UCC Evangelicals and Progressives: How They’re Different. Why It Matters.

Recently, some United Church of Christ (UCC) friends asked me what the difference is between Progressive and Evangelical churches and beliefs. With more passion than wisdom, I bit off on their bait.

I said that Evangelical congregations can be Southern Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, and Lutheran (Missouri Synod). They can belong to charismatic or Pentecostal fellowships like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Or they can have the words, Independent or Bible Church in their names.


Source: Pixabay.com

Mainline Protestant churches may be Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, United Methodist, Lutheran (ELCA), American Baptist, Unitarian-Universalist, and United Church of Christ.

I added that Black and ethnic congregations are often theologically Evangelical and socially Progressive.

Mainline churches (including UCC congregations) can be more or less Progressive or Evangelical, depending on their individual histories, cultures, and locations. In cities they tend to be Progressive; in rural America, they lean Evangelical. This can make it exasperatingly difficult for someone who relocates from, say, California or Massachusetts to Central New York, and starts visiting rural UCC congregations hoping to find a church like the one she attended in San Francisco or Boston!

My friends did not like my explanations. Annette, a congregant, said that all my talk about the differences between churches was divisive and upsetting to inclusive, ecumenically-minded UCC people. Besides, such comparisons would likely be imprecise—so wouldn’t it be better if I talked about churches’ similarities, instead?!!!

I responded that, yes, theological language and distinctions can be vague and confusing, but there is no other medium for learning about churches, dispelling misinformation, or coming to terms with our own religious beliefs and values. Indeed:

  • Progressive and Evangelical Christians worship side-by-side in most UCC churches, every Sunday. This can be confusing—and refusing to discuss our differences, or ignoring them, exacerbates misunderstandings.
  • Church people find the religious jargon of clergy disorienting—and would benefit greatly if we authorized-minister types explained our pronouncements and beliefs in simple language.
  • We may say that theological differences don’t matter, and that one church or minister is like any other, but our conversations and behaviors betray us. We do discuss and worry about theology; we do ask “what’s-the-difference-between…” questions; and we do make theological judgments all the time. There is a reason why we worship in the church we do, or have our ministerial standing in one particular denomination, and not in another.
  • The idea that all ministers or all churches are the same can lead to pernicious search-and-call outcomes.   If congregations and ministers don’t know who they are theologically, or can’t distinguish between Evangelical and Progressive pastoral candidates or churches, many bad things can happen, in fairly short order, when they stumble upon each other.

Our theological language and discussions are like those map kiosks in shopping malls, that tell us where we are in relation to the stores around us. They help us find our way.

UCC Evangelicals and Progressives can be distinguished in terms of their beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, faith, and mission.


Many Evangelicals believe in the “verbal plenary inspiration” of scripture. They insist that every word in the Bible is “God-breathed,” and they read the scriptures literally.

In contrast, many Progressives say they take the Bible seriously but not literally. They say that the Bible is the Word of God, not a science textbook. It gives us general faith principles, but does not tell us who to vote for, or whether the United States should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or if a caregiving wife should have doctors disconnect her dying husband’s life-support system.


UCC Evangelicals believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are historically accurate, and they tend to endorse the Chalcedonian Creed’s affirmation of 451 A.D., that Jesus is fully God and fully man, deserving of humankind’s worship and allegiance.

Most Evangelicals also believe in Jesus’ “vicarious substitutionary death” on the cross. They insist that God’s wrath against humanity could only be appeased by the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Thus, Calvary was the reason Jesus was born; he came to “die for our sins,” and in our place.

Many Progressives disagree, and concur with theologian Marcus Borg, who distinguished between the “pre-Easter Jesus,” a finite, mortal, and mysterious figure we know little about—and the “post-Easter Jesus” of Christian tradition, who is eternal, divine, and fully knowable through faith.

Concurring with Aquinas, many Progressives assert that God did not need the cross, or the shedding of Jesus’ blood, to forgive human sin. Forgiveness of sin was simply the result of God’s merciful desire to forgive. Period.


Source: Pixabay.com

Source: Pixabay.com

Many UCC Evangelicals would say that humans are sinful by nature, and will spend eternity in hell unless they are “born again.” Thus, making a “decision for Christ,” “getting saved,” “receiving Christ,” or “inviting Jesus into one’s heart” is every person’s chief responsibility. This spiritual encounter with Jesus is the only means of salvation, most UCC Evangelicals insist. Thus, devout Jews, adherents of other religions, and the “unsaved” will not go to heaven, even if they live lives of moral virtue.

