In Uniting, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Churches of Christ and Lutheran churches in Australia there are growing numbers of discussion groups, sometimes known simply as ‘The Book Group’. One has a membership of 30 in a congregation of 70.
Books studied differ in approach to their subjects, but many offer a critique of the basis of Christianity. Some set out new understandings of the faith for the future.
Authors include biblical scholars, historians, philosophers, archaeologists, sociologists, scientists, theologians and mystics.
Different views about God and the future of Christianity are discussed around the (primarily Western) world by ordained and lay people. For many, this means freedom to share doubts about the biblical stories, the church’s doctrine of God and its worship of Jesus the God-man.
For others, what they term the ‘changing church’ means honest efforts to reinterpret ancient Christian doctrines for today.
What many prefer to call ‘Evolving Christianity’ has been developing quietly for decades, as grass roots grow beneath asphalt.
In recent years those underground roots have been finding more and more cracks in the asphalt. Growing up into the light, they are producing healthy blades of grass, developing together into a church-wide ‘grass roots’ movement.
This is not being orchestrated ‘from above’ by clergy or church hierarchy. It owes its momentum to mounting healthy doubt concerning the validity of fourth century doctrines about God and Jesus for today’s church. It includes many clergy, but is primarily a lay-driven stream of thinking, sowing seeds across the religious landscape.
Those who see Christianity as profoundly in need of the freedom to evolve are mostly people of deep commitment to their church and to the way of Jesus.
Their frequently expressed concerns include: “What do we now mean when we say, ‘God’? We do not believe in a male God ‘up there’ or ‘out there’, with ‘Jesus Christ’ beside ‘him’ waiting to return to earth. We have grown up in our faith and no longer believe in being saved from hell by a Saviour Christ. What does it mean to be in ‘mission’ now?”
For most who remain committed to the church, their mission is clear – to put Jesus’ teachings into practice.
Many stand mute in worship when ancient creeds about the birth and death of a Saviour Christ are repeated, or when ‘blood-soaked’ hymns are sung.
“I can no longer say or sing words that offend me,” is a common refrain.
Alongside a clear commitment to Jesus’ ethical teachings (in the Sermon on the Mount) there is a growing spirituality focussed on the God of Love revealed in those teachings. Christianity is evolving because it must. Organisms within eco-systems must evolve or die, as those eco-systems change.
As a human organism within changing human society, Christianity is no exception to that rule. Two generations who have left the church simply say: “We don’t need it.” In its traditional form, Christianity has nothing to say to them. They need to know that Christianity is evolving.
Adults of mature years know a quiet ‘reformation’ has been happening all along. Liturgies, hymns and local ‘mission statements’ are evolving to express a twenty-first century faith. A growing call for a more meditative worship-style includes allowing God to speak through silences and music.
Intense frustration is expressed in those discussion groups in the Uniting Church: “Why can’t the church at presbytery, synod and assembly levels admit the church is changing and claim that?” This is typically said after another wordy archaic liturgy to ordain someone or induct a new minister into a congregation.
Evolving Christianity is recognition of change already taking place in the church. The church is the people. The evolving church is people whose idea of God has changed out of sight from the way they imagined God a decade or three ago. The evolving church is people who find the Christian ‘triune God’ of exclusivist dogma unhelpful.
They accept that God is, and always will be, mystery. As they follow Jesus, many call that mystery, love.
The evolving church is people uniting their scientific and philosophical knowledge of the world with their faith in God.
It is people who look to scripture as sacred wisdom for life, but whose education has equipped them to notice the Bible’s limitations.
The evolving church is people who want to hear when a biblical story is just that – including the narratives of Easter and Christmas.
It is people who recognise metaphors and myths when they hear them. All are looking for leaders who acknowledge that and point to sacred wisdom in the stories.
Finally, the evolving church is people who have no need to ‘divinise’ Jesus. They know he has given them teaching which reveals the sacred as it focuses the call of love into this life – to include the marginalised, feed the hungry, accept those who are different, stand up for the exploited and ‘speak truth to power’. This church is people equipped to build bridges of trust to those of other religions and no religion.
Evolving Christianity follows the greatest change agent the world has ever known. This inspiring reality was discussed recently at the third ‘Common Dreams’ conference at ANU in Canberra.
More than 500 people, including many from the Uniting Church, heard from local and international speakers (including Marcus Borg and Bruce Sanguin) how they can be agents of change in the world through following the vision of Jesus.
Christianity is evolving because it must. It is also evolving because it can.
(Rev Dr) Lorraine Parkinson
Vice-President, Progressive Christian Network of Victoria Author of The World According to Jesus: his blueprint for the best possible world, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 2010.