Progressive Christian Movement

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Progressive Christianity is a trend primarily among North American and other English-speaking Protestant Christians in the late 20th and early 21st centuries characterized by theological diversity, eclectic spirituality, and a strong concern for social justice and related political issues. Related both to the social gospel tradition and the emergence of left-leaning evangelicals in the 1970s, progressive Christians are unique in their openness toward critical Bible scholarship and their embrace of mystery, paradox, and more holistic approaches to spirituality.

Various organizations, movements, and people are associated with progressive Christianity. The Center for Progressive Christianity was founded in 1994 and was the first organization to use the term. The popular Emergent Church movement also is a progressive Christian movement. Lastly, progressive Christianity has a wide range of prominent self-identifiers, including John Spong, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Cornel West.
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Progressive Christianity is a trend primarily among North American and other English-speaking Protestant Christians in the late 20th and early 21st centuries characterized by theological diversity, eclectic spirituality and a strong concern for social justice and related political issues. It currently exists not as a unified movement, but as a broad identifier used by a loosely related collection of organizations, individuals and online networks. Though historically related both to the social gospel tradition within the mainline Protestant denominations and to the emergence of left-leaning evangelicals since the 1970s, progressive Christians often self-consciously use this term to distinguish themselves both from conservative evangelicalism and from the traditional liberal mainline.


The use of Progressive Christianity as distinct descriptive category is relatively recent, rising sharply only since the turn of the 21st century. It remains a broad term, being used by a variety of Christians in sometimes divergent ways. For this reason, Progressive Christianity cannot be defined by a singular, universally held set of commitments, but instead by a cluster of often (but not always) concurrent emphases and traits. These include:

1. An openness to a wide diversity of theological positions, including a spectrum ranging from post-theism to more historically orthodox beliefs.

2. An affirmation of uncertainty, questioning and spiritual journey, rather than conformity to doctrinal absolutes.

3. An emphasis on the relative importance of orthopraxy (right actions and relationships) over orthodoxy (right doctrinal beliefs).

4. An insistence on intellectual rigor and critical interrogation of Christian beliefs and practices, with a willingness to reinterpret or reject them as necessary.

5. An approach to scripture that is open to critical scholarship and rejects literalistic readings, while still affirming the continued relevance of the Bible for Christians today.

6. A focus on the life and teachings of Jesus, and especially his message regarding an immanent and this-worldly "Kingdom of God," not only on doctrines about his divinity, the atonement or postmortem salvation.

7. A definition of salvation that includes social and communal wholeness, not merely individual or personal redemption.

8. Engagement with the various liberation theologies arising since the latter half of the 20th century, including black, feminist, womanist, mujerista, queer, Native American, Asian, African, Latin American and other postcolonial theologies.

9. Affinity toward postmodern philosophy, its critique of Enlightenment rationalism and its holistic move past dualisms of mind and body, science and religion, reason and mystery, natural and supernatural, experience and revelation, fact and value, object and subject.

10. A pluralistic mindset that displays an openness to interfaith dialogue and cooperation, finds value in the beliefs and practices of non-Christian religions and does not see Christianity as the exclusive path to connection with the divine.

11. A renewed spiritual vitality and openness to experimental practices, including participatory and emotionally expressive worship, innovative and arts-infused liturgies, reclamation of previously neglected ancient Christian practices and incorporation of non-Christian rituals and meditative techniques.

12. A self-conscious rejection of the politics and theology of the conservative Christian right, though with an ambivalence about becoming the new Christian left or being too closely identified with partisan politics.

13. A conviction that active engagement and prophetic, countercultural witness on issues of social and economic justice, environmental protection and nonviolent peacemaking, are integral to Christian identity and discipleship.

14. A thorough commitment to full inclusivity in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, physical/cognitive ability and social class. Issues related to LGBTQ inclusion and civil rights have been especially prominent.

While particular progressive Christians may possess only some of these traits, they are most commonly united by shared concerns regarding social justice and related issues and a willingness to overlook or downplay other theological differences in order to promote collaboration around such causes.


Sociologist Laura Edles has identified a spectrum of identities within Progressive Christianity, with "self-proclaimed spiritual progressives" like John Spong or Marcus Borg on the far left and "prophetic/progressive evangelicals" like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo on the far right of the progressive spectrum. Those toward the left end of the spectrum originate from the liberal, mainline branches of Protestantism, espouse more radical theologies and describe themselves primarily in contrast to the conservative religious right, especially regarding their openness to uncertainty and inclusion of diverse viewpoints and lifestyles. Those on the right side of the spectrum tend still to identify as evangelicals theologically, their progressive identity being based instead primarily on their commitment to progressive politics and especially social concern for the poor. Most progressive Christians exist somewhere between these two extremes, however. The Emergent Church, for instance, is a progressive Christian movement which has emerged primarily out of evangelicalism but has since moved significantly toward the left end of the progressive spectrum both theologically and politically.

Self-identified progressive Christians utilize the term to distinguish themselves not only from the religious right, but from liberal Christianity as well, though typically less vehemently and with more porous boundaries between them. Indeed many aspects of Progressive Christianity can be seen as a development upon historic liberal Christianity incorporating the insights and critiques of postmodern philosophy, liberation theologies and integrative spirituality. For instance, while retaining the liberal affirmation of reason and experience as proper foundations for theological reflection, as well as maintaining an openness toward science and critical Bible scholarship, progressive Christians often balance this with a renewed embrace of mystery, paradox and more holistic approaches to spirituality. Likewise, Progressive Christians seek to build on and correct the shortcomings of the liberal social gospel tradition, especially its often unrecognized assumptions of racial, gender and class privilege, by incorporating the critiques offered by various liberation theologies.

Noteworthy Organizations and Leaders

The Center for Progressive Christianity (name changed to in 2010), founded in 1994 by Episcopal priest Jim Adams to help network progressive churches, was the first organization to use the term. Progressive Christian spokespersons still often cite their "8 Points of Progressive Christianity" as helpful descriptors for identifying progressive congregations. In the decades since, other progressive networks and ministries have formed, including Progressive Christians Uniting (2003), The Beatitudes Society (2005), The Progressive Christian Alliance (2008), the TransFORM Network (2009), The Center for Progressive Renewal (2010) and the Convergence Network (2013). The Wild Goose Festival, which has met annually in North Carolina since 2011, serves as national gathering site for progressive Christians from across the spectrum. Living the Questions, a DVD and web-based curriculum series for progressive Christians launched in 2004 as an alternative to the popular evangelical Alpha Course, has been adopted by thousands of churches and study groups across the United States. Beyond organizations like these aimed specifically at networking and equipping progressive Christians as such, countless other ministries also exist to work toward the kind of social transformation goals shared by progressive Christians.

In addition to institutional expression, numerous authors, scholars and leaders self-identified as progressive Christians. Some of the most recognizable names include Diana Butler Bass, Marcus Borg, Tony Campolo, John Cobb Jr., John Dominic Crossan, Yvette Flunder, Brian McLaren, Robin R. Meyers, John Shelby Spong, Barbara Brown Taylor, Jim Wallis, Cornel West and Roger Wolsey.
Campolo, Anthony "Tony"

Speaker at Wild Goose Festival 2012- Flickr- photo by James Willamor (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rev Peter Laarman, of Progressive Christians Uniting- Flickr- photo by ACLU of Southern California (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jim Wallis speaking- Flickr- photo by The Center for Interfaith Relations (CC BY 2.0)

John Spong preaching 2- Flickr- photo by Scott Griessel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Marcus Borg speaking- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Kaihsu Tai (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Michael Clawson

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