What Makes...

... a Vital Liberal Congregation?

by Martin Camroux

from Signs of the Times, No. 12 - Jan 2004

A couple of years ago I did an exchange of ministry with Columbine United Church in Denver. The church was thriving with a membership of around 800 and was working on a million dollar extension. Many of the congregation drove half an hour or more to get there. It was a joint Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregation but you would hardly have noticed. It was clear that people came mostly not because of denominational loyalty but because they wanted to belong to an open liberal congregation. If that wasn't what you were looking for there were other options around. Just close by you could choose traditionalist Anglican, Charismatic Catholic, or fundamentalist Baptist. There was even the unbelievable sight of a new Unitarian Church with large car park!

In a dramatic form that illustrates what is happening in our own church life. We are increasingly in a religious market situation in which people shop around for the product of their choice. There is a strong market for conservative religion but there is also a market for progressive churches. All sorts of religions may thrive but churches that offer nothing distinctive, or donothing well, will close.

In America there's an increasing amount of academic work on vital liberal Churches. In December 2002 the Louisville Institute organised a seminar of social scientists, theologians and pastors to look comparatively at 26 growing liberal congregations. On the web there's a summarizing article by Professor Stephen Ellingson called 'Vital, Liberal Congregations: No Longer an Oxymoron'. If you want a study of a growing liberal congregation try James Wellman, The Gold Cold Coast Church and the Ghetto on 4th Presbyterian in Chicago where membership growth to a record figure of over 4000 has paralleled a move to a more liberal direction in theology.

The Louisville Institute highlighted a variety of common characteristics in the growing liberal congregations but one quite fundamental one is this: a clear identity and sense of mission. In other words to thrive you have to know what your church stands for and why this is important. This is bad news for most denominations. But it is good news for liberal congregations who have the courage of their convictions.

I say the courage of our convictions because this is something that liberals frequently lack. If conservative voices have been growing in the Church maybe its because liberalism has became so lukewarm, lacklustre, laid back, without the capacity to stand up and make our voice heard. We live in our comfort zone so often dodging away from saying what we really believe.

For liberal congregations to grow they need a sense of identity and mission. Let me suggest 4 things that means. Firstly a commitment to intellectual criticality. In the Louisville survey among the characteristics of vital liberal congregations were: 'Are intellectually open, intellectually critical and intellectually generous.' At 4th Presbyterian someone said, 'I won't park my mind outside the Church door. I can't accept the rigidity of conservative Christianity'.

In every congregation I've known there are people crying out for that. And how many people have left the church over the years because they haven't found it? The progressive congregation is one whose criticality is valued.

Secondly the liberal church is about inclusivity. I am convinced that the fundamental disease of the human heart is that we do not like the Other. The Other, the one different from us, is despised. This is the source of every conflict, every war, every pogrom, every genocide, and every holocaust. By contrast the Mission Statement of New Canaan Presbyterian Church in Connecticut is 'To love inclusively'. That's the challenge. Sadly the Church does not always come out of it well. On homosexuality currently the Christian conscience is behind the secular conscience. And don't tell me it's because of one verse in Leviticus and one in Romans. It's a disease of the heart. We need a love as wide as the love of God.

Thirdly the prophetic church is committed to justice. I'm with William Sloane Coffin who says the "axis of evil", we face is not Iran, Iraq and North Korea. It's environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons. The Louisville seminar gave a mark of the growing church as 'Has strong commitments to being involved in the world in service or justice advocacy'.

Today we are facing a world dominated by a deeply reactionary American government. The context is the immoral Bush war with its Iraq. It's the American and EU protectionism which scuttled the trade talks at Cancun. It's the American failure to accept the reality of the threat to our environment. We have to stop retreating from the giant social issues of the day into the pygmy world of private piety. We need to take to heart the words of Amos: 'Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-rolling stream'.

Fourthly another mark of the growing congregations was the offering of an open way into God which can give us faith and courage. Characteristics included 'Place worship at the heart of the church's life', 'Are reclaiming centuries old spiritual practices, scripture and worship without losing either openness or humility'.

The liberal tradition offers amazing resources for the religious journey. The understanding that God is bigger than any concept we can have. The willingness to accept truth wherever it comes from. The honesty to take critical questions seriously. The understanding that theologies come and go, but the religious experience is still to be discovered. It's about an open way into the mysterium tremendum, the holy.

None of us can read the future. My own guess is there are some who yearn for the safeties of fundamentalism, some to whom Tarot cards will seem irresistible; but I believe there are also many who will respond to an open liberal faith. There are people who do not want to be in churches with all-male leaderships or churches infected by homophobia. There are people to whom it is absurd to suggest the world was created in the late Stone Age. And yet something in them cries out to God. The Progressive Church is there to offer an open way into God.

But for liberal churches to thrive there needs to a revitalization, and resurrection of genuine progressive and prophetic religion - there's got to be a prophetic voice, there's got to be a prophetic witness, there's got to be a progressive politics. It's time to raise up our voices again.

Martin Camroux is Minister of Trinity Sutton United Reformed Church and Methodist Church and Chair of the Free To Believe committee.