In yesterday’s New York Times, thirty-year-old conservative blogger and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat announced the demise of what he calls “liberal Christianity.”
liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance….their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
For Mr. Douthat the causes of liberal decline are clear. They have become
flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
Curiously, Douthat seems unaware that, in the middle of his diatribe against churches whose theology he finds wanting, he undermines his own argument by acknowledging that
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
Diana Bulter- Bass, in response to Douthat points out that liberal denominations, while they may have experienced decline earlier than more conservative churches are now no longer alone in experiencing a drop in adherents.
liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.
She goes on to observe that conservative denominations while seeing decline in liberal denominations as a sign of theological compromise, find other causes for their own dropping numbers.
Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic “blips,” waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-releasedsurvey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.
Butler Bass is right. The real issue facing the entire church, no matter its theology, is that institutional religion is in crisis. And churches are not alone. All institutions are in crisis. Mainstream education is struggling as more families choose to pursue educational alternatives. A minority of citizens in most democratic countries participate in the electoral process, meaning governments are chosen by a tiny portion of the population. Most communities can no longer sustain adequate General Practice doctors as more people pursue alternative medicine and fewer medical professionals are able to sustain a private General Practice.
Mr. Douthat may not be happy about it, but everywhere we look we are surrounded by change.
In the midst of the flux of our culture, institutional church may be smaller than it once was. But, it may be precipitous to publish the obituary for any particular Christian denomination.
The death of the church has been announced with tedious regularity over the past hundred years.
But shrinkage is not necessarily death and increasing numbers is not necessarily a sign of health. A smaller church may not always be a bad thing.
If Mr. Douthat would take the time to investigate, he would find many dynamic loving faithful communities of people gathered for worship in a wide variety of churches. There is life still in the church. It might be that this life would be enhanced more by praising the places where it is evident than spreading gloomy prognostications about the church’s death.