Going Negative: Traditionalist Churches Gang Up on ‘Progressive Christianity’ in Arizona

This story is totally bonkers. As reported by the local Fox television affiliate in Phoenix, eight traditionalist churches in the suburb of Fountain Hills, Ariz., have combined forces to work against “Progressive Christianity” and its beliefs.

There’s only one problem: literally just down the street from one of the conservative churches, there’s a self-described “progressive Christian” congregation, Fountains United Methodist Church.

Fountains’ pastor, the Rev. David Felten, is the author of a book on progressive Christianity, and the church proudly advertises its welcome of the “LGBTQ community,” support for science, and interfaith dialogue.

The conservative church leaders are equally proud of their traditionalism. In a letter to the editor published in the Fountain Hills Times, they proclaim a “landmark” sermon series aimed at answering “three primary questions”:

1. What is the difference between “Progressive” Christianity and Biblical Christianity?

2. Does that difference really matter in a relativistic age?

3. How can a Christian decipher what he or she should believe?

A post at the Fountains UMC website adds detail: the series will focus on questions such as “Why does it matter that the Bible is reliable?”, “Why does it matter that Jesus was born of a virgin?”, “Why does it matter that Jesus was resurrected?”, or “Why does it matter that Jesus is the only way?” At first glance, the series looks like a simple re-hash of the fundamentalist agenda, but it may be responding to specific points made by Felten.

All this is extremely unusual behavior, to say the least. Conservative and liberal Christians often don’t have much love lost between them, and they do occasionally rail against one another from the pulpit. But it’s extraordinary for one side to attack the other this specifically, and is made even more bizarrely so as it transpires amidst an ostensibly ecumenical group of churches.

Apparently, these traditionalists deem the Methodists enough of a threat to justify a combined action. Or perhaps it’s an ill-conceived bit of “sheep stealing” by these congregations—a calculated plan to draw disaffected refugees fleeing the slippery slope of progressive theology for the safe haven of doctrinal purity?

Felten told the Fox station:

“[W] hen you have an effort collaborated by multiple churches in one community to try to discredit one other way of thinking, that’s when it becomes alarming.”

At the same time, Fountains UMC notes that the traditionalist opposition has garnered them quite a bit of support on Facebook and from Progressive Christian leaders. Still, keeping in mind the recent history of violence directed at liberal churches, the anti-“Progressive Christian” preaching series is worrisome.

No doubt some readers will note in the comments section below that it is evidence that American Christianity is coming apart at the seams, which is not quite right. However, it does reflect some of the ways in which the faith is changing.

As the Christian pool in American society shrinks, it’s likely to become both more conservative and more liberal.

Ed Stetzer of the evangelical polling firm LifeWay Research argues that the nominal Christian numbers are dropping. If those leaving the faith come from the center of the faith, it will leave American Christianity “more sharply defined,” Stetzer argues, along both ends of the spectrum. That in turn probably means we’re in for more contentiousness as the two sides duke it out to define the faith.

I’m not a proponent of Progressive Christianity myself. But even as a relatively traditional churchman, I find this story distressing.

It shows a basic flaw in Christianity in the United States: the conservatives don’t believe the liberals are actual Christians, and the liberals think the conservatives are flaming judgmental assholes.

In faith as as in politics, the nation seems to be growing ever more polarized along ideological lines. The net effect is roughly analogous to when campaign ads go negative: the base is kept strong and in line, but the majority of people say “to hell with the both of you, I’m staying home.”

The only discernible difference between the civil declension is that one takes place on a Tuesday and the other on a Sunday. It may work often enough for political campaigns, but I can’t recommend it as evangelism.