Good News from Progressive Christianity (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly returns with the fourth in his series on the nature of Progressive Christianity.  In today's post, he takes on the question of evangelism, and why Progressives have good news to share.  Bruce's previous post gave a basic definition of a Spirit-centered Progressive Christianity. 


Bruce Epperly

Just mention evangelism among a group of progressive Christians and typically you’ll be met with an uneasy silence. Many of us remember the hard-sell “turn or burn” evangelistic techniques of our childhood or recall unpleasant encounters with street corner revivalists. On more than one occasion, most of us progressives have been told that we’re bound for hell because of our theological beliefs, gender identity, or openness to persons of other religions. But, since most of us don’t believe in hell, and, in many cases, do not have strong images of the afterlife, we lack incentive to share the good news of our faith. We may believe that persons can live good lives and find meaning apart from sharing our beliefs or going to our church. We’re more likely to share about a book we’ve read or a movie we’ve seen than our spiritual lives or invite a friend to church.

For fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals, the primary motivation for evangelism is “fire insurance.” In the words of a conservative Christian I met once at a wedding, “I accepted Christ to escape hell; heaven is my reward.” In contrast, we progressives often fit the joke, “What do you get when you mix a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on doors for no apparent reason.” When progressive Christians talk about evangelism, we often consider the primary purpose of evangelism to be church growth or to balance the congregational budget.

We progressives should not let our negative associations about evangelism prevent us from sharing our good news. Faith lives by what we affirm theologically, not by what we deny theologically. Faith involves creative, yet humble, affirmations that we can live by. I believe that spirit-centered progressive Christians have good news to share, and a good reason to share it! We have a lively, global and inclusive theology, and an affirmation of God’s world in all its diversity. We have an alternative message to share – one that encourages questioning, justice-seeking, and hospitality to all of God’s children. This message is increasingly important as an antidote to the growing influence of individualism, indifference about global climate change, and polarization over the relationship of science and religion, marriage equality, and the role of government as a force for good.

We aren’t interested in “conversion” for conversion’s sake, and we don’t see our “salvation” as saving people from the flames of hell, but we need to tell our story passionately, humbly, and with confidence – a story that will provide meaning for persons in this world and this lifetime, and, I personally believe, in terms of life beyond the grave. Indeed, our story is rooted in the gospel and deserves the same media and public attention as more conservative faith stories.

Historically speaking, I believe that when progressives and moderates no longer connected evangelism with heaven and hell, they were unable to find a “spiritual equivalent” to motivate them to share good news. Still, I believe we progressive and moderate Christians truly have a strong motivation to share good news – it’s not primarily about the afterlife, but experiencing grace, transformation, and joy in this life and in joining with God in creating structures of wholeness and justice. The lives of marginalized persons, the non-human world, vulnerable children and adults, and the planet are at stake, and that should be enough reason to share God’s good news.

Let me suggest the good news we can share, that is an alternative to the consumerism, polarization, alienation, individualism, and fear characteristic of much popular religion and culture. Our good news is not entirely novel. In fact, I believe it’s the gospel, but a gospel that excludes no one and welcomes everyone to God’s banquet. When we share this good news, it’s not about “we have it and you don’t,” but that here’s some good news that can change your life, especially if you’ve given up on God or want to deepen your spiritual life. Here are some progressive “good news” stories:

  • God loves the world, human and non-human.

  •  God rejoices in diversity in the human world as well as the non-human world.

  •  We are in God’s hands in this life and the next.

  •  God wants you to have abundant life; God does not cause cancer, heart disease, or earthquakes.

  •  Our spiritual lives can shape the health of mind, body, and spirit.

  • Faith and science can be partners, whether in the quest for meaning in evolutionary theory; moral use of genetic research; or in caring for the earth.

  •  God is on the side of justice for the vulnerable and forgotten.

  •  God calls us to be partners in healing the earth.

  •  We can experience transformation and new life.

  •  We can beyond polarization to the relationship even with persons we disagree.

  •  There is more to life than money, power, or consumption; you can experience the beauty of relationship, nature, and everyday life.

