    Thanks John for your suggestions and other for their comments. All helpful. Grace and Peace George Stuart.

  5. John Gunson

    It looks as if the comments on my article have ceased, so may I offer a response?

    I am grateful that it seems to make sense and be helpful for those readers who have responded.
    I hope that some will try to launch an “ethical community”.

    A special response for Rodney :
    I concur that the remaining faithful members in our “churches” need our continuing support.

    But my article is about a future church, and I make the point that all the support in the world for ageing congregations, , whether “progressive” or not, is unlikely to result in growing membership.
    Why? Because the average younger member of our secular society has (i) left “god” behind, except as a cultural artifact, (ii) associates the churches with God worship, and belief in archaic nonsense, (iv) written church and religion off as opponents of secular enlightenment, e.g. same sex marriage, etc, etc., and (v) associates church and religion with authoritarian institutionalism and child sex abuse. Be sure that while the UCA may be better than that, most secular Australians don’t know the difference.

    As to a loss of the celebratory emphasis, you may have missed my comment that “celebrations of some kind may suit some groups”. However, I don’t think the response to “royalty” means many are looking for anything like celebrating life and love, or whatever is worth celebrating. If they are, then by all means do it.

    John Gunson.

  6. Mark Southwell

    Wow , how exciting and inspiring it is for me to stumble upon this discussion. It articulates for me what I have been thinking and praying about for years but not getting much sympathy from my Christian friends.
    I came to Christ about 27years ago through a friend at a Baptist church and bought into the whole evangelical thing . To cut a very long story short, l was an active member who ended up in many leadership roles. I always struggled with the conservative dogmatic side. It really came to a head for me with the same sex marriage debate , what a political, polarizing, necessary debate. I hadn’t been to church regularly for many years because of my growing discomfort with the exclusive nature of the conservative Christian church but was still hosting in our home a home group that had been going for 27years still with many of the original members, most of whom were, although liberal in some areas, still quite conservative. When we made a tree change about 18 months ago it was an opportune time for me to leave the group.
    Since then I have become quite isolated from any Christian company other than my wife but her faith is very private and our dynamic is not that discussive. And surprise surprise the country churches l have been to are even more conservative.
    Sorry for the long personal nature of my rave but as I said at the start it was just such a revelation for me to know that there are other people thinking like me . I will certainly be buying your book . God bless you. Regards Mark

  7. Paul Inglis Post author

    Mark, you will be pleased to learn that there are now scores of people finding real satisfaction from reading material like this and meeting others who are seriously committed to realistic analysis of the teachings of Jesus in the light of great scientific knowledge and honest exploration of the history of the evolution of doctrine and ideas. Thanks for your comments.

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