Two recent articles (Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved” in the New York Times & Jay Akasie’s “What Ails Episcopalians?” in the Wall Street Journal) refer to membership decline in what used to be considered mainline Protestantism. Both articles prophesy the imminent demise of liberal Christianity, a death they suggest will be occasioned by its liberal socio-political and theological positions.
Douthat and Akasie hypothesize that liberal denominations’ progressive understandings and practices– they’d probably refer to them as “permissive,” “revisionist,” or “culturally-compromised” positions — translate into declining constituent appeal.
Their tack hearkens back to Dean Kelley’s 1972 “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” Kelley argued that liberal churches over-accommodated the social movements of the 1960‘s and 70‘s.
That theory goes this way:
1) Chasing after greater attractiveness to the public in a rapidly changing society, liberal churches adopted the secular norms and cultural spirit of the 60’s and 70‘s.
2) In so doing, the liberal church forsook a deeper and more authentic Christian role: prophetically protesting secular culture; condeming the sinful ways of the world; offering an holy alternative.
3) Cut loose from this essential prophetic task, they argue, the liberal church rendered itself irrelevant. Who needs a church that can’t offer anything different from what contemporary culture offers? Why take on the demands of church membership to get what society gives away for free?
But Douthat and Akasie’s reheating of Kelley’s arguments is based on questionable premises and ultimately raises more questions than they answer. To end this week’s e-pistle, I am going to outline some of those questions. (Next week’s e-pistle will be further reflection on these questions.)
A) Do conservative churches critique society more consistently or deeply than progressive churches? Isn’t action against social and economic inequalites, the use of military force, and, increasingly, the degradation of the environment central to the mission, faithfulness and practice of progressive Christianity? Don’t conservative churches accept many social ills as unavoidable? Are progressive churches just reflecting the secular culture’s moment through their stained-glass windows?
B) Conservative churches are deeply critical of our society’s changing understandings of sexual issues. I’m thinking of homosexuality, abortion, birth control, sex outside of marriage, gender roles, divorce, definitions of family. Progressive churches often find their sexual understandings evolving parallel to those of the culture around them. Is this nexus of issues around sex really the divide — often unnamed — that forms the aisle between the conservatives and progressives?
C) Almost all North American denominational communities are facing significant membership decline. This is true for the Catholic Church and for conservative Protestant denominations like the Southern Baptist or the Missouri Synod Lutherans. Some congregations, both conservative and progressive, are growing, but most are shrinking. Both authors only cite the membership decline of the faith communities they disagree with! What accounts for the growing difficulty churches of all stripes are having appealing to the hearts and minds of North Americans?
See you in church,
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