Trying to be progressive and Christian, all at the same time

One principle has shaped this series on an alternative way of worship in progressive churches: in progressive churches, as in all other Christian communities, the basic outline for worship begins with classic texts, constructive interpretation, and prayerful conversation with God about life in the world.

These three elements provide the structure for worship that combines human experience in the post-modern world with faith in the God whom we see and understand most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. By focusing attention on these structural components, I am strongly persuaded, pastors, musicians, and other worship leaders will be able to develop and lead worship that is experientially aware of God, seriously attentive to the intellectual, ethical, and cultural issues of life, and capable of making a difference in the lives of people all along life’s spectrum.

Because this approach gives high priority to ideas, it easily leads to worship that is intellectual and abstract, as some of the comments to the series have mentioned, worship that is too much of the head and too little of the heart. Where is the emotion? The excitement? The life-changing passion? This worship may suit the professors and clergy who are institutionally protected from the harsh reality of life that many people must face every day. But what about everyone else, especially the young, the artistic, the happy-go-lucky, the people who are lucky in love and those who are facing the prospects of life by themselves in a world that seems to work only for those who are teamed up in unbreakable bonds of affection?

To put the challenge another way, the classic structure, which is connected to the enduring theological tradition and intellectual universe, needs to be filled out with rich detail that that connects it to real life in the real world. Liturgical structure has to be matched with experiential style—with music, ceremony, and ritual that are shaped by cultural, generational, and geographical factors. At some future date, I hope to address these topics, since they too are vital in any church that seeks to develop what I earlier in the series referred to as “the something other service,” one that moves beyond conventional worship and conventional Christianity.

A second challenge also faces every progressive church as it prepares and offers worship suitable for our time. It is to answer the two perennial questions: Who is Jesus Christ? How does he enter into the process by which we are reconciled to God? I am aware of congregations with long histories of progressive theological witness and missional presence in the communities that are coming unhinged as they confront these questions.

This challenge comes into sharpest focus in classic liturgies for celebrating the eucharist. The words of institution and standard prayers of thanksgiving and consecration say things that grate against some congregants in progressive churches. The conclusion reached by some is that they can conduct the traditional ceremonies with “the bread of heaven” and “the cup of salvation” only if they do away with body and blood language, sacrificial concepts, forgiveness related to the death of Jesus on the cross, and any talk of resurrection that is real.

Later in the year, I intend to address these two challenges—liturgical style and the salvific heart of eucharistic worship. An alternative way of worship in progressive churches requires that they be treated seriously and persuasively.

7 Responses to Trying to be progressive and Christian, all at the same time

  1. Bob Cornwall says:


    I think you have touched on several key points — both the question of head vs. heart (intellect vs. emotion — which too often seems to become a choice to be made) and the use of traditional imagery in the eucharist.

    As to the latter, that is an interesting question that I need to wrestle with heading into an elder’s retreat next month. I would like for our elders to think through what they pray and why. I find it interesting how even my liberal elders use traditional atonement language in their prayers at the table. So how do we envision cup and bread, Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ actions, without also embracing atonement language that might seem foreign to our theology?

    • Bob, thanks for your questions. My answer to the challenges in the use of the Words of Institution moves in two directions that I can only mention in this note. First is to broaden the understandings of atonement. Clark Williamson has a splendid essay in a recent issue of “Encounter” on this very topic. I hope that it can be made available electronically. The second is to connect the classic language with new experience, as is illustrated in an article in a recent issue of the “Christian Century” by J. G. Janzen (August 10) in which he tells of a remarkable use of words from Teilhard de Chardin. I have recently written a eucharistic prayer of my own following this model. I grow discouraged, however, when I try to imagine elders with little training trying to pray this way.

  2. fatherjimb says:

    Peace! Perhaps it might help to congregants to place the concept of sacrifice in a context they do understand. The concept of self sacrifice is one that I believe everyone understands whether it literally means giving ones physical life through death or personal dedication to a noble cause that often alienates the person from the rest of society. Yes, the Jesus sacrifice was a physical sacrifice of self to the “institutions” of then and now showing us that we too can separate ourselves from that which denies us a loving relationship with the God. It is in the Eucharist that we become mystically present in that sacrifice placing ourselves with Christ, sacrificing our ego, self centeredness and all that separates us from God’s love for us. The bread and the cup move from being mere symbols to becoming an actual participation, a becoming one in and with Christ’s self sacrifice. This Jesus did not have his life taken from him, he freely gave it up and calls us to do the same. This same Eucharist then empowers me to live the life of self sacrifice, loving unconditionally nourished by the Father through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the best way to be a progressive Christian is to learn how live in response to this sacrifice with Christ living within me.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog of a few weeks ago. I am fully in accord with the line of thought that you suggest in your note to me. As best I can in conversation with friends in our church, I discuss the topic along these lines. Since I am a long-retired academic with little opportunity to shape the main conversation about worship and adult education in the congregation where my wife and I worship, my voice is heard only by a few.

      • fatherjimb says:

        Peace Keith! Your blog was only brought to my attention today by someone on FaceBook and I thought it was worth a comment or two. Someone had shared a YouTube of a Progressive Christian pastor who spoke about the Easter message citing Thomas Jeffersn’s biblical cut and paste job in support of his version of the redemptive action of Jesus. While he made some valid points by the end I was left empty since the gist of his message was you could not kill a good idea, especially the good moral message Jesus preached. Social justice was what we need to do, the rest, to him, seemed either unimportant or the manure in which the pearls were hiding.

      • Father Jim, there needs to be more to the Easter message than the limited statement you cite. I am guest preacher Sunday, using John 20:19ff, and intend to explore an aspect of that issue. Keith

  3. as a Progressive Christian I am discouraged when I see or hear of others who say they are progressive that still refuse to allow others to be participatory: how are others to learn unless they are sent, and to whom should we learn? I’m always in favor of the Spirit first, then others who are sent to help:

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