  •  You don’t have to die to experience salvation or experience God.

  •  There is no one way to be a Christian.

  •  Doubt and uncertainty cannot separate us from God’s love.

  •  Faithful people can ask questions about key issues of faith.

  •  Christians can share and learn from persons of other faiths, new spiritual movements, and no faith tradition at all.

  •  In life and death, we are God’s beloved, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Think for a moment: what are your good news stories, both at the level of theology and personal experience. These affirmations find concreteness when they connect with our lived experience. This is what “testimony” is all about, and conservatives don’t own the words “testimony” or “witness.” For me, some areas of testimony that reflect my experience as a progressive Christian:

  • God gave me the strength to respond creatively to an unexpected mid-life job loss.

  •  I experience peace and well-being through spiritual practices.

  •  I learned that faith and doubt aren’t contradictory.

  •  I have experienced God’s presence in conflict situations.

  •  God’s presence sustained me during our son’s cancer.

  •  God opened my heart to the gifts of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons.
For progressive Christians, good news sharing is mutual, a matter of give and take, of sharing and learning. Our sharing involves inviting folks to share an adventure that affirms their experience and vision of reality, whether they belong to a faith tradition, struggle to believe, or see themselves as atheists. God is at work in all persons, and because there are no God-less zones, we can deepen our faith as progressives even while we’re sharing our good news.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (


John said…
Thanks Bruce,
I would add that for me faith is a source of Hope in a world which otherwise would be about nothing more than enhancing my survival and resisting death as long as possible. For me "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," or in my own words, the belief that someone (God) who cares deeply is paying attention, and is invested in the outcome of our actions.

Gary said…
Epperly's column is a very good illustration of why "progressive Christianity" is irrelevant and faithless. He completely misses the Gospel message and meaning. His "message" could be learned and taught without a Bible as it is nothing more than humanism trying to wear an ill-fitting religious coat.
Dee said…
In addition to Bruce's rule that "There is no one way to be a Christian", I would add that there is one sure way to demonstrate a lack of Christian understanding and then list all of Gary's postings as an example of what not to do if you want to spread the Love of Christ.
Bruce Epperly said…
I always appreciate the comments, even Gary's. Without dismissing the more conservative approach, I suggest that progressive theology comes closer to Jesus' radical hospitality and open-spirited theology, Paul's teaching in Philippians and the Areopagus, and Paul's embrace and openness to Gentile transformation of the way of Jesus, than much much conservative thought....Jesus and Paul, not to mention Peter following his dream or Philip's embrace of the African eunuch, reflected a faith that breaks boundaries, opens new horizons, welcomes the marginalized, and balances experience with doctine.
Kimberly Knight said…

I appreciate your posts, your voice and the light you share.

I am sorry that others are determined to post negative replies to such a positive message.

Progressive Christianity is far from irrelevant, it is full of Grace, Compassion, Peace and Justice that serves our fragile planet and our most vulnerable citizens - rather like Jesus.
David Mc said…
This article was a nice birthday read for me. Surely, these things have been revealed to most of us who are able somehow to wrestle time from our point centered existence and have listened to the unwavering spirit of God's message. How can we not know these convictions and conclusions to be anything but pure truth? Gary, this is why we are so unnerving. We have complete trust in the glorious nature of our visions. We share them with you with glad and open hearts. We know God loves and cares for you as much as anyone. He hasn't meant to hurt any of us. God wants us to discover these truths naturally, together.
John said…
"There is no one way to be Christian."

It's true. But what does that mean when we progressives encounter the exclusionist, and dogmatically closed theology of Christians such as Gary? Is it 'progressive' of us to conclude that his concerns and his theological responses should be dismissed as so far off the reservation as to be classified as unChristian?

As uncomfortable as his theology makes me, and regardless of how many biblical arguments I can raise in opposition, Gary's theology is based squarely on the love of God, and is, regardless of all the issues I have with it, the theological lens through which he sincerely views and relates to God.