Progressive Christians understand salvation as an ongoing journey, not as a final destination, and not as a formula printed on a religious brochure. Indeed, the Bible describes a “saving” relationship with God in many different ways; thus, many Progressives insist that “many roads lead to God,” and that we are all being saved every day. Many reject the concept of hell altogether, and say that a loving God saves all people—even if they do not make a decision for Christ—indeed, even if they are Buddhists or atheists.


Many Evangelical efforts at mission are prompted by Jesus’ “Great Commission,” which prompts them to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20), and by Biblical references to Christ’s second coming. Urged on by such teachings, Evangelicals believe that the “lost” must be given the opportunity to “get right with God” before it is too late for repentance or salvation. Thus, the ultimate goal of many Evangelical church suppers and food pantry ministries is “winning souls for Christ.”

Progressives are far less impressed by the Great Commission, and more favorably impressed by Jesus’ “Great Commandment” to “love God with all our heart and soul and mind,” and then “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Progressives believe that God is concerned with everyone and everything—with whole persons and the whole Earth; thus, salvation is communal and global. It is about protecting the environment, promoting global peace, feeding the hungry, advocating for LGBTQ rights, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, fighting sexism, sheltering undocumented foreigners, and promoting the dignity of all people.

I’m interested in your comments. What did I get right? What do you disagree with?

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.


65 thoughts on “UCC Evangelicals and Progressives: How They’re Different. Why It Matters.

  1. To me it comes down to whether they believe the Bible is the word of God or not. Once they abandon the inerrancy of scripture, progressives can make up whatever they want.


    • 100%.
      Progressives: God adjusts to the way progressives want things to be.
      Historic (Evangelical) Christians: Man is to adjust to the way God said things should be via the bible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Greetings, David, It’s good to hear from you. I hope you and your family are well.

        Just a quick response to your comment. Don’t you think that it works both ways? God and humans adjust to each other! In my Bible, God’s mind was changed in Genesis 9 about destroying the earth with a flood: “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood” (Genesis 9:11). And a bit later in Genesis, in Genesis 18, Abraham’s intercessory prayer for Sodom (in Genesis 18) worked. God’s mind was changed in Genesis 19. Over in the New Testament the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 responds to Jesus by saying, “Yes, it is, Lord. [But] even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table–thereby changing Jesus’ mind about healing her.

        I guess you could say that God and Jesus did not change their minds in any of these instances, because in Gods infinite wisdom and knowledge, things turned out exactly as God wanted them to, but these are instances in which God and humans adjust to one another.

        Thanks for the comment, David!


      • People love taking the Canaanite woman out of context.

        I’d say it’s not God “changing His mind,” it’s God allowing us to ask Him for things. Because we ask, He granted.

        It’s not like Noah sat down with Him and said, “You know, God, that flood was really bad. We’re gonna be forever cleaning it up.” And then God responding, “Yeah, you’re right. I shouldn’t have done that. I won’t do it again.”

        Instead, Noah made a sacrifice to God. God CHOSE to never again obliterate everything, because He knows man is totally depraved. Noah didn’t talk God out of it.

        When You Throw Jesus Under The Bus For Your Social Agenda:


    • Thanks for the comment, pkadams. But don’t you think Evangelicals make up things too? I mean, think of all the QAnon conspiracy adherents among church going, Bible-believing evangelicals! Think of all the rapture theories and efforts to identify the antichrist that have not come true! And when we talk about the Bible being the word of God, it is! In the original Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic! The trouble is, the various English transations that have come out are fraught with error–and they carry no claim of verbal plenary inspiration! Just some thoughts.


      • Yes to the part about QAnon and falsely claiming to know when Jesus is returning and who the antiChrist might be. But we know that stuff gets views. As for the Bible, I’m confident that God is able to preserve his message to us. Without it, we have no idea what he is like or what he expects from us. I don’t think he would leave us guessing.


  2. Hi, Jeanie; hi, David—l hope you’ve been well; it’s been a while since we last chatted in these comments!

    I agree with you, David—the UCC is very,
    very different from what both of you seem to prefer.

    Much as I would love for both of you to stay in the UCC, life is too short to remain in a church you are unhappy with. (David, are you still attending a UCC church?). I hope you can find and join a church that you will be excited to be a part of!

    Jeanie, what does your pastor say about the concerns you are raising here? Have you talked with her or him?


    • Hi Chris!
      In 2016 could you imagine the longevity of this discussion?
      As for suggesting that Dave and Jeanie leave the UCC for a church they prefer- this is a perfectly fine suggest, one of many good options. An option that many, many, many people have been taking.
      This entire blog is about the statistics and trajectory of the UCC, is it not? And that trajectory has been straight downhill for generations. The UCC membership has dropped by some 1,400,000 during a period in which the number of Christians in the USA grew by 28,000,0000!

