In his New York Times column, Ross Douthat asks “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” His answer completely misfires, betraying a superficial, negative understanding that shows little insight or awareness of what has been going on and where the old line denominations are heading today. A response by Diana Butler Bass balances his views and makes a better case, and some of her views are reflected in my post.
What has been happening is a shakeout, a very difficult period of declining membership and revenues, plus bitter division seemingly over key social issues, but moreover about basic values in theology and biblical understanding that are generally too profound to reconcile. Splits needed to happen long ago, but church leaders were loath to see numerical decline hasten, even though it was inevitable.
Now key turning points are being attained, like among the UCC (Congregationalists), Episcopalians, Lutherans, and now the Presbyterians agreeing to ordain homosexuals. The United Methodists continue to struggle with the divisive issue. There are consequences being felt, but these denominations are gaining the chance to move forward without the drag of futile conflict.
Presbyterians have fought over this issue since 1976. The division among Presbyterians actually goes back to 1965 when deep-pocketed individuals bankrolled The Presbyterian Layman and formed the Presbyterian Lay Committee. It sought to roll back progressive reforms and was known for magnifying mistakes, spinning issues, and always seeking to provoke dissension to gain the upper hand. Most all of the old line denominations have had some similar group working to foment dissent in the pews to coerce the advancement of their agenda. Douthat ignores the impact of decades of conflict.
Besides internal conflict, the old line denominations had wrongly assumed their continued cultural leadership as national worship centers who had been at the center of social and community life for decades. This, too, is part of the shakeout.
In the 1960s, as counter-cultural movements hit like a tsunami, old line churches hunkered down, resisting change, and believing the storm would subside. They expected to emerge as the prime mediators of Christian faith to a Christian nation once again. They waited it out.
Meanwhile, as the society around them transformed, the old line churches clung to starchy sermons, organ music, classical hymns, and a host of arbitrary standards, growing inwardly on themselves more and more with every passing year. They became irrelevant to younger families, and the stodgy elderly remaining population reinforced the out-of-touch quality.
By 2012, even the people in the respective denominational pews can hardly tell the difference between the old line denominations, and new, big churches usually admit no formal affiliation with any denomination. Denominations themselves have become rather irrelevant to the common believer.
Spirituality is the broader interest within contemporary society, but the Christian church offers very little, hence the ongoing decline in regular church attendance systemically. Old line churches seem determined to offer irrelevant, multi-faceted stultification and a pot luck, while mega-churches serve up vapid praise music, a poignant skit, a gourmet coffee bar, Powerpoints, and myriad small groups.
Douthat fails to recognize the general failure of Christianity in the USA. Indeed, it is a crisis as the old church has fully tumbled from its position as a cultural leader in a more secular society, and the new mega-church cobbles together a hodge-podge of cultural populism, from rock music to theater to patriotism to therapeutic counseling to the success gospel.
The mega-church near me has a huge July 4th fireworks display. What is that? Blow stuff up for Jesus? Wave the flag for Jesus? Both? The July 4th patriotic-Jesus extravaganza reflects the empty, abject failure of institutional Christianity in the USA.
It isn’t simply the old line churches; the big new ones may have more people, more pizzazz, more chic, but their presence in the community in providing a meaningful ministry is rarely evident. They can’t fathom controversy that would mess up their populism, keeping such activities at arm’s length and hardly ever encountering “activism.”
This mega-church’s pastor has managed to turn off lots of folks as he talks the love of Jesus from one side of his mouth, and harshly condemns and excludes gays from the other. Young inquirers aren’t fooled, but they say, “The church has a great program for children and youth.” Often the parents don’t attend as they drop off the kids. What will they do and where will they go when the kids are grown?
“Liberal Christianity” is falsely defined by Douthat as being the old line denominations. In fact, those churches had liberal leadership, sponsored liberal institutions, and advanced liberal ideas in another era, but between the pulpit and the pews there was always a chasm of meaning and understanding. Eventually that gap was fully exploited. But liberalism has not departed from all of those churches, and liberalism per se is found in other places besides old line denominations.
Douthat looks at the numerical progression and concludes that old line churches are simply going to die eventually. He confuses “decline” with “demise.” Indeed, the decline will likely continue, showing signs of acceleration at certain points, like the departure of many members upon the adoption of liberal social stances. And there will be ongoing attrition as the elderly die off without enough young members to replace them. Churches will close with greater frequency, unable to sustain themselves as viable congregations. But that isn’t the end.
Correctly, Douthat asks what defines Christianity, particularly liberal Christianity, in today’s milieu. That’s the challenge and why there is a shakeout occurring. Other churches, so-called “emergent” churches are striving to be honest, intelligent, spiritual, challenging, and keep integrity with genuinely prophetic Christian mission. They represent more of what the Christian church is likely to become. The church is unlikely to ever be a cultural leader as it once was, and besides, the church should never strive for that role either.
As the shakeout continues, surviving churches will be much smaller, focused on a more prophetic and more disciplined spiritual identity that’s more aligned with historic Christianity at its better moments. They won’t be as popular as the mega-churches, but they will matter far more.
Regardless, the pot luck will never die.