Thursday, November 20, 2008

Progressive Brethren Summit

I was working on this for my church newsletter article but went another direction, so I thought I would post it here.

Recently I attended the Progressive Brethren Summit in Indianapolis. It was a joyful experience to be surrounded by 200 progressive Brethren, to attend worship services that had life and theological integrity, to be part of the first-ever large gathering of progressives in the denomination.

One of the highlights of the event was the presentation by Robert Miller on Jesus and the parables. Miller is a member of the Jesus Seminar. He shared some interesting and highly relevant comments on Jesus and his vision of the kingdom of God. For Jesus, Miller said, the kingdom of God is not a place or a future state of affairs. It is a present reality for all who choose to live as if it is present in their lives: "For Jesus, the kingdom of God exists whenever and wherever people dare to live as if God's will (not Rome's) governed the world." Miller likened Jesus' message on the kingdom to Gandhi's work in India. Gandhi told his fellow Indians that if they ignored the British and acted free, they would be free. They needed to stop fighting the British and begin living out of a vision of a free, self-determining people. In the same way Jesus challenged his listeners and followers to imagine what the kingdom of God would like like if it were there in their midst, and then make it happen.

I thought Miller's comments set the right tone for progressives in our denomination. For too long we have been arguing with conservatives about the future direction of the denomination, trying to change minds that can't be changed (on either side), fighting for power in a denomination that is in steady numerical decline, devoting too much time and energy playing inside baseball and not enough on service and progressive evangelism in the world around us.

What would happen if we just ignored the denomination and acted as if we are already free to be a progressive Christian presence in the world? Why not ordain LGBT people who want to be ordained and marry LGBT people who want to be married? Why not begin to pool some of the outreach money being sent to the denomination and begin using it to support progressive education, conferences, training, and church planting? Why not shift our focus to growing the progressive Christian movement? We can continue to cooperate and participate in the denomination where we share common interests, but our primary focus is not saving or changing the denomination but fully living out our vision of what it means to be a Jesus presence in our world.

At the workshop I led I heard fear expressed about the consequences of dividing the denomination. The denomination is already divided. Our fixation on needing to "fix" this problem is contributing to denominational decline and a waste of energy among progressives. Let's stop worrying about holding the denomination together and start reaching out to our neighbors with the wonderful welcoming message of Jesus. We might actually discover that there are people looking for progressive Church of the Brethren congregations that offer the best of our Anabaptist (community) and Pietist (spirituality) heritage. What we offer is more relevant today than ever.

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