Progressive Evangelicalism: Being an embodied question mark

I’ve been asked to speak at a day on Progressive Evangelicalism at Spurgeon’s College. I am a bit ambivalent about being either progressive or an Evangelical, so thought I’d post up my thoughts and ask my on-line friends to give their thoughts and help make this better. I’m not in any way attempting to provide a comprehensive overview on ‘what progressive evangelicalism might look like/need to do’; instead I was struck recently by a statement that I read in a book by Kenneson and Street (Selling Out the Church: the dangers of mass marketing) that the Church should be ‘an embodied question mark in society’, and thought that makes an interesting challenge to consider.

There are many questions that those of us who call ourselves Christians – both individually and in our Church communities – should be asking of our society. Here are the three that I’m thinking about most at the moment:

1. Who and what is forming us?

‘I like your jacket, is it new?’ I asked a good friend of mine at our church meeting the other Sunday. ‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘you know what it’s like: it’s one of those silly things that you pick up from the shops when you’re waiting for someone in town and you’ve got there a bit early’.

We’ve been created to consume, but modern-day consumerism is something quite different and not necessarily a natural way to live, which is why it has to teach us to be consumers. Hence we live in a society that is utterly geared towards making us buy things. It is formational, training us from an early age how we are expected to live and behave if we are to do well and be accepted in this society.

As Christians, however, our goal – as Paul tells the Corinthian church – is to be in a process of being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:17-18). Consumer formation and Christ-like formation would thus seem to be tugging us in opposite directions. Jamie Smith writes about this brilliantly in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation and reminds us to be aware that we are being formed in the likeness of consumer culture constantly throughout our days. If we think that an hour and a half or so on a Sunday will be enough to counteract that then we’d better think again! So there is a call to us as Church to question the messages of consumerism and show that there is a better way into which to be formed.

2. Where can we find true satisfaction?

As it was in Antiquity, so today, our search is for happiness. There’s no criticism in that – who doesn’t want to be happy?! But our problem is where we look for it. Following on from the point above, we are led to believe that the key to happiness lies in having an abundance of money. Now there is truth in that, of course. We all need a certain amount of money in order not only to survive, but to thrive (although check out Mark Boyle for something that challenges that statement), but our understanding of how much that ‘certain amount’ is, is fascinating.

Research shows that, overall, we aren’t particularly greedy and are not looking to become super-rich. When asked how much money we would need in order to be content – whatever our current income – we generally cite a figure about 10% higher. Would you relate to that I wonder? Actually, recent figures suggest that up to about £26k, levels of happiness match levels of income, but that after £26k we don’t get proportionately happy as our income level rises. And yet we spend so much of our energy trying to earn more money!

As Christians we’ve got something to say into this situation – after all, Jesus said that he came to give us ‘life, and life to the full’ (John 10:10). But what does that fullness of life consist of? The answer is in a life that ‘seeks first God’s Kingdom’ and that ‘loses life in order to find it’. In other words, true satisfaction – paradoxically – lies in following God’s Kingdom agenda with all our might, whatever it may cost us. (BTW I’m speaking to myself here!)

My concern though is that we can’t ask this question of the society around us because we haven’t yet asked it of ourselves. I sometimes think that Church is an exercise of learning how we can serve both God and Money…

3. What future are we preparing for?

As McKibben has written about so forcefully in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, we live in a world that is facing immense problems. Arctic sea ice is now 40% less than in 1968 when Apollo first took that iconic photo of earth. The earth’s temperature is rising and the atmosphere has way more CO2 in it than is deemed safe, despite all the attention given to the need to be reducing emissions. Our seas are more acidic now than at anytime in the last 800,000 years and erratic weather patterns are increasingly becoming the norm. It is predicted that there will be 700 million climate change refugees by the mid-Century and that half the world’s population will live with water shortages. And we live facing a future of severely reduced oil supplies.

And yet, as a society we are doing precious little either to prepare for that future or to work to reduce its horrors. As churches we should be raising a question mark about this by focussing not only on our ultimate future, but on our proximate future (see my previous post for more on that), and I would like to encourage these sorts of issues to be an integral part of what we talk and pray about and act on together as churches.

I need to stop although I’ve got so much more to say. Is this going to work at Spurgeons College, do you think? Am I off-beam here? Your thoughts are really welcomed.