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Are post-theistic congregations any different than service clubs?

By Nancy Steeves

There is a certain irony in this question being posed to me. I was raised in a congregation of the Atlantic Baptist Convention in which my evangelical eyes were trained to see The United Church of Canada, with its New Curriculum and liberal theology, as a “mission field.” 

Like so many in my context, I regarded the United Church to be basically a service club because it didn’t hold my doctrinal convictions to be essential. I had no doubt that the denomination was full of well-intentioned people motivated to do good things, but from the bias of my beliefs, it seemed they had substituted the “true gospel” with a “social gospel.” By failing to require belief in Jesus as the saving way, truth and life, the United Church was indistinguishable to me from a Rotary or Lions Club. 

Ironically, four decades later, I find myself serving within the United Church, a denomination that seems mired in a binary around values and beliefs. What’s more important: how we act or what we believe? What beliefs are essential for belonging or leadership? Are progressive or post-theistic congregations any different from community service organizations?

Where my younger eyes viewed the world through an evangelical lens, my spirituality has evolved in ways that have led me to a faith rooted in values and expressed in post-theistic language and images. I have been fortunate to share this journey over the last 13 years with Southminster-Steinhauer United, a progressive spiritual community in Edmonton that is committed to exploring an expansive Christianity emphasizing shared values rather than common beliefs.

Much like service clubs, post-theistic spiritual communities assume responsibility for the positive changes we seek in the world. We act for good in the world because our sense of humanity requires it, not because any deity or doctrine prescribes it. But one of the things that distinguishes these congregations from service clubs is how that sense of responsibility is nurtured. 

Progressive spiritual communities gather regularly to seek wisdom from a variety of sources. These sources include the witness of nature; the inspiration of art, film, science and literature; the writings and teaching of varied enduring spiritual traditions, including the ancient texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition; and the text of one’s own lived experience. Congregations like ours gather to seek and share wisdom that will inspire and inform our living. We sing and pray together not to praise or petition some external, supernatural being to intervene and bring the peace, justice and freedom we seek for our world. Rather, we sing and pray to strengthen our intentions to live in ways that are congruent with our highest values (love, respect, fairness, peace, justice, compassion) and to call ourselves to do what is required to answer the prayers we share. 

If we take our cue from Jesus of Nazareth, the question this column asks might best be answered with another question: Does it matter

For the parable character who was left stripped and beaten alongside the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, would it matter to him whether his help came from a leader of Jewish orthodoxy or a 
Samaritan who didn’t share his convictions? Would he hope for a fellow traveller who would pray for him, or someone who would help in any way possible? 

The story radically suggests that what is essential to a wounded world is our service, the helpfulness of our actions — not the beliefs that inspire or require it. Wouldn’t we be wise to heed the story’s wisdom and, as Jesus instructed his listeners, to “go and do likewise”?

Rev. Nancy Steeves is a member of the ministry team at Southminster-Steinhauer United in Edmonton. 

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