Does Liberal Christianity Need Saving?

Ross Douthat is out with an opinion piece in the NYT asking  if liberal Christianity can be saved:

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, 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.

Douthat makes some good points, especially when he points out the unwillingness of many religious and secular liberals to recognize the dwindling numbers. I wonder, though, whether liberal Christianity needs saving.

Douthat thinks that liberal Christians

should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

It seems to me that numbers is not the end-all-be-all of liberal Christianity and that it has much to offer the world as it is now. Anyway, I’m still wrapping my head around all of this and contemplating just how much saving liberal Christianity actually needs. Sam and I will be discussing this very topic on our next episode of ThinkingReligion, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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10 thoughts on “Does Liberal Christianity Need Saving?

  1. It seems like what attracts a lot of people to more conservative Christianity is that its more radical approach is often seen as counter-cultural and having deep convictions. As you suggest, a numbers game isn’t everything. In the COC, I often get frustrated when all anyone wants to know of a missionary is how many he or she has baptized, i.e., baptism numbers = gauge of success. But maybe liberal Christianity has to ask itself, what is it deeply convicted about? What can it offer the world that is counter-cultural, and how can it present itself in a way that is life changing? Part of the answer may be a radical take on what it means to be community, our brother’s keeper, caring for the poor, opening our homes, and so on. Overall, I think a deep, counter cultural message is there, it’s just different than the more conservative version of hating homosexuality, keeping women out of the pulpit, and focusing entirely on the depravity of sin.

  2. I’m going to have to generalize here to make any point at all. I’m sorry. I will not be footnoting or qualifying my broad strokes. Someone will of course be able to point out one or two churches or bloggers who defy my picture of the liberal mainline, but I don’t think that will invalidate my general characterization. I am writing this on the fly, but here goes.

    I say this as somewhat of an insider. My father is an ELCA pastor and my grandfather is a retired Lutheran pastor. I have seen how the mainline works and participated in its functions and events. I think liberal Christianity does need saving. Much of mainline Christianity lacks a cohesive driving force. If you are not willing to say much of anything with force, then you don’t attract much of a following. Mainline churches should ask themselves questions such as “what do people gain by coming here that they don’t get elsewhere?” I would assert that the answer, at this point, is almost nothing. The liberal mainline offers a general liberal humanist spirituality and a focus on love and social justice, both things that are found all over society.

    Liberal mainline churches are not very good at creating an identity for themselves. Conservative and/or evangelical Christians often find a strong identity and purpose in their churches. They feel “convicted” to behave differently, or they are “set on fire” to do something. They generally identify themselves as Christians above other labels. Mainliners often approach the Christian label with embarrassment and a little hesitation. They spend less time proclaiming and more time apologizing about the church (I leave aside whether this is justified in light of the behavior of many Christians). This is because the liberal mainline is just generally more postmodern. They believe all religions are beautiful, all religions are based in the same God and, when properly practiced, are rooted in love, and they hesitate to say that they themselves has an understanding of the truth that is superior in any way to anyone else’s understanding. The mainline churches do believe that social justice is important, but they don’t have a passion or drive toward it as strong as what you would find in a non-profit or community organizing group. By the way, you can find a general concern for social justice almost anywhere, including Starbucks and Tom’s shoes ads.

    I guess I’m just trying to say that conservative/evangelical churches are more willing to assert themselves than are mainline churches. They are willing to take solid stands and form solid identities to which people can adhere. Mainline churches are fading into Western society’s greater sea of secular humanism. They are no longer set apart from society at large in any meaningful way. The only people they are really challenging are those on the far right. If the mainline is only dishing out the general humanism and social justice concerns that the media at large and society in general is serving, then why does anyone need it? Why would I bother going to a mainline church when Opera or the ladies on The View can give me the same sort of wisdom?

