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New Reformation: Emergent and Progressive on the Kingdom of God

March 5, 2011

I am going to assume, for the moment, that a new Reformation of Christianity is in swing.  Now this is almost as important for non-Christians as for Christians, at least in the US.  Our culture exudes and is, in many ways, led by the religious beliefs and values of Christians of all stripes.  And those stripes are almost as contrasting as the black and white of the zebra.  Or the tiger, maybe better, in terms of the fierceness of expression we often see.

English: A cross close to the church in Grense...

English: A cross close to the church in Grense Jakobselv, Norway. Suomi: Risti kirkon lähellä Vuoremijoella, Norjassa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There seem to be two of these Christian “stripes,” fairly identifiable, whose members are proactively engaging and constructing this Reformation.  They are the Emerging Christians (some of whom are tied to their British cousins under the name Emergent, Emergent Village or Emergent Cohort) and the Progressive Christians.  It is significant that these two groups, broadly and generally, represent the two long-warring “camps” of Euro-American Protestantism. (The same tension exists, a bit differently, within an outwardly unified Roman Catholicism).  In oversimplified terms, these camps are “conservative” and “liberal.”

Much of the conservative side has increasingly been labeled “Evangelicalism,” as if it described all conservative believers.  I prefer to say that Evangelicals are the single largest subset within the conservative or “orthodox, traditional” Protestant camp.  The liberal side often gets the label “Mainstream,” in that significant portions, often the controlling interests, of the oldest and largest denominations are much less orthodox and traditional, especially in dogma (while largely similar in organization and style).

Finally, as to our “printed program” for the Reformation game (meant positively) heating up, let me place Emerging folk and Progressives in their contexts.  The Emerging contingency generally consider themselves Evangelical, having grown up or previously been allied there.  As to numbers, I have no good estimate–maybe just in the several thousands of active “members” (formal membership seems almost a non-issue among them).  Probably not more than tens of thousands (vs. the tens of millions of other Evangelicals and the overlapping group of “Born Agains”).  (Any informed reader, please advise me and the readership if you have data or a good guess.)

The Progressives are similarly a relatively small subset of the tens of millions of Mainline, often liberal Protestants.  Some entire congregations accept and appreciate the label and participate in a loose organization that is yet relatively minor in size and impact.  But my sense is that it is growing in both.

Next factor: the connecting points between Emergent and Progressive and why it is significant beyond its current numbers.  I have already posted a few times about the 2nd major event under the name “Big Tent Christianity,” just held 3 weeks ago in Phoenix, following one in North Carolina last September.  It was consciously and purposely a joint effort of leaders from both groups, “unofficially,” as it were, as each of them have only loosely-aligned individual and group constituents–an effort to explore and broaden common ground, mutual respect and cooperation.

The mere fact of such a convention as BTX (as abbreviation now has it) being convened and drawing a sold-out crowd of almost 300 “movers and shakers” evokes at least a small “Huh!”

Returning to the “warring camps” theme, one should remember that some of the heated political debates of the last few decades, still ongoing, such as gay and abortion rights, are religious “wars” at root.  And foundational ideas such as true religious/spiritual authority, interpretive approaches to the Bible, the nature of God, Christ, and humanity, etc., are what is being fought over, bottom line.  While there are some people, theologians and leaders included, with a foot in both camps, the divide is generally clear, and people stand with one camp over against the other… and the “over against” is often an aggressive stance.

So, finally to the Kingdom of God factor: First, some of the Progressives might prefer “Kingdom” be excised from the phrase, replaced by “Realm” or “Commonwealth.”  So don’t read into my phraseology (staying with the more recognized and used term) a blindness to the implications of archaic political forms, theocratic concepts, or gender implications.  While Emergents seem more comfortable with “Kingdom,” they are generally not blind to the issues either.

The critical Kingdom of God connection, as pursued by BTX: Besides the person of Jesus himself, the Kingdom of God is perhaps the most important and prominent concept shared by not only the Emerging and Progressive Christians but by the broader and more hotly “at war” contingents (“stripes”) containing, in a sense, these groups.  As one would expect, the Kingdom of God is understood, in key aspects, quite differently by Progressives and Emergents, as it is by the larger groups they are generally affiliated with. But recognizing and pursuing it is vital to both.  And it is around the vortex of views of the Kingdom that I’d say the key discussions spin, although I don’t recall hearing it framed that way at the BTX conference itself.

There is much, fascinating and important, to develop as to the different interpretations and visions of God’s Kingdom.  It must wait for later posts.  Where I intend to go with this in several upcoming ones includes, along with the Kingdom, is a look at the scholarship emerging  in only the last 2 to 3 decades pertinent to Jesus, The Kingdom, and early Christianity.  Really only a small scholarly group in a vast sea of largely invisible scholarship has come a crucial distance in clarifying how Jesus and his immediate followers must have conceived the Kingdom of God and how that relates to the kind of quite different Christianity that emerged dominantly within a mere 2 to 3 generations after Jesus’ death.

Most Christians have little knowledge of these “discoveries.” Nor may they be ready to accept them, integrate and benefit from them. Yet it seems there is a greater stirring than ever around issues such as universal salvation (see last post) which stand squarely within the Kingdom of God discussions.

As we look at these things, and encourage the Church more broadly to as well, in the back of our minds should always be the question, “How can a clearer understanding of ancient concepts of the Kingdom of God and how they guided Jewish Jesus-followers and early Christians give us wise direction for our pursuit of the ‘Kingdom’ (or ‘Realm’) of God?”

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