Evangelical Progressive Wesleyan… um… What?


Evangelical-Left

In my admittedly all too brief residence and study in that area which locals consider the buckle of the Bible belt, I have discovered an interesting and confusing reality.  As this blending of pastors from assorted pulpits meet in the midst of the Appalachians, It seems that we all come to this rather bizarre table toting our own custom dictionaries.  We do so without ever realizing how quickly and frequently those custom definitions come into play.  As we do, our witness suffers.

With the grandest of intentions, we dive head first into conversation and debate, and fail to recognize the subtle stereotypes and judgments we cast without thought.  We point to others and call them fundamentalist, progressive, conservative, liberal, right or left, and it seems like we have little grasp of the connotations present. We certainly do not grasp the fullness of the gaps between how we individually define these terms.

A New Hampshire Moderate is the most liberal of beings south of the Mason Dixon Line.   A conservative New Englander might be bucketed with the whacky left as soon as you cross into Tennessee or Kentucky.    Without clarity, we build walls without much thinking.

We intend to be accurate in our assessments but end up revealing our own subtle fears and prejudices.  Little attention is paid to the geography and culture inherent in these words.    We believe we imply one thing, and in the end, the person to our left or right hears something entirely different.

With each passing conversation, countless labels are tossed about without much foresight and with little in the way of demands for clarity.   In a matter of minutes, these labels can pile up in a myriad of ways differing from speaker to listener and vice versa.   They sit in each conversation like an anchor, and serve to keep us from rising to any true worthwhile discussion.

In a disheartening glimpse at how wide that gap is, I have begun the practice of punctuating each conversation with numerous and repeated requests for clarity.  “Help me understand,” has been my mantra for the last two weeks.  

Peppered in these way-too passionate conversations over the past two weeks have been direct questions such as; “When you say, ‘the left’ what do you mean?”    “When you use the term liberal what do you imply” or “what is your understanding of the term progressive?”

Today, in this part of the south, there is no term as pejorative in the vernacular of the churchgoer than “progressive”.   When the word is tossed into the mix, it is used with exhaustive contempt, and draws the mind to the presence of an unseen enemy lurking at the gates. The progressives are those ultimately to be spat out of the kingdom.

Diving into this conversation, most are instantly struck when I stand up, confess my own progressivism, and demand a better explanation then those that linger behind in the ripples of our conversation.  Progressives, I am told, believe in nothing, have stripped reverence to scripture, Jesus, and the miraculous out of our faith.   In that empty void that remains, there is no Christ, no Grace, and no salvation.

As the acqusations are made; I declare that this is not my faith.  I am not these things.    In the end, I stand up – and as much as I am permitted – I explain why and how I can proudly proclaim my Wesleyan Evangelical Progressive Christianity.  As I do, I turn to a statement of faith that has become almost purely memorized in my constant repetition.

Although the following is the result of multiple semesters of classwork the words have come to the surface of multiple conversations over the last two weeks.   For the class,  I was asked to develop a personal statement of faith for the labels I assign myself.   I have posted this in the past, and have been greatly helped by the feedback that I have recieved. 

This was the result of the assignment asking me to attempt to define how I would describe that group of like minded believers who would share the same labels that I would cast upon myself.   Since that time the return to this statement has been a regular, personal spiritual exercise.  

Reworking parts of this statement have become akin to a regular spiritual discipline.  Overtime it has been refined and edited as I work to be more and more clear in my beliefs….   This week I have spent considerable time with this as a catalyst for discussion in hopes of standing up to our broken labels.

What is the Evangelical Wesleyan Progressive Christian…? 

Although we deeply respect and recognize other religions and celebrate God’s ability to transform each of us regardless of the culture or system we find ourselves in, we believe Jesus to be our Lord and Savior.  In this light, and without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may provide for humanity, we are intentional and clear that we are seeking God through the life, ministry and message of Jesus Christ.

We believe that lives are transformed through born again experiences, along with the lifelong process of following Jesus.  As followers of Christ, the fullness of his message along with the sacrifice on the cross, with all its related mystery, is what we believe makes our reconciliation possible.  It is in the celebration of these truths and our call to share our stories to our communities, that we claim our identity as evangelical progressives.

In light of our trust in the Gospel, we are serious about our theological task. We believe the Bible is a living book that invites us into active dialogue with God and as such have the highest regard for and obedience to the Bible as our authority.   While we believe that there are portions of scripture to be taken literally; we also believe that it contains metaphor, history, narratives, poetry, and all combine within a unique context to reveal a divine document – inspired in a way that is unable to be grasped in its entirety by humankind.

Along with that highest reverence for scripture and its incorporation into our lives, we pursue God through being in conversation, individually and communally, with church tradition, experience, and reason.   Combining these guideposts, we work towards understanding our call to discipleship, mission, stewardship, devotion and worship.  It is in this theological task and its ultimate expression through missionary and social justice and reform, that we claim our identity as Wesleyan progressives.

In light of these attributes we encourage and fight for spiritual vitality and expressiveness in meditation, prayer, artistic forms, and lively worship.  As we do we demand a Christianity that possesses the fullest of intellectual integrity which is not afraid to reframe, reject, or renew our understandings of both revelation and our journey.  On this journey, we will include and affirm that all humankind – regardless of any of humankind’s judgment – are ultimately children of God worthy of the full gift of our church, community, and God’s grace.

Through and by all these affirmations, we claim our identity as the Evangelical Wesleyan Progressive Christian.

David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003).

Hal Taussig, Grassroots Progressive Christianity; A Quiet Revolution (The Fourth R (19-3), May/June2006.

Eric Elnes (Editor), The Phoenix Affirmations.   (September 3, 2010)

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