Will there be a Progressive Christian Revival?
The Spring before the election I drove south from New York, winding through four states on my way to North Carolina. The trip covers more than 600 miles and I was driving a friend’s eighteen-year-old Honda Civic, equipped only with a five-disc CD player. After exhausting the few albums I still owned and some mix CDs from the early two thousands, I finally turned on the car radio, scratchily tuning in and out through local stations.
Station after station was conservative Christian talk radio. I listened with curiosity, wondering about the theological messages my fellow Americans were receiving. Some focused on personal betterment or the improvement of the listener’s marriage. Others were straight-up fire and brimstone, railing against homosexuality, threatening hell, and promising changed lives, if only listeners would accept Christ into their hearts.
Winding my way through the landscape, I imagined the communities I was speeding by. In every town I passed there was bound to be a kid who was queer or trans, soaking up these theologies, steadily transmitted in the background. That kid might never encounter a single affirming religious message. I imagined progressive Christian radio stations, spreading a very different kind of message about who God is in every corner of our nation, and immediately wondered why no such stations exist. Conservative Christians have made effective use mass communication, from evangelists on television to the radio preacher, to youtube videos. They’ve diligently used every tool available to reach as many people as possible, while progressives have let these opportunities pass us by. In many cases, we’ve taken on a passive stance, expecting people to come to our pews and pulpits, rather than developing strategies to reach people where they are — standing in the kitchen chopping tomatoes or driving their kids to soccer practice. “Are we so invested in being an elite minority,” I wondered, “that we can’t communicate with people in a way that actually reaches them?”
Without forgetting the many congregations of color in mainline denominations, by in large, these denominations continue to be predominantly white and middle-class. Many of us in the mainline pews (I include myself here) have enjoyed the fruits of the American economy, and have the luxury of comfort — material, racial, and political. Too often, we’ve allowed that comfort to turn into silence. Perhaps this is why we have not reached out with our message by any means necessary, over radio waves or through the television screen. We are perfectly be content to be a church of the middle class.
We know the numbers: 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. 58% of white mainline protestants did as well. Christian votes secured his election. From pulpits around our nation, Trump received endorsements — some explicit, many more implicit — his transgressions excused because of a remarkable certainty that, if elected, he would somehow stand for a conservative set of Christian values.
But threats of walls, religiously inspired bans, law-and-order policing, and the endorsement of acts of hate bar the way to abundant life for far too many of God’s people. Hallmarks of Christian theology — grace, forgiveness, mercy, humility — are seen as weakness in an administration led by a man who weaponizes fear and scarcity.
On August 12, I watched status updates from clergy friends and colleagues gathered in a church in Charlottesville, Virginia, as white supremacists surrounded them holding torches and chanting words lifted from Nazis. The racism that has been woven into our nation since its inception was immediately legitimized by a president who equates those working for their rights with those working to remove them from others. A Christians, we must state in no uncertain terms that every human being is created by God and deserving of dignity, respect, and the opportunity to thrive. Then, we must work until those conditions exist.
I believe that the Gospel holds truth and liberation for God’s people. But the Church I love and of which I am a part has been too shy, too complacent, or too invested in the narrative of its own decline to share the message of God’s love with necessary urgency. For too long, we have defined ourselves by who we’re not, pointing to fundamentalist traditions and insisting, “We’re not like them — we promise.” Instead progressive Christians must discover and define who we are. We are called to stand in the truth of the Gospel with conviction in a moment that demands moral clarity and courage from anyone who claims to follow Jesus.
The Progressive Revival
Trump’s America is a terror. But it reveals a profound opportunity to reclaim — and proclaim — the Gospel. We can name a bold vision for the progressive Church and to claim it with compelling clarity. I see the possibility for a progressive revival. A revival is a spiritual awakening that takes place in community. It implies a movement of the Spirit so powerful, you can’t stop talking about what you felt and heard, and are compelled to tell all those around you. I first caught whiff of a Christian revival in the air attending “Why Christian,” a conference convened by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans in Minneapolis two years ago. The floor was held by relative outsiders in the mainline church: women who were Queer, trans, or of color, who told their stories of God’s movement in their lives from a place of depth, vulnerability and power.
“Why Christian” revealed an expression of Christianity taking root across denominational lines, that felt grounded in but not impeded by the traditions of the Church. The speakers were less interested in the institution of the Church then they were in Jesus. They were living out their call with an entirely new posture, shedding a relationship to authority alongside their Generation X and millennial peers, but refusing to lose God in the process. Their leadership did not invite conformity but rather reflected a messy realness of a living faith and a startling cry for justice.