      In any other type of organization, there would be a crisis of confidence in the leadership, not acceptance of inevitable decline and extinction. There would be a call for drastic change to right the ship! Not a casual, ‘oh well, what’s two more people gone’!

      How can you square the UCC’s continued decline and almost guaranteed extinction with a mission that purports to serve the Creator? Jesus made specific and repeated promises to sustain those who took up his work!


      • Hi Mike,
        I am pretty certain COVID will accelerate the decline of the UCC. The small UCC church I have attended, and all of the other UCC churches I am familiar with, have been closed for in person worship for nearly a year now. So those that mainly attended to be with friends and other social reasons have not had that and I bet many will not return.
        While the UCC churches have gone into hiding, the Southern Baptist church I have attended has in person service and was providing weekly food boxes to the community in drive-through events.
        As their pastor stated, in time of community crises, the Church needs to be in the forefront, not hiding and closed.
        As I see the UCC churches closed because of a tiny chance of COVID, I think of Christians in other parts of the world that die not from COVID, but are killed because they are Christians. And of the Apostles who were martyred.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Jeanie; hi, David—l hope you’ve been well; it’s been a while since we last chatted in these comments!

    I agree with you, David—the UCC is very,
    very different from what both of you seem to prefer.

    Much as I would love for both of you to stay in the UCC, life is too short to remain in a church you are unhappy with. (David, are you still attending a UCC church?). I hope you can find and join a church that you will be excited to be a part of!

    Jeanie, what does your minister say about the concerns you are raising here? Have you talked with her or him?


  4. I mostly agree with your comparisons of Evangelical and Progressive interpretations of the Bible and of Jesus. But I would caution about treating every issue as an either-or proposition, especially the issue of Mission. Heeding the Great Commission and the Great Commandment(s) are not mutually exclusive. If we love our neighbors, we would certainly want them to know that God loves them, wouldn’t we? It has become a difficult balance to demonstrate God’s love through such programs/actions as soup kitchens, free breakfasts, etc. and then not speak a word about our motivation or our love for our neighbor. How can we offer them food for their body and not offer food for their souls? There’s a skill, a nuance, in offering prayer, without requiring it.
    “Go therefore…” is an inspiring text. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB). And it includes Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you.”
    I have often referred to the many monotheistic religions as “God’s niche marketing.” The Great Commission is Jesus’s marketing statement. Go tell others, God loves them, and God wants them to treat each other in a loving way. Sometimes Evangelicals get a little too full of themselves and start acting like rigid Pharisees. And sometimes Progressives get a little too full of themselves and start acting like …. um…. rigid Pharisees, too.
    Perhaps the suggestion that comparing Evangelicals and Progressives is “divisive” is trying to get at the notion that Christianity is not an either/or proposition. We would do well to listen to the Hebrew prophet, Micah: What does the Lord require of you, but to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

    Humbly submitted, and may God bless you for writing this.


  5. I doubt if anyone in this discussion remembers an official UCC multi-media production called “To Walk Together!” I believe it came out with a film strip and either an LP or Cassette and took the Words “Congregational, Christian, Reformed and Evangelical” from the names of the predecessor denominations and tried to explain how the vision of the founders was to create a denomination that could be a home for all of those folk to come together to worship, to study and discuss difficult issues. If you go back and study denominational history (heaven forbid for some We study any history,) you would find that there use to be a line in the official denominational budget for a group called “UCCer’s for Life.” The days of trying to live up to that vision of our founders is long gone, soon to be joined by the toleration of views different from the attitude of the latest PC movement to catch the majorities view. Now we take the easier route of leaning on stereo-typical images and attitudes because it requires less effort. As I approach my 45th year in the pulpit and again approach what may be the most ignored text in scriptures Acts 10:34-43 and especially that opening verse where Peter proclaims “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (That’s the way the NRVS” puts it) Why is it if God shows no partiality do we God’s children?” That was the original vision of our founders that all people no matter what race, place of origin, gender, gender preference, theology, place of residence, profession, could come to a place to worship their creator in the UCC, as equals and be treated and respected no matter who or what they were. AS such all could share their faith, political views, study scripture and discuss controversial issues without being judged. Now can anyone tell me something we need more in this nation today then that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe you misinterpret Acts 10:34. From NLT: 34 Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. + 35 In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right. + 36 This is the message of Good News for the people of Israel— that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. NLT Study Bible: 10: 34-35 Perhaps the greatest barrier to the spread of the Good News in the first century was the Jewish-Gentile conflict . Most of the early believers were Jewish, and they thought it scandalous even to think of associating with Gentiles. But God told Peter to take the Good News to a Roman, and Peter obeyed despite his background and personal feelings. (Later Peter struggled with this again— see Galatians 2: 11-14 .) God was making it clear that the Good News of Christ is for everyone! We should not allow any barrier— language, culture, race, geography, economic level, or educational level— to keep us from telling others about Christ.


