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.
GOOD NEWS FROM PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY
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. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)