We don't all relate to our parents in the same fashion, even within the same families. Some of us relate in more expressively loving ways, some less so, and some even unhealthily. Yet still the parent child relationship abides.

Hopefully, in passionate exchanges we strengthen the best parts of our theologies and shed the worst.

John said…

Very nice.
John said…
Can I ask what is the source of the differences between progressive Christians and conservative Christians?

Do they arise merely from reaching different conclusions, or from a difference in basic premises or a combination of both. Do the difference arise out of our individual psychological conditions or are they merely the result of different training. Do they arise from differences in basic needs and desires or from different basic fears? Are there other factors?

I'm just asking.


I'd love to hear Bruce's answer to this, but I'm assuming that at the center of the difference is our views of authority. Of course, there is a continuum of positions. Since Gary is the representative extreme right position, his is a very hardened, literal view of Scripture (no interpretation allowed). I would say, from reading Bruce and talking with him, he would place greater emphasis on experience -- than would I. My sense is that you and I stand somewhere in between Bruce and Gary -- though Bruce is not at the far end of the Progressive spectrum, while Gary is almost as far to the right is one can get.
David Mc said…
They arise from making idols of mortals and things. We all need to avoid fear the that can result, and share the successes we realize.
John said…

For those whose theology is chosen and not imposed, I wonder if fear is at the core of the issue; what we fear and and how deeply we fear it. I am thinking that how we apprehend issues of death, condemnation, exclusion, loss of love, economic distress, etc, dictates how we apprehend God - with fear, despair or hope.

I wonder if our differing approaches to authority are also a reflection of the relative centrality of fear in our worldviews?

Gary said…

They begin with different premises, and arrive at different conclusions.
Gary said…
"Gary is almost as far to the right as one can get."

Thank you. I'm trying to get there.

By the way, I don't read everything in the Bible literally. Jesus said, "I am the door." That does not mean that I think He is made of wood or metal and has hinges.
John said…
The Jesus on my mantel is wooden. I wonder if that isn't telling?

Gary, what are the basic premises upon which your theological positions rest.

I wouldn't classify the positions listed by Bruce in the main post as premises so much as theological positions which flow from his basic premises. But I would ask how your premises lead you to reach alternate positions.

I'll be back later this evening.

I'm not sure I'd use the word imposed, but I would use the word inherited theologies -- and those can be anywhere along the spectrum. I started out a good Episcopalian, which means I had a fairly loose confessional position. I then moved rightward to a conservative Pentecostal position, and then gradually moved back the other direction. I inherited one theology, chose another, and have chosen to explore another.

As for fear, I think there is an element of fear in the sense that if my theology is wrong, then the foundations of my life could be ripped away.
John said…

I like "inherited."

I am talking about primal fears, not theological fears. Fears which lead you to or away from God, and not fears such as 'what if my beliefs are wrong,' which I understand to be ancillary and not formative.
Gary said…

I have to go to work, so I'll try to address those premises later.
David Mc said…
Life can never rip away our journeys. It can trash what's left of them if we don't continue to live with care and respect. Our theologies are going to be dust in the wind. Systems and things perish. Love and togetherness- those stay.

So.. I have the day off and have to sit for my 2.5 yr old granddaughter Madisyn. I'm trying not to idolize the precious little mortal thing... too much.
David Mc said…
Life itself is imposed. Gift-like, or not. We still have much to learn.
Rial Hamann said…
" I may not agree with what you say, but I shall defend till my death, your right to say it."

- Voltaire

I tend to run the middle in my personal theology. At times I agree with elements of words said by many different people. I don't agree with much of what is said on this blog, nor do I disagree with much of what is said. MY faith, is my faith. The faith of others is their faith. We owe it to them, to respect their position, and they owe it to us to respect our individusl position.

We pray to the same God, and he/she/it loves us without respect to what we claim our personal faith to be, or what "sacred" document we read and hold dear, or what denomination we support.

In short, me all must be more tolerant in religion, politics, and sexual bias, SO THAT OHERS WILL BE TOLERANT OF AND WITH US.
Gary said…

I'll try to keep this short.