Since that time, I’ve detected a subterranean shift in the culture of Christendom. I see church communities where those on the outside are placed at the center, where the particularity of one’s difference is not seen as a problem to be solved. These churches are living their faith in public ways, holding forums on racial injustice, getting involved in their local organizing networks and showing up to march and protest. They are listening with care to the witness of Black Lives Matter organizers, working to keep families of those who are undocumented together. But their actions, I’ve noticed, grow from from the inside out: a spiritual transformation that unfolds into public proclamation.
If a revival was already stirring, the reality of a Trump presidency has jolted the Church awake. The week after the election, a monthly meeting I attended with Faith in New York, a faith based organizing group I work with, was packed to the gills with clergy showing up for the first time, ready to contribute to the effort. The organizing group focused our energy toward a launching a platform with specific policy asks to protect all the communities made vulnerable by Trump’s agenda. On a cold Thursday in March, 27 of us linked arms and blocked traffic in front of the ICE building on Varick Street in an act of civil disobedience, before we were arrested. Never before have I seen such a diverse group of clergy pull together so quickly and with so much intention.
I see strong, moral leaders such as The Rev. Traci Blackmon and The Rev. Dr. William Barber taking the lead in a movement as it steps off. I see the Revolutinary Love Conference at Middle Collegiate Church. I see leaders in the public eye and on the local level, in urban, rural and suburban areas, lifting their voices and showing up.
The surge in involvement from clergy and lay people is nationwide. An Atlantic article described the “Trump Bump,” a post-election surge in attendance at progressive churches. Reuters reports that the number of churches offering Sanctuary has doubled in the wake of the election, and points to a turnout of 300 clergy at the U.S. Senate to attempt to block the confirmation of Jeff Sessions. In June the New York Times highlighted religious “liberals” as an renewed political voice characterized by denominational and racial diversity. And in Charlottesville, clergy from a wide range of denominations and backgrounds came together, arm in arm, facing down what amounted to an armed militia. Their witness was bold, clear, moral, and courageous.
The mainline may have drifted off, asleep at the wheel, but we are waking up.
The word “revival” is from the latin “revivere.” It means, “to live again.” And it is my hope that for this church of resurrection people, that is exactly what we will do. In recent years it seems that a story of decline is the only story the Church knows how to tell. The world is changing, to be sure, and the Church is adapting. It’s hard work, it’s slow, and it’s confusing. But this narrative of failure has also taken on a tone of victimhood, which has many of us convinced that we have no resources and there are no possibilities. Let me assure you: we have all we need. We have capacity. We have funding. We have people. We have buildings. We need only creativity, resourcefulness, adaptivity, courage, and faith. We have the possibility to make an impact if we can flip the script. Perhaps we have something different to work with than in decades past, when we enjoyed a place at the center of American culture. But movements around the world have done what was needed with little more than but vim, vigor, and persistence. Let’s not do them the disservice of imagining that we are victims of circumstance when we are anything but.
What does this Progressive Revival look like? It is not a political awakening but a spiritual one. It will ask us not merely to find a new, pithy, way to communicate our message, but to do the hard work of opening ourselves to transformation, by and through Jesus, from the inside out. It requires confession of and repentance from our sins of complacency. It urges us toward the kind of fervor more identified with the Evangelical tradition — and indeed the seven hallmarks of revival I’ve identified have deep biblical roots. The movement begins in the heart and expands from there. Our own conversions can convert our communities, and in turn, the world.
The Progressive Revival is a spiritual transformation that unfolds toward public witness. For congregations and church leaders who wish to take part, consider how your congregation might engage and live out the following hallmarks of the movement I pray has not only sparked, but is growing.
An Encounter with Jesus
When did we become so nervous about Jesus? Perhaps hedging ourselves against worrying trends, mainline congregations hyper-corrected. We became so wary of emotion that we are reluctant to make people weep. We grew so distant from spiritual transformation we no longer expect it.
The first hallmark of a revived church will be our confidence in Christ and Christ’s transformative power. We will bring our congregations to the feet of Jesus not through emotional manipulation but through real, profound, and personal encounter. Preaching the gospel cannot be manufactured, nor is it a trick of talent or showmanship. A preacher who carries a living — and, yes, growing and evolving — hope in the gospel can reveal that hope to others, not through magic, but truth. The result is not an academic exercise, but a conversion of the heart and a process of transformation — something too many in the Church have forgotten is even a possibility.