      • We agree with each other, David. And actually, you are making a progressive argument. Under the new covenant that we have through Jesus Christ, God accepts every one of us–male and female; Jew and Gentile; Black and white; educated and uneducated; gay, straight, and transgender.


  6. PS: Chris, I forgot to say that you cleverly juxtapose the Church of Christ (a denomination that is cultish) with the UCC to make your point that the UCC is so superior and intellectual in its understanding instead of comparing UCC beliefs to Evangelical beliefs. This is so deceiving!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Chris,

    In your paragraphs titled, “faith” and “mission” you articulated the differences between UCC and Evangelicals very clearly. “Faith” and “Mission” are the heart and the central focus of our understanding of the gospel, which Paul actually defines as, “the gospel” in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:

    “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised according to the Scriptures.”

    In the Great Commission of Matt. 28: 18-20, Jesus commands us to preach that gospel to all the world and teach everything he has “commanded” us. These teachings are not political, although our politics reflect our beliefs, and which the UCC expresses in its “missional activities that reflect the “social gospel.”

    So, when we get down to the heart of the matter, anyone who reads and understands your paragraphs on faith and mission can see a great gulf between UCC and Evangelical beliefs. What is the purpose of the cross? What is the meaning of John 3, which is the heart of Jesus’ teaching (i. e., John 3:16) ? These teachings have vastly different meanings in the UCC than in Evangelical understanding. I am glad you explained these so that there is no doubt about what the UCC believes and what Evangelicals believe.

    I just wish the UCC and all its churches would stop veiling its beliefs in theological language that common people don’t even get. The UCC statement of faith should clearly reflect that it does not believe in sin that needs the cross and or in hell that separates us from God unless the penalty for sin has been paid. Instead, it believes that we are all good people on our way to some blessed place, no matter what we believe about Jesus, his cross or his resurrection. And, by the way, in the UCC, the Bible is only na nice book of stories and metaphors without miracles, nothing that any educated minister can’t explain away. Thank you for sharing this article.



    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Chris! I’m a Southern Baptist, so maybe I shouldn’t even comment. 🙂 But I wanted to thank you anyway for this article. It has helped me a lot. You see, a friend of mine who had been a Baptist recently got credentials in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and became a pastor of a UCC church. She told me that her core beliefs have NOT changed, but I’ve been having trouble reconciling them with a lot of what I read about the UCC. There seems to be a very wide gulf between the Evangelical and the Progressive positions on many of the core Christian doctrines. Your article has helped me to understand this difference. So thank you!


    • I am a UCC church member who has started, on occasion, attending a Southern Baptist Church. This Easter season is interesting in most UCC churches. A lot of ritual and concern about Easter flowers and egg hunts. You may hear a rare mention or two of the crucifixion, but NEVER that it has anything to do with receiving salvation. Jesus is all about teaching us to love each other and taking care of the less fortunate. For Evangelicals, those are important, but behind Salvation only through the personal acceptance of Christ.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi, Dave. Thanks for your comment. I’m just now catching up with replying. I think the issue is that for too long, the church has preached salvation as merely a theological issue or as some kind of moral/theological litmus test to determine if someone is “one of us” or “a sinner.” But we have not talked in concrete terms about how salvation affects our everyday lives. Loving one another and taking care of the less fortunate are both vitally important: they are the “proof” of our salvation, don’t you think?

        Thanks for your comment!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I sit in a UCC church and never a alter call to be saved. We are losing such a great opportunity for souls to be saved. We never hear a sermon on hell. The church’s have gotten so ritual just as a job to be done. God will hold a pastor responsible for not preaching the full gospel including the book of Revelation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jeannie, my experience is that progressives don’t believe souls need to be saved. They are believers in Jesus the man teaching us to be good people.
        But most will not agree there is just one God, in the virgin birth, and especially don’t believe in a hell for those that have not made a personal acceptance of Christ as Savior.
        Here is a link to an excellent book about this:

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I think you’re fair. The toughest assignment of Christ is probably yhe admonishion to “love your enemy”. The point of human life that is most dangerous, IMO, is when we have been truly wronged. It seems that forgiving is hard to grasp the more legitimate the offense. Yet, if we fail in forgiveness, we hold our offender close and do not heal completely. Thanks for thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. As an Evangelical Christian I believe that salvation is only obtained through personal acceptance of Christ as Savior.
    The progressive version, which now is that of the majority of UCC clergy/churches, is that “For God so loved the world that through love all are automatically saved”.