1. There is a God, and I am not Him. (The God of the Bible is THE God)
2. God created everything by Jesus Christ. (Colossians 1:16,17)
3. Humanity fell into sin through Adam, from whom we all inherit our sinful nature.
4. Sin separates people from Holy God, and puts people in need of being saved from the penalty of sins, and in need of reconciliation with God.
5. God came to earth as a man, in Jesus Christ, for the purpose of being a sacrifice to appease the justice of God, for the sins of all who believe on him. That is the "Good News" of the Gospel. (Colossians 1:20-23, John 3:14-16)
6. Those who believe on Christ receive mercy, forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life.
7. Those who do not believe on Christ receive justice instead of mercy from God. (John 3:18, 36)
8. The main theme of the Bible is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for those who have faith in Him.

I think I'll stop there.

I shall try to address your concerns. A conversation like the one that is being carried on here is actually quite helpful. It allows us to share in a fairly safe place the differences in our views.

One of the hallmarks of the Disciples tradition -- of which you and I are both members -- is that we have the freedom to explore and to affirm for ourselves the message of the Gospel. It's not a private affair, but one that requires engagement. But, as you know, there needs to be respect for the other. That isn't always easy to maintain. There are many on both the right and the left who have great disdain for the views of the other. I know I find myself treating the views of some with derision -- I even share it here on occasion. Maybe this can be a learning experience for us all!
David Mc said…
That was very concise Gary. I recognize your basics. I imagine the penalty of unforgiven sin is having to deal with the fact of them somehow for eternity. I have to accept that I may never have faith in the total literacy of the Bible. I know that Jesus does seem like a door though. A door that beckons. A door that can close out evil and sin. If we try to be such in our times here, we might keep on God's good side of it. I have to be true to my heart, not my personal (eternal) safety or ego. I feel safe and unafraid, so far.
John said…
My premises:

1) I live now (because I know I live) and I am self aware.

2) I will die, for that is the unavoidable earthly fate of all life - it is a necessary component of nature. Death feeds new life which dies and feeds new life thereafter.

3) I have had much success in many facets of my life, and I believe that life is good.

4) I am convinced that a God exists because too many things have happened in my life to refute any suggestion that all that happens is due only to random chance.

5) I think God has been doing good things so far in my life.

6) I have read much of the Bible and my life has been transformed by the experience.

7) I have learned much of the history of Israel and Christianity as well as many of the Scriptural teachings of the Old and New Testaments and found many of them overwhelmingly persuasive as to the existence of and person of God as well as the claims God makes on the lives of humans, and especially on me.

8) I think God is using me, not in a move-by-move way but by nurturing my faith and providing opportunities for me to work for his will in the world.

These are some of the core truths of my life.

In later posts I will delve into the theological truths I have embraced.

John said…
Some theological premises, disorganized though they may be.

1) Because God exists, hope of something more than earthly life exists.

2) God desires relationship with humanity and God has instilled a predisposition in humans to seek out God.

3) God created all that is and all that God created is fundamentally good.

4) Each and every human being is a child of God, an actual issue of God, in God's own likeness and image, and not a creation or a thing created by God, or even an adopted child of God, but God's own issue. (I realize that I am anthropomorphizing here but there simply is no metaphor that does justice the depth of God love for each of us.)

5) God speaks to each person in the language and idiom, culture and context in which that person lives - God does not speak only in English or Latin or Hebrew, nor does God relate to everyone through the medium of Western Christianity, or even through the medium of the Abrahamic faith traditions.

6) One underlying condition of all creation is that it is dynamic- it is constant flux - nothing ever remains in the same spot or in the same condition, every aspect of creation includes change. Change is like another dimension, height, width, depth, time, and change. If a thing cannot be changed, it is a mere human abstraction - not reality. Based on this I believe that God is dynamic, not static and changeless. I believe that God infused this fundamental characteristic into all of creation because change is part of who God is.

7) I believe that among God's primal commandments is the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply".

8) I believe another primal commandment is that we are to trust God's will and cooperate with God in effectuating God's will in the world.