  3. In many ways I agree with you about the lack of identity and blending in with the larger liberal world. By accepting homosexuality, Darwinism, a more modern view on the Bible, deemphasizing sin, etc. what does liberalism gain? Are more atheists, agnostics, or intellectuals fleeing to liberal Christianity because of it? For me, it was freeing but what about for non-Christians (I grew up very conservatively, but still in the church). In defense of liberal Christianity’s emphasis on love, tolerance, and social justice, I do want to say that it doesn’t have to look the same as Oprah’s, The View’s, or whatever other celebrity you want to throw out there. When I read a book like “Making Room,” which emphasis hospitality to such a radical degree that we allow complete strangers shelter in our homes, I see a difference. When I read a blog like Richard Beck’s (professor at Abilene Christian University) where he describes the different feel and look a worship service has in the “poor” part of Abilene, and how their prayers-curse words and all-are some of the most powerful prayers, he’s ever heard, I see a difference. When I read a sermon by Hauerwas, where he talks about the church creating a type of community for young girls where they actually feel they have other options besides abortion, I see a difference. For me, it’s about being a vessel of life (in the Johannine sense) and a living symbol/sacrament of God’s redemption in the world. It’s not just showing someone salvation by helping punch their ticket to heaven but also asking what salvation looks like for a single mother of three struggling to make ends meat. Can the church offer her salvation here and now? If the church becomes this type of community, it looks radically different than Oprah. Now, granted, while the conservative community where I grew up never talked about ideas such as these or really emphasized social justice at all, perhaps in the liberal tradition of Christianity, the pendulum has swung too far the other direction.

    Thank you for your thoughts, and I look forward to this discussion continuing.

  4. I like much of what James McGrath has said in response to this article:

    “There is a version of Liberal Christianity that it is easy to get excited about. And I am excited about it. Perhaps the time has come for all of those of us who see things in this way to unite, and to take back the identity of Christianity from the loud and prominent self-proclaimed spokesmen (yes, most of them are men) who have so managed to persuade the media and popular opinion that they represent “true Christianity,” that Liberal Christianity has come to be viewed as a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither.

    But that is not how things stand at all. Those who claim to be “Biblical Christians” are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with “what the Bible says.” And they are prone to miss that there has been liberal Christianity from the very beginning. When Paul set aside Scriptures that excluded Gentiles on the basis of core principles of love and equality, and arguments based on the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in them, he was making and argument very similar to that which inclusive Christians make today. The fact that his argument eventually became Scripture itself should not blind us to the fact that when he made his argument, his words did not have that authority.” (http://networkedblogs.com/zUmEd)

    1. I guess what I described above applies primarily to the mainline. The “emergent” church is a liberal church that seems to be growing, but they are approaching things with the evangelical drive and spirit. The mainline churches, which probably make up the majority of liberal Christians, do not have such a drive. I don’t think the view of the mainline as “a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither” is just a mistaken view. These churches are not prepared to assert themselves, and that is why their membership is waning. They are used to the way things were in the early and mid-twentieth century, when people would flock to a church just because it existed, the lights were on inside, and they grew up identifying with the denominational label on the sign.

      It just happens to be a fact that the mainline, a bastion of liberal Christianity, is in a steep decline, while certain other types of churches are not. It is not an imagined phenomenon. There must be a reason for it. McGrath actually seems to be proposing a general solution for the types of issues I laid out. He is encouraging people to actually take a stand, speak out, and project a clear liberal Christian identity.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this post and the Times article a lot this afternoon and evening. I really look forward to what you and Sam have to say, because I haven’t really come up with any coherent thoughts about this issue.

    1. I just read Bass’s response and then decided to come over here and see what was going on in your comments (I obviously have a lot going on tonight). I appreciated her look at Douthat’s original data, but I wish she had shared a little bit more about what she thinks is and isn’t worth saving. For me, the question today hasn’t been so much about if any Christianity can or needs to be saved, but rather if it is worth saving. I guess I’ll have to read her “Christianity After Religion” to see if she thinks it would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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