    These are fundamental differences that cannot coexist in the same church. So the UCC should at least of the guts to clearly tell members and put on their website a “Statement of Faith” or “What we Believe” concerning salvation.

    As a UCC member here is what I see as the belief of the majority of UCC churches.

    1. There is no need for personal acceptance of Christ. Because God is love, all humanity goes to heaven.
    2. There is no hell
    3. The bible is a book of stories and those about Jesus are there only to teach us how treat each other.
    4. Those portions of the bible not liked, are ignored or say God is still speaking (changing what is in the bible). Examples are of course gay sex, that the gate to hell is wide but to heaven narrow, etc.
    5. The UCC is highly political, with a far left agenda. Pick any political topic and the UCC will in the front advocating a position that alienates about half of the country. Abortion ‘rights” up to the moment of birth, gun control, anti-Israel, anti-capitalist, anti drug control, open borders, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, David,

      You did not mention if you are attending a UCC church, but what I find utterly fascinating is that there are both Progressives (who have some or all of the views and beliefs that you characterize) and genuine Evangelicals (with traditional beliefs about salvation being “obtained through personal acceptance of Christ as Savior”) worshiping side-by-side in UCC churches. And for the most part these groups tolerate each other–in fact, they embrace each other–and they learn from each other.

      This is happening in hundreds of UCC churches every Sunday. And to broaden the point, I suspect it is happening in churches of all denominations. I have congregants who are married to Roman Catholics, and they alternate where they go to church every Sunday.

      These are fascinating trends! Thanks for commenting, David!



      • Hi Chris,
        I have attended a UCC church for close to 20 years. For at least 10 of those years I did not realize there was anything other than the Evangelical view of salvation. Though I found it very strange that the need for salvation was never mentioned.
        About 3 years ago my church got a new minister, I was on the Board at that time but not the Search Committee. I am certain that he was never asked his fundamental views on salvation, etc. But it soon became clear to me that he held progressive views. I hate that term because “progressive” , meaning moving forward, and has a positive connotation. I think of it more as “rewriting the bible to what suits me”.

        I find that progressive ministers do not clearly state what they believe, perhaps on purpose. An Evangelical will clearly state that salvation requires the personal acceptance of Christ. But the Progressive will not clearly state salvation does NOT require the personal acceptance of Christ. Instead, a few words get changed here and there. Frankly the reason many Evangelicals and Progressives attend the same service is that the Evangelical does not pay enough attention to the progressive rewrite.

        For Progressives John 3:16 becomes: For God so loved the world that through his love we are saved.
        That sounds great and many Evangelicals will think the minister means that because of God’s love, salvation is OFFERED to all that ask for it. But that is not what the Progressive means.

        Evangelicals may continue to attend a service where the Progressive message is being taught because it was “their church” long before the arrival of the Progressive minister/message. They have attended most their life, and perhaps their parents too.

        Others like the style of worship at the church. That is why I still attend. The style of worship is exactly what I want, but the sermon almost always conflicts with my Evangelical beliefs. If I could find an Evangelical church with a similar worship style, I would be gone in a minute.

        It is clear to me that UCC Evangelical’s are a dwindling minority of the UCC. It is virtually impossible to find a Evangelical UCC minister that is not at or near retirement age. If you are Evangelical, and inclined to be a minister, you would go to another denomination.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Mr. Williams,
      I’m currently attending a UCC church, which, like many, is struggling financially and membership-wise.
      I’m of the evangelical sub-division personally, and I’ve been a member of this church for close to four years. I came to saving faith in Christ about three years ago.

      What’s become apparent to me is that your points- 1,2,3 and 4 seem to be the dominant theology in the church, while #5 is muted (for the best). There are certainly other evangelically minded individuals there.
      What nobody talks about, however, is how those beliefs gut the church from the inside. (More importantly there are not based on scriptures or revelation, only post-modern relativism, but I’ll speak from a cold cynical organizational perspective for now.)

      Each one of those points essentially says ‘This isn’t necessary. There’s almost no point to coming to church or spending any time with this God stuff. You’ll be ‘saved’ anyway. We’ve got some nice stories and some coffee and pastries, and a group of folks for community. No different from your softball league, really, but we like it. Hope you’ll join us!’

