Churches of Christ in Decline: Lessons from Liberal Christianity

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.

Douthat suggests,

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?

Leave a Reply

  1. Great post.

    I think the missing ingredients in most churches are repentance and lordship. We must recognize and deal with the sin in our own lives. Humility is certainly part of that. But there are a lot of other sins in our lives too. The gulf between man and God isn’t about doctrinal understandings. It’s about sin. The gospel message begins with “Repent and believe the good news.” If we want to be healthy, growing churches, I think that’s where we need to start.

  2. While attendance numbers provide interesting data, they are irrelevant. We cannot draw meaningful conclusions. They have no spiritual significance.

    The fact that I worship at this place or another is not a clear indication of what I believe, or that I agree with what the preacher proclaims as his/her understanding of the gospel. It may simply mean I enjoy the worship or have lots of relationships there.

    These make for interesting posts, but the issue lie elsewhere.

  3. As I have heard it said many times before, there are three stages to every church/denomination: 1) Begins with the Man, 2) Launches a Movement, 3) Becomes a Monument.

  4. …Continuing above… If we are first and foremost focused on exalting Jesus Christ and remaining humble before him… He will bless and prosper the Church. This historically leads to a distinctive movement that church leaders latch on to and brag about. Ultimately it becomes canned and frozen which is the sad state of most churches today. We need to return to the “Man” Jesus Christ and return control of the Church to Him.

  5. Great post. What is described here is a natural thermodynamic cycle. The changes are subject to the laws of thermodynamics because there is little to no spiritual energy to rise above that. The Spirit of God resides in the temple of the church being built into the fullness of Christ, but not if the church says “there’s no room in the inn,” and “also, the garage has been renovated into a media room so we could get 135 db.” The body of Christ can sow to the flesh the same as can an individual person, and both will reap corruption, destruction, death. The church described in this post has selfish ambition, pride, and idolatry. The result is chaos, division, and disorder. That is entropy, according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If the church does not sow to the Spirit, the church will reap entropy — read Jay’s post and the preceding comments to see a description of that. If the church sows to the natural, it places itself under natural law that God created, and it will rot the same as a tree fallen in the forest.

    People can’t be helped as long as they deny they are in sin. The obvious result of the enemy at work is a self-lie that we are all okay. They are worse off. We have the truth. They’ve decreased membership,too. At least we’ve fallen in the ditch together.

    [1] We have to recognize and admit we have a problem. There are too any people in all churches, including the CoC that are still in denial. Many of them teach and publish.
    [2] We have to stop spending 1000 times more time and effort and energy fighting and arguing among ourselves than we spend seeking the lost. While we fight among ourselves,we lose orientation that we are on a moving platform and we are in danger of being in the same category — the lost.
    [3] Instead of glorifying the “how to organize your church for success” gurus, maybe we need to find a new model of church organization from China or Africa or India –some place where the church is persecuted, because that what is in store for the entropy in the American church.
    [4] We are going to have to elevate Jesus Christ as Lord instead of the wonderfulness of our very own hermeneutic and our enforcing rules. It happens in the comments on this very web site. Need an illustration? Some people can’t seem to think and say anything except the legalistic doctrinal record that has been playing in their head for the last 40 years. Shall we get it started? Ready, set, GO – Instrumental music, water baptism, authority, evolution, saved by grace only or some works, too, conservative/progressive … . We have been invited to board a handbasket headed for entropy. The conductor is a serpent. Lunch is “snake surprise.” “We shall not surely die.” When will we wake up and get real.

  6. Jay,

    As a former member of the CoC and one who has no qualms to discribe myself as progressive, and, yes, liberal, I think your post is very fair. It reminds me that when Jesus called out the Pharisees and Sadducees for their dead spirituality he made no distinction as to which one was “closer to the truth”. Hypocrisy was hypocrisy.