A progressive congregation is more than a group of nice, left-leaning people who try to make the world a little better. A revival congregation is a community of people opened to Jesus’ transforming love that calls them to places of holy discomfort and transformation. Their message is clear, biblical, theological, and radical.
In preaching, it’s easy to say many things that are true while refraining from being honest. The height of that pulpit, the robe and stole, the M.Div., the exegesis — all of it tells us we’re supposed to be able to say something. We interpret, analyze and parse. Yet my analysis alone rarely helps. What my congregants remember — what compels them to seek me out after the sermon and offer some fragment of their own story — are those moments when I lay bare pieces of my self.
We might call this vulnerability, from the Latin vulnerabilis, “to wound.” Showing our wounds — as Jesus does, still fresh and startled from his death-shattering transformation — allows others to reveal, examine, and understand their own. It’s tempting to reach for a quick solution to make our churches grow: a glossier website, a projector, or praise band. At the heart of the Gospel, however, is woundedness and truth.
Each speaker at “Why Christian” brought stunning vulnerability to the stage. Leaders of on the Christian “left” are speaking with startling honesty about the truth of our country’s condition. Let honesty be our measure. When we are honest, growth is a side effect.
Is Rooted in Abundance
The idea that there is not enough for everyone — that we must hoard and hold onto what we have — sits at the heart of Trump’s message. This notion is antithesis to the Gospel: Jesus proclaims that there is enough love, enough grace, enough mercy, for everyone. God has created a world with the means to hold and to feed everyone, if only we stop hoarding.
This isn’t only or even primarily an economic concern. To revive, the progressive church will need to stop fearing that there is not enough, and even more, that we are not enough. Sometimes this manifests itself in professional jealousy, a destructive issue in the mainline church. Cutting down our colleagues undermines the gifts that God has given to each of us. To see another person standing fully in themselves and secure in their gifts is not a threat, but a blessing: and a blessing that does not diminish space or room for each of us to step into our own particular gifts. We must each find the power of our voices, and stand secure in that power, no longer afraid or threatened by the power of one another.
Rejects a Whitewashed God
Central to Trump’s rhetoric is a dangerous but unspoken assurance: that certain people deserve or are owed something that others aren’t. This argument centers one group: white people, who are held up as the rightful heirs of this nation, its wealth, and its resources. This version of American history implicitly declares that white people are inherently better than others, placing white supremacy at the center of our national ideology. It also erases the truth: White people stole these lands from their original inhabitants; every white person in this nation is an immigrant; white people have enslaved those of African ancestry, by chains of iron as well as by economic means. If America belongs to white people then it stands to reason that God belongs to white people too.
A progressive revival must powerfully disrupt this notion: from the pulpit, through the symbolic language of worship, and in the public sphere. We must proclaim, again and again, that Black lives have been systemically threatened and diminished in our nation in order to preserve the power of white people. We must listen to Black Lives Matter activists and activists of color from a broad range of backgrounds and work to understand, then amplify their message. We must go far beyond calls for unity but instead must actively seek to reverse the power imbalances that are built into the very structure of our nation with every tool available to us.
This will mean difficult self-examination and painful deconstruction of what happens in our own churches. We must destroy the idol of nostalgia: white America’s worship of its imagined past. We are often blind to the ways in which we’ve built our religious life around an imagined norm, not seeing how the Church expects the “people of God” to be primarily white, heterosexual, married, and child-producing. In structuring our church life around these norms, we not only neglect but also demean those who fall outside them. This is complex work that requires opening one’s heart and being in relationship with others. It’s not easily captured in the annual report.
Moves Toward Queerness, Centers the Marginalized
The Progressive Revival will mean doing more than welcoming LGBTQ folks with the expectation that they will slot themselves into heterosexual norms such as marriage and child-bearing. It will mean allowing our theologies to be transformed in light of what Queer Theologies have to offer.
Patrick Cheng sets out a definition of Queer Theology in his book, “Radical Love.” Queer theology is both transgressive (it challenges the norms of society) and erases boundaries (challenging binaries such as gay and straight, male and female, married and single). Both of these definitions are fundamentally Christ like: Jesus was constantly transgressing societal norms: speaking with the woman at the well, healing on the sabbath, dining with those he was not supposed to, and always bringing life where there was formerly death and brokenness.
