Progressive, Unfundamentalist, the Christian Left, Mainline, the Liberal Church, the Next Church, or Liberal Evangelicals. Call the non-conservative Christian movement what you may, but these groups are changing the face of Christianity. Conservative Christians may be praying that these groups go away, but I am pretty sure they are here to stay. And they are not only changing the landscape of church, they are challenging conservatives to think about what it is they believe and claim to be truth.
There are nine things in particular that these non-conservative groups are bringing to Christianity that, whether you agree with them or not, are actually blessings to the whole church:
1) Emphasis on Continuing Jesus’ Ministry to the Poor and Sick.
The prosperity gospel is still very popular in America – often grounded in the mega-churches that dot the landscape of the suburbs. People are drawn in with the message that if you live right, then God will treat you right. When my own grandfather was diagnosed with a disease that would eventually kill him, he began sending money to a televangelist who promised that if you gave, then God would give to you. It didn’t work. And this was hardly the message of Jesus who ministered to the poor and sick without ever asking for a dime. The non-conservative movement is calling the ministers of the prosperity gospel out. And instead pointing the church toward Jesus’ ministry to vulnerable people insisting that all of us be his hands and feet.
2) A Far Reaching Understanding of Grace
The non-conservative movement rejects an understanding of faith as simply “believing in the right theology.” They don’t support praying a particular prayer and thus getting saved. They distinguish between religion as a ticket to heaven and religion as a relationship with God. They see that a right understanding of theology does not make one a follower of Christ. And, yet, at the same time, they have a hope that God’s grace will cover all of humanity – even those who don’t encounter Jesus in this lifetime. Knowing the character of God – to love and pursue us even when we’d rather God forget about us – is that hope hugely misplaced?
3) Sin Defined as the Absence of Love
The non-conservative movement doesn’t want to hear about a long list of rules they must follow to impress God. The rules are too often cultural, for one thing. I remember my brother telling me of man in his church who came down out of the choir, walked over to a boy who was wearing a baseball cap, ripped the cap off of his head, handed it to him, and then returned to the choir loft. Apparently God will condemn a whole church if you let boys in wearing baseball caps. The non-conservatives have returned to a definition of sin as the absence of love for God, others, and themselves. They aren’t interested in arbitrary definitions of sin based on cultural norms.
4) A Desire to be Producers not Consumers
Non-conservatives often simplify Christianity into two kinds of Christians. Ones that are consumers and ones that are producers. Consumers go to churches where they are served by the clergy staff. They contribute little to the Kingdom of God except attendance. Producers are those who join with others in order to serve the world. Non-conservatives don’t want to be caught consuming. They want to be out producing – making the world a better place.
5) A Healthy Understanding of Scripture
For conservative Christians it is a mark of faithfulness to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit making the Bible absolutely and completely true historically, scientifically, spiritually, and in any other way. To them, if you can’t quite get there, it is a sign that God is not at work in your life the way God should be. But this whole “infallibility of scripture” phenomenon in the Christian world is pretty new. The problem with not allowing any human missteps of the writers is multifaceted. First, scripture was not meant to be historical or scientific – it is a spiritual document. It doesn’t really matter to the non-conservative if Adam and Eve were real people, because the story conveys spiritual truths. Secondly, non-conservatives are convinced that the people who wrote scripture were not aware that they were writing what would become sacred. And since Jesus never authorized a biography, it puts the collection of documents in a new light. Plus there are a few obvious contradictions in the scriptures – some historical accounts that don’t quite match up – showing not falsehoods, but a limited human accounting of certain stories. And we don’t even have the original scrolls to evaluate. The list of questions generated by the claim of infallibility is long. Therefore many non-conservatives have come to cling to Jesus as being the revelation of God to the world and the Holy Spirit as being the one who reminds us of all that Jesus taught. They believe that the Bible is unique, holy, and rich with Godly wisdom, but that it was never intended to be a substitute for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom guiding our lives.
6) Letting the Mystical and Science Hang Out Together
Non-conservatives often have no problem letting the mystical hang out with science. Faith lets them believe in a God that does miracles while accepting that the world is older than one might deduce from the genealogies contained in the Bible. They have no problem with the virgin birth, while believing that science brings valuable new information to our lives. They can believe in both Jesus and dinosaurs without missing a beat. They can accept Jesus’ power to heal without rejecting modern medicine.
7) Defining Tolerance as Tossed Salad and Not a Melting Pot
The word “tolerance” has a negative sound coming out of the mouth of many conservative Christians. They think it means that Christianity will be merged with all the other religions of the world in one big melting pot. They are worried that the Jesus of the future will wear a turban and be a vegan. But the non-conservative movement has started talking about tolerance as a “Tossed Salad” not a “Melting Pot.” They see themselves with their belief in Jesus existing right alongside those whose beliefs don’t include Christ. They do not believe that kind of tolerance lessens their faith in anyway. They may invite others into their faith with open arms, but they aren’t compelled to insist or threaten. They see coexisting as a very good and beneficial outcome of living out the teachings of Jesus.
8) Authentic not Contemporary
This one surprises some people the most. Non-conservatives are not generally drawn to contemporary Christian rock and loud screaming guitars on Sunday mornings. This kind of worship music feels laughable at times to them and they’d rather flee than attend a church with a praise band leader standing on stage fussing at them to clap their hands with more gusto and to sing louder. Non-conservatives are returning to high church with smells and bells – and lots of contemplative silence, prayer books, and the Eucharist generously practiced. They want to learn spiritual disciplines and to worship in an atmosphere that lets the heart experience God. Who would have predicted that? But they aren’t into making church look and sound like a rock concert.
9) Understanding that Everything Hinges on Forgiveness
The non-conservative movement believes that forgiveness is not a suggestion. Forgiveness is how the universe is set right. Jesus forgave us. So we have no choice, but to forgive others. The act of forgiveness is the world’s only hope of salvation. This means we forgive our enemies and live in peace. This is a complex and difficult concept in a world that thinks peace is manufactured by having bigger guns than your enemies. The non-conservative believes that the way of Christ must begin with forgiving all others and seeking to live in harmony.
Whether you consider yourself a conservative or part of the non-conservative movement, I believe that one thing is almost certain: Denominations that will flourish in the next decades will be ones that humbly address the questions that the non-conservatives raise. Not by arrogantly having all the right answers, but by creating a space for all the right questions. A place where worshiping Christ together defines the community of Christ – rather than theological unity.
Please check out the sister article: Five Things Non-Conservative Christians can learn from Conservative Christians.
April writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest books.
Author’s Notes: 1) The original article used the words “Anti-Conservative Movement” instead of “Non-Conservative Movement.” It wasn’t a great choice. 2) This article speaks to conservative and liberal theology – not conservative and liberal politics. Though they often go hand in hand, they aren’t the same. 3) Several people have asked me to define Conservative/Non-Conservative. Labels are always dicey and only true generally speaking. For me, Conservative Theology is that which interprets the scripture literally – in our present culture that translates to denying women and the LGBT community full inclusion in the life of the church including the participation in church leadership.