    Some liberal churches today have lost sight that Christianity demands specific Biblical responses. This offers no alternative to those of the world who are dying of spiritual hunger and empty souls. Whereas, in conservative Christianity the “moral superior” attitude toward the world yells, “We may not actually live it, but we do know it and we know what’s best for you ; so, do as we say, not as we do”. To which the world says, “yeah, right.” And of course, there is the view that one has to be a political conservative and have a strange double minded view of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; only for those who look, think and act like “us”. Do not be fooled. The poor and the working poor listen and pay close attention to a church’s attitude toward them and others who cannot help themselves. So, it will take a little more action than simply printing “We believe in Love” on the front of the bulletin to make them interested.

  7. “feeling superior” Right here on this blog it has been said “the work you do here, only determines what position you hold in heaven” (no Jay I don’t recall you ever saying that) Working on earth only to be superior to your brother. IN HEAVEN! as you say won’t make the grade, an humble heart has to be in the picture somewhere. I doubt that work done out of greed will count for very much, work done out of looking for recompense is not what Jesus was about.

    Mat 7:22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
    Mat 7:23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
    Mat 10:8 Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

    Do what you do for your fellow man freely, not expecting a higher place in heaven for doing so. That only takes your place away.
    Many on this blog have accused me of trying to work my way to heaven, they couldn’t be more wrong. I don’t expect to gain the riches of heaven because of what I do, but if I don’t do what Jesus said, how do I show my trust in him? how can I bring others to trust in him? Believe it or not we do have homework assigned to do.

  8. Many that I know have out of frustration with the bashing of others simply left the churches of all kinds and seek a personal relationship with Christ.
    In their eyes, they can’t do any worse than what the churches are doing and just might do better.
    So, I don’t see the dwindling membership of churches as folks leaving worshiping God, but, trying to become more spiritual.

  9. Alabama John – Your observation is, of course, correct; and many of us have probably thought of doing the same thing ourselves at one time or another. That is why the “unidentified” group is now the largest group in the “religious type” surveys. But we also know that removal and isolation isn’t the answer; the answer has to be in the church. Many of those who leave “religion” to be “more spiritual” meander into some form of amorphous mystical post-modern humanism. Overall, it is like people who get cold in the log cabin because the fire is burning out and no one will fetch more logs. So some think, “I could do better than this with a box of matches outside.” So they take their matches and leave. Some who are outside may actually rekindle another fire, but most will burn their matches and freeze. The owner may come along and tear the cabin down and use its logs to build a campfire. When this happens, some of those on the inside and the outside may be used to form a remnant to begin again, like God did with Israel over and over. Our American “individualism” may be detrimental to the American church. Even though I think the church in American is cycling down into entropy and is likely gone beyond retrieval, I believe that any reversal must occur in the church or it will not occur at all. God will then allow organized religion to come down and He will rebuild from the surviving faithful remnant.

    Our national financial debt being passed to future generations is nothing compared to the spiritual debt we are encumbering.

    If the church in American cannot contain God’s Spirit

  10. What a growing church has is good leadership, which is a RARE RARE commodity now days.

  11. My church is fairly large for a CofC (300+ avg Sunday worship attendance) and is located in a small southern town. My current feeling about my church is that there is really no place for me to do work in it or with it. The main empathsis is on Sunday worship and as long as we do that reasonably well, most everyone seems to be content with that. I do virtually all of my Christian work outside the Church and I mean by that outside the people who comprise my church. After I joined my church, I initally made many suggestions to the church leaders about works of ministry in which the church as a whole could be engaged but I was either rebuffed or ignored (I prefer being rebuffed as opposed to ignored). At this point I feel that there is really no place for me to do anything with my church other than occupy a place in a pew on Sunday morning. I also feel that there is really no good option relative to departing from my church. The liberal church is no place for me but while I was an Episcopalian, I did have meaningful roles within that church as a newcomer and was even invited to run for leadership positions. I have over 30 years experience as a worship leader but I have been asked only once to even fill in for the regular worship leader when he is away. I have been a Elder, a deacon, a Sunday School teacher and Superintendent. I was a legal trustee of a church. Which all counts for nothing in my small town CofC. I suspect that I am suspect but no one will come right out and tell me so.

    If I am representative of new comers to the CofC, it is small wonder that the CofC is in decline. Who would want what I have at my CofC?

