Two Strands of Progressive Effort Now Dispersed into The Ether


There were two small strands of renewalist effort nipping at the structures of American Protestantism in the 1960s and 1970s. One could be described as the Renewal Grass Roots Church effort and the other as the Sojourners effort. The difference between the two had to do with ethos. One rose up within the structures of the mainline denominations and of what was then the American Protestant establishment. Folk gravitating to this mode might be at home in any of the offices in the then-bustling Interchurch Center in New York City. The Sojourners strand takes its name from the magazine Sojourners and owes its ethos to the more amorphous but soon to become influential evangelical wing of American Protestantism. There was within the Sojourners constituency a certain element of pacifist sentiment and Roman Catholic linkage. There was a substantial desire to wrest from conservative and fundamentalist Christianity an initiative more faithful to the radical Jesus of the New Testament than the garden variety orthodoxies of, say, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. 

Both of these strands had influence and more or less rose and fell with personalities who held high the torches of their points of view. On the renewal, local ecumenism side, the trajectory was initially strong but it went the way of the actual leaders of the various denominational and ecumenical efforts of the time. One of the most salient investigations I ever undertook was for the Lilly Endowment under the leadership of my friend Bob Lynn. Bob tasked me to determine the ecumenical hopes of church leaders of the late 1960s. With one exception, all of them predicted that the ecumenical structure of the churches  would move toward local cooperation and even merger over the coming decade. They were dead wrong. Denominations under duress circled their wagons and the local churches remain largely unchanged to this day, save for aging and closing. The shards of our common effort were a few inner city  cooperative ministries and a few other cooperative efforts which could be seen even today as progressive lights under the bushel of a declining enterprise. Oddly, interest in the renewalist grass roots cooperative model still exists. But the denominations are almost gone - shrunk to their current survival mode.

The Sojourners effort was more robust during the decades following the 1960s than the renewalist effort that preceded it. The waters it plied were entirely different from those of the church renewal effort. Sojourners was largely a reactive movement at the edge of the emerging evangelical surge toward a dominant place in American life. As such it was the province of Jim Wallis. a founder of Sojourners, to be a public face of the effort, voicing its progressive premises, with considerable deference to the conservative origins of evangelical theology. Eventually Jim Wallis and perhaps the late Bill Coffin became the voices of Protestant progressivism during the years of the mainline's precipitous decline. 

Though Bill Coffin was a good friend with whom I once lived, I took issue with both Coffin and Wallis who insisted they needed a place in the public square. This seemed to me part and parcel of the move to a talking head culture.As far as I was (and remain) concerned, these voices were a weak antiphon to the rising tide of today's nativist and retrograde GOP evangelicalism. They became locked in the same room with their opponents as the minor key in a major movement. And what remains the problem is the room itself. 

That is really where  this all comes down. In the Grass Roots Church. I said we lacked a theology. That is still the case across the board and today extending through all religion. Observers like Jacques Ellul and my colleague and friend Will Campbell were right in seeing a life beyond this room, beyond the confines of institutional Christianity. 

Today the question is not one of who will control the structures of the churches and decide how their dwindling financial power will be deployed. It is what is reality and what is ethics and what are the aesthetics of life on the planet.  Institutions are articulated by successive generations. The institutions now being empowered are those of the spiritual city. A city that venerates diversity, that espouses sensuality, that is at root iconoclastic. That gravitates toward tolerance, democracy, helpfulness and non-idolatry. It may not look like a city nor does it look spiritual to many, but it is rising as we speak. As it takes shape, thinking is changing. And my hopes lie with the future - a world escaping the deleterious domination of binary understandings, moving toward an appreciation of universality, taking pride in the potential of every person on the planet.

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