Unfortunately in the progressive Christian world, we still see conference panels composed of straight, white men, with a woman, an LGBTQ person, and/or a person of color or two added for “perspective.” This practice not only isolates those in the minority but also creates hostile spaces in which they must be their own advocates and keeps control in the hands of the dominant group.
Centering those who have been marginalized must be a deeply rooted spiritual practice of realigning a world that has been misaligned by sin. In the process, white Christians will be opened to the notion that in creating space for voices that have not been placed at the center, we are not “giving up” something we need to hold tightly. Instead, we are offering everyone involved a gift: we will all be radically transformed by this experience.
Ecumenical and Interfaith
The progressive revival will be a cross-denominational movement uniting those who preach progressive theologies from diverse Christian traditions. We must look beyond the traditional mainline and recognize that the movement, as the Times reports, includes bold evangelicals and charismatics too.
Can we shift our focus to shared values, such as justice rooted in Jesus’s love and grace? PICO, a faith-based organizing network, is an excellent example of a grassroots organization that works across denominations and serves as an example for the kind of work that will be needed in this time. The Moral Mondays movement led by Rev. William Barber, who is Diciples of Christ, has partnered across denominations and with leaders from other faith traditions to create a broad justice movement. Auburn Theological Seminary has pivoted toward interfaith work with their Senior Fellows, from a variety of traditions, leading the charge. Rev. Traci Blackmon’s work as a pastor in Ferguson, and now leading the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries has become a leader whose voice reaches far beyond her denomination.
Tells the Truth
Trump and his associates have displayed an astonishing disregard for the promise at the heart of the Gospel: that of truth. Trump’s campaign was fueled by lies and false promises, based on distorted realities. He continues to pedal lies with abandon on twitter and at press conferences. The movement he leads is based on a lie which should offend Christians at the deepest moral level: that some are made in God’s image while others are not. This is a lie that must be uprooted.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Followers of Christ must be truth tellers, and truth is neither easy nor simple. It’s easier to listen to the false prophet who offers appealing, self-congratulatory solutions in shiny packaging. It’s easier to believe that buying something will fill the hole in our hearts than to examine why we feel so empty. It’s easier to assume that the victimized must have done something to deserve their suffering than to ask what role we played in creating it.
Truth is hard, yet the gospel requires it. Truth is hard, yet ultimately liberating. When we tell hard truths in our congregations, some people will stand up and walk away. But many others will be freed to live in the light of truth. Most important, the Gospel will be proclaimed.
A Clear Moral Voice
Across our nation, there are congregations who are living out these seven theological hallmarks in vibrant ways, providing a place of welcome and community for those who have been traditionally excluded by “The Church.” There is still a great deal of work to do: white congregations have an immense amount of learning to undertake. They must tune their ears to leaders of color who are charting the course.
I see this Progressive Revival taking place, church by church, leader by leader, on the grassroots level, but we are still just a rising melody in a chorus of shouted theologies. We must lift our voices, cutting through the cacophony and the confusion with a clear, compelling, astonishingly simple message straight from the lips of Jesus.
This is a crucial moment. Millions are protesting and rallying, many for the first time. Folks are filling the streets as well as our pews, searching for answers and ways to act. It is time to mobilize our message for the public sphere. To get training on messaging and communications. To learn to place op-eds, to employ social media effectively, to gain presence in mainstream media outlets. Across traditions, we must coordinate our efforts, connect with leaders and actvists within the church and outside it working on the ground. We must work strategically for greater impact. Letting go of turf wars and infighting, we must focus on our common goals. Progressive theologies are needed too urgently to not communicate them effectively. There’s a kid in a one of the towns I drove through whose life may depend on a message of love and affirmation. Yet progressive Christians have not developed a strategy to ensure that when a teenager wonders about the white supremacist messages he hears in school, or googles “does God love gay people,” the first hit is a compelling youtube video that speaks of a God of love and affirmation. It’s time to end the radio silence.
We are the Church. We follow Jesus, who found power not in dominance or political power, but in execution as a criminal. I do not suggest that the voice of the progressive Church should dominate the national landscape. Following Christ always relegates one to the margins of society. But let us not confuse being cultural outliers with obsolete complacency. Our voice should make an impact: it should change the course of history. In this moment, following Christ is about moral convictions. Those convictions will lead us, inevitably, to stand in the path of the powerful, in all our weakness and humility. Is this not what Jesus taught us?