  12. Dr. T…good to see you (as it were)…. Can the church be lead if they can’t hear the voice of the Shepherd?

  13. Dr T,
    Maybe small home churches is the coming thing. Funny how things cycle. With the coming hard times, we may just see a closeness with one another we have not seen in many years. Out of adversity comes many good things.
    Seemed to have worked before.

  14. Doug

    We do all of our so called Church work in the community we live in. While we do teach on occasions in the church our emphasis is outreach. We have home studies and teach the cross to those who will listen. We understand your frustrations.

    Church starts when we leave the building on Sunday.

    Bob

  15. Robert… The point I was making is the church organization ought to be the place where we plan our activity in the community. We ought to be doing this activity with the same people with which we worship. At least for the most part. That is not what I am experiencing and I think my experience is more the majority than the minority. If we want church growth, church has to be more than just a Sunday experience.

  16. I agree that the answer is in the church… it’s just not in the churches. I cannot say I see any solution which lets organizations which are less than the church continue to claim to be what they are not and continue to try to carve out a larger segment of the religion market, all with divine unction. It is not the church which is in decline, my friends, it is “Christianity”, the hydra-headed religion we have built with a variety of admixtures of the ethics of Jesus and approaches to scripture.

    Our challenge is neither to save this passing form, nor to tear it down because of its fatal flaws. Our challenge is, for lack of a more elegant term, to shed our skin. We are called to be disciples of Jesus, the younger siblings of the King of Glory, the sons of God. We have become something far less, the faithful keepers of shrines– historical, cultural, theological, doctrinal shrines. We have attached ourselves to buildings and bibles and beliefs, to symbols rather than substance, to places and purposes rather than to a Person, to that which is revealed more than to the One Who Reveals. For about 600 years, God has continued to bless this form, knowing, as we have not known, that it is just that– a form.

    But the limitations of that form become more and more apparent, all the more for the desperate attempts by its current custodians to caulk all the cracks, to alternately armor it and remodel it in an effort to save it. While we have been absorbed with perceived threats which are actually just intramural squabbles among the shrines, the sons of God have been quietly leaving those shrines. Some, certainly, in selfish seeking, but more because what has been advertised on the label has not been that which we have found in the box. “Sir, we would see Jesus,” will not forever be answered with, “Come and sit here under my feet. Pay for our shrine and we will let you serve her.”

    My brothers, the new theses of Christ’s disciples will not be nailed to the Wittenburg door, but will spread both behind and far beyond such doors. This is both incredibly encouraging and troubling. Undoubtedly, wolves will come in among the turmoil. These seeking saints have courage, but this does not make them invulnerable. So much the more need for true shepherds of the Great Shepherd, not just managers of a local sheepfold. So much more the need for mature believers whose faith transcends doctrine and tradition; so much greater the call for grown-up believers who will cease gathering into their own barns and who can see the Kingdom of God as reality.

  17. Doug

    You are so right but the people you worship with count your faithfulness by the attendance on Sunday AM, PM and Wednesday night.

    We have been with the COC for 55 years. and it used to be the way you described but today it is not. We still try to change.

    God bless

    Bob

  18. Robert… I’m not sure what you are trying to tell me. I’m saying what I described is what I am currently experiencing in the CofC and you are saying it’s not that way in the CofC anymore. Obviously we both can’t be right and I think the evidence leans my way.

  19. Doug,

    Two possibilities:
    (1) When I read Robert’s comment, I first understood him to be saying it used to be the way you described how it ought to be, but was no longer that way. (Agreeing with you.)
    (2) With the intense independence of congregations in the Church of Christ, it could be that Robert’s experience is different from yours.

  20. That is the difference in the conservative and progressive churches around here.
    Even worse, the difference is getting worse as the conservatives are getting more so as they get smaller and smaller but, the road is narrow and only a few will go in is still the motto.
    I don’t see it changing, but, the conservative churches here still outnumber 20 to 1 the very few progressive churches that do get out and preach and teach to the community.

  21. Doug

    I too would like to see us to be more evangelical and impacting on our community through planning with the members we worship with.

    We have been instrumental in building large congregations in the Houston area in the 70′s through the late 90′s. We had leadership that organized us into planning groups to do outreach and retain our visitors.