      The modern UCC church, by and large, does not take anything seriously enough to go out and bring people to Christ. The modern UCC church does not go out and find lost souls; should it stumble across one it can only say ‘well what we do works for us, but we don’t really know anything with any surety.’ The appeal is only to folks who draw personal comfort from the Christian tradition, but don’t want anything too challenging to be put in front of them. This crowd is dwindling and their numbers will not sustain a church.

      I’ve heard of secularization theory; but this applies essentially only to mainline churches that haven’t taken their mission seriously in decades, and it’s really a consequence of their poor teachings, not a factor that prevents people from coming to God.

      And it’s really all a consequence of the ‘progressive’ theology, which basically insists that the final authority on what scripture means is the individual reader. If there’s not eternal standard to at least try to live up to, then all essential meaning is lost, and the long-timers of dying UCC churches re-arrange the deck chairs without trying to plug the gaping hole beneath the water line. Believing that the scriptures are only ‘your truth’ and not ‘the truth’ robs all essential vitality and energy from the organization.

      What am I going to do about that? Still trying to figure that out.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for working on these hard descriptions. As I do mock interviews, Search Committees are trying to understand the new nomenclature evangelical/progressive. I had described progressives as socially liberal and on a continuum of their understanding of Jesus. I am a retired UCC clergywoman. I would suggest that there is a continuum of understanding of Jesus regarding: Is Jesus showing God’s love in the flesh? Is Jesus one with God? Is Jesus the best example of what it means to be human? How do we understand Jesus’ death? In fact, traditional understandings of the atonement (Jesus’ death) include three: substitutionary (Jesus saved us from ourselves), exemplary (Jesus was an example of how to confront all that is wrong and not neighbor loving), and what is known as Aulen’s Christus Victus ( Evil will not have the last word since Jesus overcame it). There are three because no one could explain what Jesus accomplished, and all the arguments about Christ and Church, progressive and evangelical, for me, distract from Jesus. And, an argument that Jesus saved us from the wrath of God, does not do justice to the love of God who came in the flesh (Trinity) to “die for us.” Perhaps, this can best be understood in the fleeting examples of people who do not seek revenge, but offer forgiveness for wrongs done. If you believe Jesus accomplished something, died for something, was raised for something, and taught something that was loving, then you are a disciple of Jesus. If Jesus is another prophet or a reformer, then there are other monotheistic choices. Actually, if it were not for Jesus, I would join the Hebrews because it was their Scriptures that Jesus explained and lived.
    In my pastoral work before retirement, I found something of truth in the ways the incarnation (God made flesh) spoke to us, the teaching of Jesus spoke to us, the death of Jesus spoke to us, and the resurrection offered hope to us, not just in the afterlife, but here and now.
    I appreciate how Marcus Borg made faith accessible, but he did not have the last enduring word. He was rightly challenging a pedestrian understanding of Jesus as the ticket to heaven for some who did not live “neighbor love.” It is not up to us to decide who is in or who is out!

    Here’s what I believe: Jesus died for all…not about conversion of other believers, but about love that will go the extra mile for all, even those with whom we disagree. Baptism is the most inclusive incorporation into the Body of Christ. It is not gender specific, race specific, nation specific, orientation specific, nor perfect person specific, it is the Grace of God specific, but it is not a baby anointing with no expectation that the family will teach the child about Jesus. And, the table is open to everyone and the power of the Spirit to help people see who Jesus is. With all that said, I embrace LBGTQ, all races, all ethnicities, all tongues as children of God made in the image of God.

    Of course, once I finish this, I will realize it is not finished.


    • Oh, my gosh, Dawn, thank you for your very thoughtful and much-needed clarification regarding our (or perhaps, I should say “my”) theological understandings of Jesus–and thank you for taking the time to write it all down!

      Your comments make me think of how inadequate my seminary studies were–and how informal my subsequent theological reading has been. My formal theological training took place in two Baptist seminaries in the 1970s–and coursework on “Christology” focused only on the “substitutionary atonement” understanding of Jesus’ “work” on the cross. And for years and years in my ministry (and even, remarkably, as a UCC minister), I accepted that understanding as Received Truth; in communion services I lead, I would often use the template found in 1 Corinthians 11, and briefly summarize the story of the Last Supper, concluding with the words, “This Bread is my Body…. This wine is my blood.”

      Only in the last ten-to-fifteen years did I realize in any profound sense how exclusionary and limiting such an understanding of Jesus’ life, ministry and death can be–in the communion service, but more generally in how we do church.

      So yes, it was something of an intellectual as well as a spiritual revolution/revelation for me some years back when I began to read Marcus Borg, as well as other more “progressive” theologians and interpreters of Jesus. My current understanding of Jesus ministry and death on the cross can probably best be described as exemplary. I have also listened to Dominic Crossan’s “Christus Victus” interpretation of Jesus’ life and death, and found it fascinating.

