Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A future where liberal and conservative mean nothing in the church

An exchange has taken place that I almost missed between the excellent writer and token, sort of conservative, New York Times Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass, writing for the consistently liberal but occasionally accurate Huffington Post religion page. Thankfully I saw the links on the First Things blog Evangel. Douthat started by responding in an essay to the all too predictable but still tragic decision by the Episcopal Church to bless sinful behavior and call it marriage, declaring that which God has declared an abomination to be blessed. In his brilliant, if somewhat off the mark essay, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, Douthat rightly diagnoses what ills the religious left and then calls for a return to a Biblically based robust liberalism rather than a somewhat religious but mostly secular liberalism...

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right. 

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.” 

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they 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.

Well said by Mr. Douthat, a rising intellectual star in the religious world. Ms. Bass responds in her essay, Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat and seems to get the "big picture" but ultimately returns to form and posits a liberal resurgence that is quietly taking hold, something I have not observed. Here is a passage regarding the missing piece from Douthat's essay....

That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, 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.

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-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion. 

The real question is not "Can liberal Christianity be saved?" The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?

Both essays are worth your time to read. Both make good points and do so eloquently but I think both miss the fundamental issues. Here are my thoughts, posted at the Evangel's article Collapse or vitality: liberal versus conservative Christianity. They are nothing new to anyone who has read here but here they are nevertheless...

Both camps are missing the big picture. It is not that liberals are declining or that conservatives are thriving. What is being missed is that the religious culture of the West where we found room for both liberal and conservatives expressions (a church on every corner) is collapsing all around us. The social cost of not "going to church" has evaporated and many people are simply abandoning organized religion and rightly so. So-called conservative churches may be declining more slowly than liberal groups that seem bent on rushing headlong over the cliff to extinction but they are heading the same direction.

Amidst all the doom and gloom, those who follow Christ should see hope. As cultural Christianity with its religious trappings, rituals, liturgies, clericalism and all the rest is in her death throes, the church can finally start to function as a peculiar, distinct, called out people who break free from the largely empty formalism that has been the hallmark of Western civil religion for centuries. We should certainly expect to see persecution as a result, actual persecution and not the silly fights over Ten Commandments monuments on public land, but that is a sign that the church is finally being who she is called to be, just as the lack of persecution we so often give thanks for is a sign of an utter lack of faithfulness. It is in times like these that we would be wise to look to the Anabaptists to see what life is like when being faithful runs counter to the prevailing culture.

The future of Christianity in the West is not going to marked by fights over "liberal" versus "conservative". Those sort of fights are the marks of a religion that has too much power, too much money, too much prestige and is too comfortable with the world it is supposed to reach. Our future is one where preaching the Gospel is going to happen outside of pulpits and have a real cost, a future where picking up our cross daily actually means something. I am afraid that most of the church has its collective heads in the sand, desperately clinging to the crumbling religious foundations and not preparing to minister in a culture where "Christianity" is no longer the religion of choice. Rather than hand-wringing over declining "membership" we should be preparing and equipping the church right now for the very different landscape we face in the very near future. Alas those with a vested interest in the status quo are more concerned with clinging to the past than preparing for the future which is precisely why very few "leaders" in the church are really leading at all.

We need only look to Europe to see our future. While they are way ahead of us in the collapse of cultural Christianity, we are very close behind and the collapse here might be even more precipitous. These fights over "conservative" versus "liberal" are going to mean less than nothing very, very soon. This is a conversation that needs to happen in the church right now. Rather than preparing the church and our young people to fill in the impending vacancies among the clergy, Sunday school teachers and seminary professors, we need to be preparing them to minister in a world that is going to look very different from the one we grew up in and live in today. Whether one is liberal or conservative, this denomination or that, are going to be irrelevant in the Western culture of the next few decades. What will matter is whether one is a follower of Christ or not and whether we will be willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel or not. The church of today is utterly failing to prepare us for the world of the future and very few of our leaders are leading us toward the path where we are headed and are instead trying desperately to cling to a past that has already started to fade away. Thankfully I know that God is sovereign over even the religious future of America and I already am seeing signs of a new generation of Christian that He is raising up to lead the church in the years to come, leaders that don't care for the religiously proper way of doing things but care only for the mission of the Kingdom.

Let those in the halls of power and influence cling to the past if that is where they find their reward. Let God call out and raise up others who will be up for the challenges of the future.

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