Religious progressives, the next generation

DIANE WINSTON, Knight chair in media and religion at USC, can be reached at dhwinston

WITH THE PASSING of Coretta Scott King comes a hard question: What new vision will stir religious progressives?

The revolutionary potential of religious ideas was certainly evident in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision — that all people are equal in God’s eyes — helped overturn segregation. One result was that people of color gained greater access to housing, education, jobs and elected office. That was just the beginning. Both Kings believed the faithful could transform the world.

Their movement stalled. But in the weeks between the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Coretta King’s death, I’ve seen a spike in simpatico activities.

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s new book, “The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right,” calls for a spirituality based on love, respect and responsibility. The Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley launched , a website that offers information and resources for left-leaning churchgoers. But most interesting to me was a Gen-X conference for Jews and evangelical Christians to discuss different models for tikkun olam, the Jewish notion of men and women working with God to repair a broken world.

Gathered at a retreat center in Simi Valley last month, the two dozen participants eyed each other with cautious curiosity. Synagogue 3000, an organization devoted to revitalizing synagogue life, convened the meeting of “emergents,” GenX evangelicals exploring new ways to follow Jesus in today’s world, and Jews seeking new models for religious life.

Above the polite chatter, big questions — Are you out to convert me? Do we have anything in common? — hung in the air. The answers, offered at the first session, were reassuring: no conversions, much in common.

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen told conference participants that their generation is marked by dysfunctional families, distrust of institutions and a greater affinity for images than print. Gen-Xers understand truth as “less stable and more pluralistic” than their parents do, he said, which perhaps explains why they’re more experimental about religion.

They’re also more confrontational. “This is not your father’s church,” Gen-X emergents tell their friends, irking baby-boomer elders.

Emergent Christians describe themselves as “relational” (an emphasis on personal commitments), “traditional” (a rigorous understanding of religious life) and “missional” (doing God’s work 24/7 in the world).

Think of their Christianity as anti-mega church: no marketing, head-counting or high-power programming.

And sometimes no church.

Members of Quest: a Christ-commons meet in homes in Seattle. Pledged to “nudge each other toward God, each other and creation,” they share work, study, meals and child care. They try to make a difference in their community. Some shelter the homeless, others work for peace, still others blog about religion and politics. When their number exceeds 35, a new group spins off.

Jacob’s Well in Kansas City, Mo., looks like a more traditional congregation. Weekly services may draw as many as 1,000 worshippers even though Pastor Tim Keel does little to attract new members. Folks come, he says, because the church emphasizes hospitality, service to others and the arts.

Keel practices what his colleagues call “orthoparadoxy” — the art of dissolving dichotomies. By confounding expectations, he challenges members to think in new ways. For example, if a newcomer wants to participate in a social ministry — such as a soup kitchen or tutoring program — Keel says the church doesn’t do that.

“We don’t see ourselves as ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ” he explains. “You are an extension of us.”

Translation: Jacob’s Well ministers to others; members find their own way to participate in the life of the community.

Emergents like those at Jacob’s Well envision faith as a world agent. But they eschew terms such as “leader” and “movement,” as well as bombastic political pronouncements.

The Kings also imagined a religious community that was world-changing. But their vision included officers and soldiers, speeches and demonstrations. The media saw a powerful story of suffering and redemption — and a movement was born.

Their would-be heirs operate below the radar, generating little buzz and less press.

But can they get the job done? Martin Luther King Jr.'s “beloved community” lasted just a few years. It could not withstand ego eruptions, media scrutiny and conflicting agendas. The emergent network — encompassing progressive evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics and maybe even Jews — talks about sustainability. They seek to be responsible stewards, modestly working to honor all creation — riding a bike instead of driving, welcoming a stranger, sharing a meal with a hungry family.

Who knows? They may be the kind of saints we need right now.