9) I believe that God's fundamental problems with humanity are violence and the resistance to trusting in and cooperating with God's will. I believe this is the real original sin which stains all of humanity.

10) I believe that all humanity is in perpetual exile/exodus, separated from God, and in some fashion seeking our way back to God.

11) I believe that much of the Bible captures the sentients of men, and their hopes that their actions are in accord with God's will. They often are not in accord with God's will and the claim of divine approval is misguided.

12) I believe that Jesus came to live among us to help us focus on those teachings of the Hebrew Testament which were of God: love, forgiveness, redemption, compassion, and above all else hope.

13) I believe that Jesus died to overcome death itself and the evil powers which continue to operate among humans.

14) I believe that Jesus' teachings are as important to humanity as his death and resurrection, because during our lifetimes we can do nothing with or about his death and resurrection, but we can seek to grasp his teachings and follow them.

There's more but that's enough for now.
10) I believe
Rial Hamann said…
Pastor Bob,
The point of my rant is that we all need to be tolerant and respectful of others.


Thank you for your statements toward the bottom of this set of postings. I now think I understand you better than I have before.


Thank you for your faith statements. I now understand you a little better. Your faith is strong and unswerving. May we all learn from and respect others.

Bruce Epperly,

Keep on being a source which encourages dialog on faith.
John said…
I don't know how much more I will get to say on this before we move on - if we have not already, so I wanted add a few more critical points that I did not want to leave unsaid:

1) While God has been revealed as triune, God is much more, only the triunity has been revealed to us, and any claim that God is all-in-all contained in triunity is nothing more than an attempt by us to confine or limit God to a manageable entity - a mistake we make in many contexts where we try to define God to be limited by certain aspects we believe must be true (e.g., all powerful all knowing all present - do such infinitudes really have any concrete meaning, are they really nothing more than abstractions designed to separate us from God?).

2) Jesus taught that violence, suffering, oppression, injustice, and exclusion are never from or of God. However, when we oppose these evils we are presented with opportunities to manifest the glory of God in our opposition. Then we are truly ambassadors of Christ.

3) I believe that in essence Jesus taught that the Scriptures are a gift to humans and were made for us and not the other way around. I know, this was his teaching on the Sabbath, but I think the extrapolation is valid. Sabbath observance is at the core of Scripture, and otherwise we would be at risk of idolizing Scripture. I believe that Jesus made this point by constantly reexamining Scripture to tease out the underlying and often overlooked messages of compassion, love and forgiveness. Perhaps he best made this point when he says at Matthew 12:7 "But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless." The core message of Sabbath and Scripture is supposed to be about mercy and compassion, and not about violence, punishment, authority and obedience.

I could go on, but I wanted to get these in before we moved on.

dcsloan said…
God has never been, at any time for any reason, a God of death, war, destruction, murder, violence, retribution, vengeance, or hate.

God has always been a God of life, peace, creation, healing, reconciliation, resurrection, transformation, grace, mercy, and love.

A literalistic view of the Bible is a form of idolatry.
Gary said…

YOU are an idolater. You have imagined that God is other than He is. Instead of an idol of wood or stone, you have created an idol in your mind and called it "God".
John said…

Your last point squares exactly with point (1) of my last post, which is, to the extent we try to nail down any precise image of God, we engage in our own idiosyncratic form of idolatry, seeking to worship a god whom we have created in our minds rather than the God who exists and is partially disclosed in Scripture.

Even in my earlier posts in this thread I have to admit that I run that risk, by identifying even very limited aspects of God which I have
perceived from Scripture.

dcsloan said…
Treating the Bible as "THE WORD OF GOD" is a paradoxical violation of the First and Second Commandments.

I) "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me."