      Anyway, your comments are helpful and even fascinating. Thank you.



  12. Your comments are interesting, but I sense that you are wriggling away from any UCC connection with your interpretation of “evangelical.” Not that many years ago, in my own ordination paper, I described the UCC in its own words, taken from the website and published history of the denomination. That description defined the UCC as “Christian, Reformed, Congregational, and Evangelical.” I know that the word has evolved in its meaning, and has taken on definitions assigned by groups trying to sort denominations into boxes, but I think it still fits our history and our theology. Frankly, I’d move away from words like “evangelical” or “progressive” and instead consider that we are “united and uniting.” Otherwise, I think we stumble onto the problem of Luke 18:11.


    • Yes, I had trouble with the word “Evangelical.” You are right that we are, historically, a “Christian, Reformed, Congregational, and Evangelical” church–and I didn’t mean to mosey away from that tradition or identity. The blog post should have acknowledged my respect for the UCC’s E&R tradition, as well as its roots in the Evangelical Synod of North America.

      Even so, today, the word “Evangelical” carries some additional baggage–theological associations that might also be described as “conservative,” and which in the past were thought of as “fundamentalistic.”

      The words, “conservative” and “liberal” also have a complicated pedigree; back in the 1960s and 1970s, I suspect that we in the UCC had no trouble thinking of ourselves as liberal Christians and as a liberal church–yet this may not be the best word to describe our theology or character today. (In very early drafts of the article, I consciously avoided using terms like “Liberal” and “Conservative” because of the obvious political associations of these words.)

      And you are right–I don’t mean to suggest the arrogance of Luke 18:11. Perhaps it’s best not to make any theological or ecclesial distinctions at all–and yet distinctions are the basis of all learning and growing.

      Perhaps I should segue in my thinking to “united and uniting,” as you suggest.

      Thanks, Tim, for your comment. Blessings to you.



  13. A very helpful summary! Here’s my point of disagreement:

    “Progressives are far less impressed by the Great Commission, and more favorably impressed by Jesus’ ‘Great Commandment’…”

    I understand the two as deeply intertwined. I don’t agree with some evangelicals that people of other faiths need to convert to be saved. But I DO believe that Christianity has something deep and important to offer, and part of discipleship is taking up the authority to welcome extravagantly and share what is on offer with anyone in search of Christ-like love.


  14. About 45 years ago as a teenager, I was confirmed in a UCC church. Since that time, I’ve spent much of my time in evangelical churches — it’s had nothing to do with my UCC involvement. But as I get older, I’ve grown to again appreciate my UCC years.

    The thing about churches is, you never really know what you’re getting until you’re involved with a single, individual church! One of my UCC pastors, for example, was a chain smoking charismatic! Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

    I really believe churches like the UCC, United Methodists and ELCA (these are the ones I’m most familiar with or I’ve read stuff from them) and other ‘mainline’ churches will be growing, going forward. I don’t see why a church can’t be both — evangelical (though not necessarily the stricter type) and socially progressive. Can’t we learn from one another?

    In fact, I think that’s a combo that will be welcomed by many millennials – and others burned out by the black/white thinking that is too often (IMHO) a part of evangelical churches.

    Thanks for this opportunity to voice my opinion!


    • I agree with you. If there has been one common response to this blog post by readers, it seems to be a concern that we (or I, since I wrote the blog post) should be careful not to become divisive–for example, by criticizing other churches or denominations, whether implicitly or explicitly. A related concern of many who read the blog is that we (or I) not be self-congratulatory and arrogant about how wonderful our life together in the United Church of Christ is, and how terrible other churches and denominations are.

      I truly do not feel that way–arrogant, boastful, divisive–about the United Church of Christ or about other churches. And I did not write the blog post in a spirit of arrogance or divisiveness. I hope that comes through in what I say in the post. So I agree with you that in coming years, UCC churches that thrive, and certainly our denomination, will need to “be both evangelical and socially progressive,” as you say.

      Thanks for your comment. Blessings to you, Neal!


      • HI, Chris — No, I didn’t think you came across divisive or boastful in any way! I mean, most denoms. have strengths, and I don’t see anything wrong with appreciating them and talking about them! I’ve grown, in the last few years, to appreciate the UCC’s strong social issue stands, among other things.

        All the best, Neal


  15. I loved this explanation because you didn’t place one over the other, or marked one as right and the other as wrong. You just explained some of the major differences. Good Job!


    • It matters because we talk past each other and sometimes even demonize each other when we do not understand what we hold to be important.


