Liberal Protestantism is dying. Rod Dreher says so in a recent column in The American Conservative, and the statistics back him up: for decades, liberal and mainline Protestantism has been on the decline in the US, with some denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) losing adherents so quickly that their future is in peril. Meanwhile, more conservative and evangelical denominations have generally held their own, or even experienced growth (see graph below). But liberal Protestantism in many ways exemplifies the best of what religion could be: it’s tolerant of differences, non-judgmental, open to scientific knowledge. Good stuff, right? So why is it that the open-minded liberal churches are dying out?
This is a question this website/blog (it’s been both) has tackled since its beginning in 1997. In that piece, I gave one reason:
Let’s suppose that you really believe that a) the basic teachings of Christianity are false and b) that you’re idealistic enough to want to “do good” under the new rules. What’s the quickest way of getting going? Well, to start with you have the usual plethora of political groups, environmental organizations, the government, the United Nations, and countless other organizations that have nothing to do with the church but which propagate your message. All your church is succeeding in doing is to add one more organization to the confusion. It would be simpler to simply dispense with the church and proceed with the secular organizations.
Wood throws in another one: churches that demand little from their flock don’t do a very good job bonding their members to the church, and same members leave. He’s right on that too. Having spent the last three decades in a church that has, until recently at least, demanded a lot out of its members, I can attest to the resilient results of the “ecclesiastical boot camp” complete with “martial law”.
Wood’s question is simple: if liberal churches simply demanded more of their members, wouldn’t they keep more of their people? That doesn’t answer the question I asked the fans of John Shelby Spong sixteen years ago, or the ones of Katharine Jefferts-Schori today. But there’s another question out there: how did these liberal churches get these people to start with? If you’ve got people leaving, after all, they had to be there to start with.
One passage where I still diverge with my Pentecostal bretheren on its interpretation is this one:
Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures for yourselves in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 TCNT)
Most Pentecostals and probably many Evangelicals would interpret this in a stewardship fashion: we store up treasures in heaven by giving to the church and other Christian organisations. But I, in my usual fashion, start at the end and go backwards. A person’s “treasure” is what’s important to them. If it’s the acquisition of wealth, then that–and the wealth accrued in the process–is what’s the priority of their life. If their primary goal is eternal life in Jesus Christ in heaven, then that’s where their treasure is and will be, and they will live their life accordingly.
I’m like J. Vernon McGee on this: I’m not dogmatic on my interpretation, but if you want to be right, you’ll agree with me. And I think that I can back it up with the following:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or else he will attach himself to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6:24 TCNT)
But first seek his Kingdom and the righteousness that he requires, and then all these things shall be added for you. (Matthew 6:33 TCNT)
I think that one big problem with liberal, Main Line churches, is that they went into the fire of modern and post-modern times with a large chunk of their parishioners whose first priorities in life were not living in and for God. And that goes back to the demands of the church: when you have flocks like this, you’re not in much of a place to make demands. And so we have the vicious cycle we’ve watched for the last half century, including the Episcopal Church’s campaign to run off the more conservative wing who had a decent shot to, if not completely reversing the cycle, at least slowing it down.
But our God doesn’t just ask for our money. He asks for it all. As the General Thanksgiving puts it:
…we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days;
The sooner we understand this the sooner we will be ready for the rough voyage ahead.