II) "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;"
NRSV Exodus 20:2-5a, Deuteronomy 5:6-9a

God is. There is one God. There is only one God. We are to worship only God and worship God as the only God. We are to worship nothing else – no person, no animal, no object. This singular God is to be worshiped directly. Nothing is to interfere with the direct worship of God. No enabling or intervening or representative object, animal, or person is needed or required for the direct worship of God. No intercessory, surrogate, or substitute is needed or required for the direct worship of God. The direct worship of God does not require any symbolic or revered person, animal, or object – including books and the content of those books. The more we try to elevate the Bible to a level of indisputable sanctity, the more the first two commandments enjoins us from doing so.
John said…

You said: "Nothing is to interfere with the direct worship of God. No enabling or intervening or representative object, animal, or person is needed or required for the direct worship of God. ...the first two commandments enjoins us from doing so."

Does your position preclude us from employing ANY symbols or emblems as enhancements in our worship practices? Does your position preclude the employment of ministers in our worship services?

Does it preclude the emblems of communion? I happen to believe in the presence of the body and blood in the elements of communion. But many see the elements as merely symbolic. Are they engaging in idol worship? Am I?

dcsloan said…

To the extent that a person feels that something other than God (another person, an animal, an object, a symbol):
* is necessary for that person to be able to have a relationship with God,
* enhances their relationship with God,
* is worshiped,
* is spiritually revered, or
* has spiritual authority

- then, yes, that is idolatry.

All that is needed is you and God.
John said…
And what about baptismal water?

John said…
If Scripture is a primary source of God's self-revelation, is Scripture not valuable for a relationship with God and does its use not enhance our worship of God?

I don't know if you are just attempting to make your point dramatically or whether you genuinely believe that Scripture, and the elements of Baptism and Communion, and candles and crosses and fish and other symbols which enhance our relationship and worship of God are idolatrous. If so, all I can say is that we differ profoundly in our beliefs. Your views would then be as extreme in their own way as people accuse Gary of being.

dcsloan said…

Is a relationship with God impossible without these elements?

In accordance with the First and Second Commandment, the answer is "no."

With that said, I have enjoyed worship with a large choir and full orchestra. I also enjoy and find meaningful, a Taize service. In keeping with my Quaker upbringing, I enjoy an unprogrammed silent worship - in the company of others or by myself. I am sure you can add to this list. Worship of God is valid and faithful regardless of the style and elements. In accordance with the First and Second Commandment, no particular style is preferred or necessary, no particular element is preferred or necessary.

All that is absolutely required is you and God.
John said…
By the way, the "First and Second Commandments" are found only in Scripture, and it appears that you are reading this section of Scripture quite literally.

dcsloan said…

Consistently through the Bible, these are considered half of the Greatest Commandments. This is why our faith is a monotheistic faith. Invoke any wiggle room here and our faith is no longer monotheistic. Invoke any wiggle room here and our faith becomes polytheistic paganism.
David Mc said…
This has gotten interesting. We're admitting that all the extras are only to increase our enjoyment of worship?

Why does the Matthew 18:20 suggest we bring a friend?

dcsloan, are you suggesting we idolize Jesus- to our detriment?
John said…

"A literalistic view of the Bible is a form of idolatry."

"Treating the Bible as "THE WORD OF GOD" is a paradoxical violation of the First and Second Commandments."

Guess who wrote these things? Or were you just kidding us?

dcsloan said…
David Mc: Yes

John: I''m not kidding

More tomorrow, time to go to bed.

Peace, my friends
David Mc said…
nihilism and/ or atheism appears to come closer to the ideal than most I suppose dcsloan? Been there, done that. It was peaceful, but lonely.
David Mc said…
Yes, I found Mr Slone's full text with a Google search. Very nice message actually. I think it could be acceptable to God. That was on the nakedpastor, I see there's more.
David Mc said…
oops, make that Sloan. Sorry
John said…

Can you give me the link to Mr. Sloan's statement?

David Mc said…
I'll assume dc'll take my searching as a compliment, and not sneaky.

And then, surprise. He and Bob have bumped into each other.
dcsloan said…
David Mc and John,

Here are the original postings:


dcsloan said…

David Mc said…
I really like your writing CS. Thanks for sharing. I think the idea of community worship, and having a common place to worship is important though. You belong to a church don't you?

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