Ross Douthat has published an intriguing piece in the New York Times Sunday Review dealing with the demise of liberal Christianity in the U.S.
Now, the usual reaction to such reports from the Churches of Christ and other conservative denominations is to point out how we conservatives haven’t made those same mistakes — that is, to gloat — but Douthat reaches more challenging conclusions.
[T]oday the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is 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.
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 … 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.
So much for growth by becoming like the non-Christian world, but with cool rituals. Still, that doesn’t mean we conservatives get to boast.
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.
Sad, but true. Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ are in real numerical decline. But denominations of the “name it and claim it” mindset are doing quite well. It seems that Christianity grows fastest when it promises earthly wealth. Evidently, the Jesus that the rest of us preach is not attractive enough.
Moreover, while liberal churches are in rapid decline, those of us who are in slower decline are headed in the same direction and to the very same end. Decline is the direction toward zero, regardless of how slowly you hope to get there.
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 perhaps 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.
Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
While liberal churches offer little more than secular wisdom, the more conservative churches offer little more than a free pass to heaven conditioned on regular attendance and tithing. Some will even throw in cappuccinos and Pilates in case the promise of heaven isn’t enough to get you there on time. Attendance is the number one goal, you see.
Let’s be honest. Most churches have been highly secularized, even those that teach inerrancy from the pulpit every Sunday. If the motivator for Christianity is to
make friendsform relationships, or to get to heaven, or to keep a book of rules to earn our way into heaven, or to look down on others who are less perfect in their biblical understanding, or to feel superior because we paint houses for the poor, then we’re selfish people acting selfishly, hoping to be rewarded for our superiority. It’s not going to happen.
None of this remotely resembles the Christianity taught by Jesus. Indeed, we’re so far removed from Jesus that we have Church of Christ preachers arguing that Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels are properly considered a part of the Old Testament, hung on the cross, and no longer relevant!
So what has to change? Well, nearly everything. And the first thing that has to change is our smug, self-satisfaction, whether for our expertise in the silences of the scriptures or our superior knowledge of grace or our superior obedience to the Torah’s commands to serve the poor. In true Christianity, there is no room for boasting, indeed, no reason for boasting. And so if you find yourself in a self-congratulatory mood about your religion, well, you’ve misunderstood nearly everything.
And your church won’t grow. Not for long. Because self-congratulation and smugness and a sense of superiority is just not very Christ-like and not very attractive. And so when we respond to bad news about the Episcopalians by thinking how very superior we are to them, well, we’ve missed the point — of nearly everything.
But, you know, humility is hard — mainly because feeling superior is just so very much fun. I know. We all struggle with this temptation. But when an entire denomination or congregation submits to the temptation, even reveling in their supposed superiority, they begin to destroy the faith.
And so, how would we rebuild Christianity based on something entirely different — like, you know, humility? What might that look like?