Shuck and Jive

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Vitality of Progressive Christianity

Thanks to Dwight for this article and analysis. Mark Tooley of the IRD attempted to trash St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore with this article, Red Emma's Anarcho-Methodist Church.

Tooley writes: “Why are churches that boast most loudly about their “inclusivity” almost always dying?”

St. John's has a vital ministry in its neighborhood including a partnership with Red Emma's Bookstore and Coffeehouse. Here is a description of the bookstore:

Welcome to Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse, a worker-owned and collectively-managed bookstore and coffeehouse located in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood.

In the coffeehouse, you'll find delicious fair trade, organic coffee and espresso as well as a selection of vegan and vegetarian food. In the bookstore, you'll find books and periodicals on a wide range of topics, with a focus on radical politics and culture. We also offer free internet access, both through our wireless network and our public internet terminals.

Tooley doesn't approve apparently. He also wants to score points with his right-wing consistory by pointing out that the minister of St. John's is transgender. You can read the insightful story of the minister in his own words on St. John's webpage.

I never really thought of Fair-Trade Coffee as anarchist. I suppose we at First Presbyterian of Elizabethton are anarchists as well as we participate in the Heifer Project and Ten Thousand Villages.

Tooley is simply wrong in his assessment that inclusive churches are almost always dying. There are many reasons why some congregations are vital and others are not. Oddly, he picks on the wrong congregation to prove his point. St. John's is a vital growing congregation.

When many congregations abandoned their downtown locations to move into the affluent suburbs, St. John's stuck it out and is finding creative ways to do ministry.

Tooley as is typical of the right wing, likes to scare church members by suggesting that if congregations or mainline denominations become fully inclusive to sexual and gender minorities or embrace progressive thought or justice ministries that they will die.

The experience of actual congregations is proving that point stale. Progressive congregations are growing all over this country including our own little church in the woods.

My hunch is that you know of a vital progressive congregation in your neighborhood.


  1. Oddly, he picks on the wrong congregation to prove his point. St. John's is a vital growing congregation.

    Apparently he is one who doesn't want to be confused with the facts.

  2. **Apparently he is one who doesn't want to be confused with the facts.**

    Well, it's much easier to attack someone when you don't have all the facts.

  3. I know of one, pretty progressive, and of a healthy size.

    Right here in Tulsa, OK!

  4. John, do you have a copy of Diana Butler Bass' Christianity for the Rest of Us? She did a survey of mainline churches and came up with a list of common factors of vibrant and growing neighborhood churches that I can't remember off the top of my head.

  5. I tend to like to look at actual membership research to determine what makes a conmgregation "vital" in terms of numbers and what makes them die. What is clear (and I do have myriad resources posted in a refereed association presentation I did last year that discussed this) is that conservative churches tend to have and retain more members because they 1) have more babies (the demographic imperative) and 2) due to their more sectarian subcultural views their babies tend to persist in the churches longer. Religious switching from one denomination to another does have some effect, but it is a minor one. Other participating factors are age and generational cohort, but again these are minor.

    So, if liberals have more babies and behave more subculturally with high demands for membership and persistence, their numbers too will increase and persist. No evidence is there that says that if you are more conservative theologically you will thrive.

    This goes to show that if the majority espouses a very conservative or fundamentalist view of reality and churches emerge to serve those who have been cast out of those traditions, they will do well. The negative effect is that more liberal churches do not promote large families and reduction of birth control.

    See articles especially by Hout, M., Greeley, A., & Wilde, M. (2001); and Chaves, M. (1989).


  6. It's why I bring up Butler Bass' book, as she really gets into the difference between a large church and a vital church (and it's an important distinction). Presbyterian churches in particular work well as neighborhood churches, IMO largely in part due to our connectional nature. No matter which church you go to, you're still linked to every other church in the Presbytery in (when the Presbytery does its job) very tangible ways.

    I love my church. After membership declined in the 1990s to double digits, the Session decided to make a strong effort to welcome everyone into the life and work of the church, installed (IMO) one of the finest pastors in the denomination, and has been growing by leaps and bounds. We're now over 300 members and taking on 40-60 new members per year. We're getting more and more young couples, and our preschool is busting at the seams. We've done some major renovations to parts of the church that have been neglected since the 1950s, we're installing elevators and handicap-accessible restrooms, and we team up with a nearby Presbyterian church, a Methodist church, and a synagogue for our mission work. It's an incredibly exciting time for us, and yet, as one of Bass' interviewees put it, "if you ever get the notion that you are not loved around here, someone will correct it in a heartbeat."

    I get the sense that First Pres of Elizabethton is a church like that, too. I fully believe that the future of the PC(USA) lies in these kinds of vital, neighborhood churches, and not in the sanitized, Wal-Martized megachurch experience.

  7. You know, I think so much depends on the definition of "inclusive." To me, an inclusive church is one that extends the "good news", to everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, etc.

    I'm feeling we need to find our unity around Jesus Christ, and the gospel. We need to proclaim that God loves everyone, and Jesus Christ died for every person.

    How many churches, though, in reality base their unity and welcome in agreement relating to various political and social agendas. Would someone who is say, a conservative Republican/libertarian, or a member of the military really feel welcome in many progressive congregations?

    Or in some of the conservative churches, would Christian believers feel loved and included who were members of the socialist party, or the Greens?

    I'm feeling that the truly inclusive, balanced congregations out there are probably pretty few and far between.

  8. In response to your first question, Grace, yes.

    After being told by the church I grew up in that I "should be pastored to elsewhere" should I decide to keep on being gay, we attended another, very large PC(USA) church in Atlanta for a while. My mom had a favorite archnemesis in Sunday School. Rob is incredibly conservative (esp on The Gay) and would get into very intense discussions with my mom (who lets her Scots-Irish-Welsh heritage show in moments like this). Even though the church is liberal, and 90% of the congregation disagreed with him, Rob and his family were accepted and loved with open arms the way I never had been at my old church. I think that liberal churches tend to be more welcoming by nature. Sure, I know many conservative Presbyterians who would be uncomfortable with the politics and even the theology of that church in Atlanta, but they would never be made to feel unwelcome. Again, this is vastly oversimplifying, and not true in all cases, but it seems to be a trend.

  9. Butg I am not so sure that inclusivity has anything to do with it. I think it has to do with two things: the ethical demands that the church makes on its members to feel as a welcome and fully included member of the community and the church's relationship to what is deemed normative in the wider culture.

    Conservative churches make it a point that they are counter-cultural. It does not matter if they actually are (often they are only counter-cultural in that they support cultural norms from the previous generation or decade). Without making some identity statement that "we are different" that includes a certain clear set of demands that members ought to observe, the identity of the organization easily becomes absorbed by the wider culture.

    The problem is that many liberal churches (the ones I have attended) do not make these counter-cultural or sub-cultural statements that cut against the grain of what is normative. But what has emerged - no connection to emergent here - is a different sense of mission and justice seeking that galvanizes the liberal identity as something quite counter-cultural. It is the same kind of sub-cultural energy, although still more diffuse, than that in the 1960's and 1970's.

    Tapping into the revolutionary and profoundly counter-cultural activity of Jesus' ministry is something that can set the so-called liberal congregations that are inclusive apart from what is normative. With a distinctive identity forged around a radical living-out of the command to love one's neighbor the inclusive community is is no danger of "dying".