    • Maybe it doesn’t matter to most of us who sit in the pew. But I suspect that church people all talk about how “our church” is “different,” or “better,” or more (fill-in-the-blank) than the church down the street. We all do. And often, we lack the language and the theological knowledge to be able to say anything more than, “I like their steeple,” or “Their minister is really dynamic, and they have a Saturday evening service!”

      Search Committees also rely on these kinds of distinctions when they dream about “what kind of minister would be ideal for our church?”–as well as when they are looking at actual ministerial profiles. And ministers ask these kinds of questions about various churches when they scan the UCC Ministry Opportunities webpage, or when they talk with their Conference Staff in their own search process.

      I guess to me, theological distinctions are not about being better or worse than another church or denomination, but they comprise “helpful information” that most of us need to know–sort of like needing to find out where the bathrooms are in an unfamiliar church before we need to use them.

      But I’m very open to your thought that maybe these kind of distinctions don’t matter at all. Thanks for your comment, Barbara.

      Blessings to you.


  16. Your explanations are probably practical, and I put myself in the prgressive camp. But aren’t they also divisive? I can still worship my God together with Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and even (gasp) Muslims. Maybe even with Buddhists and Taoists!


    • I agree. I guess my question is whether distinctions are inherently divisive. Does the mere suggestion or acknowledgement of difference, and then actually talking about our differences, mean that we have to rank peoples or groups or churches or denominations, and end up saying that one group is better than another or worse than another? I hope not.

      In another part of my life, I teach political science and multiculturalism courses at a local state college. This semester we have talked quite a bit about our differences, and about issues of diversity pertaining to race, gender, sex, ableism, classism, LGBTQ identity, and even religion. But we were able to have these conversations, I hope, without hurt feelings and without suggesting that one race, or one gender-identity, or one religion, is better than another.

      Anyway, you ask a fascinating question. Thank you, Brenda, for your comment.



    • So you would be fine with an Evangelical minister who teaches that Salvation requires the personal acceptance of Christ as savior? That others are not going to heaven?
      How do you worship together with Muslims when it is there belief that to state that God had a son, or there is a Trinity, is blasphemous?

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I love your commentary! As far as I’m concerned, you got it 100 percent right. I personally identify as a “progressive” as I believe do the majority of those who attend my UCC church. As a one-time Baptist (a long time ago!) I am familiar with the evangelical approach but it no longer “fits” for me.


  18. Progressives are social workers using the resources of the church for their own ends. They depend upon the foundational ministry of UCC “evangelicals” who are the old school, have retired and who preached and taught the historic faith attesting fatihfully of Jesus being our Lord and Savior. UCC Evangelicals are concerned with everyone and recognize that a change in heart not in mind offers the best option for justice and peace. The change comes in accepting what remains in the Preamble of the church documents that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior who is credited with the command to “love as you have been loved by God.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • As a progressive I still believe in Jesus Christ as the head of our Church, meaning Lord, and also as Savior. But Jesus own actions were those of social justice; healing people, feeding people, and reaching out to those who are disenfranchised. So when we do social justices we are literally emulating what Jesus did. We are following in the footsteps of our Lord.


      • Evangelical Christians can and do believe in healing people, feeding people, and all kinds of charitable work. Baptist Jimmy Carter for example.
        But most believe this should be done by churches and private social agencies, not by government taking from producers through taxation.

        As stated in the article, most progressives believe salvation is automatic, Evangelicals believe it requires an individual to make a decision to accept Christ. That is a huge fundamental difference. As an Evangelical, it drives me crazy to listen to a UCC Progressive minister preach there is no hell, that all humankind goes to heaven because of God’s love, etc.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I guess my perspective, and many of the comments to this blog post are reinforcing my perspective, is that there is no sharp distinction between UCC Progressives and Evangelicals; rather, the distinctions are subtle and gradual. This is like the difference between an on-off light switch and a wall-mounted dimmer. Distinctions between the two are sort of like the gradations on a thermometer. I would certainly hope that not all Progressives are social workers–and that many of those who are are also “concerned with everyone and recognize that a change in heart offers the best option for justice and peace.” I also suspect that many Evangelicals end up doing some social work in their daily ministries.

      Yours is a great, thought-provoking comment, Sam. Thank you for sharing it.

      Blessings to you.


  19. Well written and very helpful explanations AND easily understood. Your statment
    “Church people find the religious jargon of clergy disorienting—and would benefit greatly if we authorized-minister types explained our pronouncements and beliefs in simple language.”, is also spot on ( and something our politicians of today would also do well to master). Thanks for your article, the timing is perfect for a discussion I had yesterday with my son and his wife.

    Liked by 1 person

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