Progressive Christian congregations I encounter are very proud of being progressive. Almost too proud. They are glad they are not like other congregations who are less liberated. They almost sound Pharisaical.
When I have a strategic leadership coaching relationship with them–which is not very frequently–I discover only a minority of the congregation fits the category of progressive. Many of the remaining members are more centrist or moderate in their viewpoints.
Occasionally I also discover a very conservative to fundamentalist member or two in a progressive congregation. I wonder what they are doing there. I usually discover a legacy story that keeps them connected with this congregation.
One such congregation was a merger of two congregations. It had a great heritage. At one time it claimed one of America’s most outstanding preachers as their pastor. No longer gathering in the 800-seat sanctuary that was regularly filled many decades ago, they had about 60 people who gathered in a part of the building known as the living room. It was very much like a home. The adjacent room was the dining room which was connected to the kitchen.
Their pastor was on sabbatical at a nearby seminary studying Buddhism and other Eastern religions, and their positive impact on Christian theology. While their pastor was on sabbatical, they decided to have a sabbatical experience of their own. I was to conduct a vision-focused consultation with them. I had known one of the families in the congregation for 30 years. At their insistence, I agreed to serve their congregation during their time of exploration about their future. Long-term survival was certainly an issue.
In the process of my first visit, I determined they truly were not only without a clear vision of their future, but they were also very diverse in their theological perspectives. One core leader acknowledged he was an agnostic. Several indicated the idea the Bible contained any words of Jesus was a position held only by fundamentalists. Others spoke of a more orthodox perspective on the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and substance of the Good News.
The pastor did not preach sermons during worship. He delivered essays. These essays were then printed the next week and available for distribution.
With their confusion about vision and the diversity of their theology, I decided to use an exercise that included three church purpose statements. Without identifying their source, I provided them with the purpose statement of their church as contained in their constitution and bylaws. A second purpose statement was one I crafted after reading a few of the pastor’s essays. The last was the purpose statement of my church in Columbia, SC.
During focus group interviews I asked them to identify which one of the three was their actual statement of purpose in their church documents. Then I asked them to identify which one ought to be the purpose statement for their church. It could be the same statement if that was their choice.
The top answer for their actual purpose statement was the one I crafted from reading the pastor’s essays. The one they felt ought to be their purpose statement was the statement from my evangelical Baptist congregation.
When I revealed what they had chosen, it led into lengthy dialogue about what they felt about their congregation. They loved the openness. They loved the liberty. But, they also wanted more substantial, evangelical Christian doctrine and practice.
The pastor came home on weekends, although he was not preaching during his sabbatical. In fact, he was not attending church at all. I shared the results with him, and he was shocked. He knew that he had climbed out on a limb theologically, but he never thought his congregation would follow him there. But seven years of essays had reshaped the congregation in his image.
When he returned from his sabbatical, my friends said for the next six months he preached more core gospel messages than he ever had. At the end of that time he resigned and left town indicating that was not who he truly was, and he could no longer pretend. The congregation by this time was weak and sold their building a year or so later, moved into a smaller location, and within a few years died.
While many members were not as progressive as their congregation’s image, they were themselves part of an overly churched culture and could not speak the language of the unchurched nor connect with them. Their efforts to connect the Good News with the unchurched and dechurched were ineffective.
Yet, this congregation did have an important place in the constellation of Christian congregations. Let me tell you about that in a future post.