    To day in the smaller cities the COC is more of a group of families and the leadership does not encourage planning or evangelism. We too are viewed with suspicion because we came from progressive churches.

    Do the best you can to reach the lost in your community, Go to nursing homes and have home bible studies using the Ray Vander Laan series or Rick Warren’s purpose driven life. Some of our older members won’t participate as they see this material as “Denominational Doctrine” . But we don’t have any Beth Moore’s in our brotherhood that can produce any thing except be sages on “False Doctrine”

    Do the best you can Doug. I know full well your frustration. We have many frieds from other churches that are more understanding.

    Blessings

    Bob

  22. Robert, that is good advice, My main problem is that by nature and by education and profession, I am a problem solver and the problem I have described seems to have no solution. So, it frustrates me. ;-)

  23. Doug

    I sent you a comment that probably got lost in cyber space.

    I too am a professional, retired Petroleum Engineer with 40 + years in domestic and international construction and reservoir analysis. I relish problems in engineering and have always been an Engineering Manager and Production Manager for several large Petroleum companies.

    Some church people, especially the conservatives are an enigma to me. They know all of the answers and have absolutely zero people or leadership skills.

    Do community work and home bible studies. You do need an encouraging environment.

    My email is robertharry52@yahoo.com if you want TO talk more. I don’t hide. Too old to care what others think but we do want to please the Lord.

    Bob Harry

  24. People are naturally spiritual any history of religion shows that. The evidence that the liberal theology is not even really theology at all suggests that the true seeker of spiritual truth and realize that God is nothing like someone who would bless same sex unions. At the same time the same un-churched truth seekers look at the conservative evangelical movement and can also see how flawed and shallow our theology is.

    So it would do us well not capitulate into meaningless religious liberalism nor continue to delude ourselves into a narcissistic dogma that we have the perfect theology.
    Erase all of our preconceived notions and start a fresh to look at the scripture with responsible, critical methods that is based on the nature of God and trying to prove a certain doctrinal position.

  25. Price and Alabama John (from 7/24/12). Sorry for the delay–haven’t check back in a while. I’ve been writing blog posts. Hearing the voice of the Shepherd and “knowing” the voice are indeed problems, because based on all the church divisions it would seem there are many voices with different messages. Reminds me of the UN where a person speaks in one language and it gets translated to many languages but only one translation to a person. That translation is adjusted to fit the vocabulary that the hearer already knows. It’s like the church has translators – some translate into CoCese, some into Baptese, some into Catholese, some into Presbyese, some into Lutherese, some into Calvanese, etc. And then the different UN participants argue over who has the most accurate translation. It’s like the tower of Babel. Until we all learn to recognize “The True Shepherdese” the church will continue to be divided. Many do not recognize or cannot admit that there is a difference.

    Frank Viola certainly thinks that “home churches” are the right direction. The institutional church is trying to accommodate that with “cell groups” or “connection groups” etc. and still maintain the organization (and the ministry staff). Not sure how well that will work to save things. I agree that home churches will be what will evolve — either because that is the most productive method or because that is what is left after the church goes underground from persecution.

    Thanks, Price and Alabama John.

  26. Group

    We have labored many years trying to understand God’s will in the scripture. Love God and Love your neighbor. My wife and I do community and individual service to the elderly, poor and mentally challenged. We teach the cross in our home to all who will listen. We work with anyone in any church that calls themselves Christian.

    We do not argue any more about the fine points of conservative versus progressive Church of Christ theology. We are to old to think that hard. We try and encourage the man who’s wife is in the nursing home with Alzheimers . We try and help the lady who’s husband has been taken to the mental hospital from alcohol or drugs. We have the poor do little things on our home and give them what little money we can spare, which in this economy is not much.

    We pray that God in his mercy will save those who love Jesus.

    Bob and Donna

  27. Jay

    How do we serve God is this world today?

    By debate or service?

    We study the heroes of the old testament, most of whom we would not fellowship.

    David and Solomon were imperfect men but managed to write Psalms. Proverb and Ecclesiastics. David composed Psalms 51 which I could live by today.

    I challenge all those who want to serve God to follow us.

    Bob and Donna Harry