Liberal Shrinkage

Ross Douthat observes in a New York Times editorial (provocatively titled “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”):

[The Episcopal Church] has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States… Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace… in the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

The statistics continue to trend in a direction I observed four years ago in a post about a then-current Pew Forum study.

I wrote, at that time, some encouragement to faithful Christians:

The media and the academic elite beat it into our heads continually that to really be relevant to the culture, churches should stop preaching the Bible, relinquish our archaic beliefs in God and the afterlife, agree that Jesus was basically just a Jewish version of Gandhi, and hire lesbian pastors who will preach a gospel of “tolerance” that abandons all claims of truth and objectivity. The data shows just the opposite: the churches that aren’t doing this are growing, while the churches that are seem to be on a path to imminent death.

When the numbers and the academics disagree, be encouraged: the numbers don’t lie.

I’m writing as a pastor to encourage the theologically orthodox. Douthat writes as a journalist and cultural commentator, but he likewise observes the oddity of pundits who refuse to reckon with the numbers:

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction… Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline.

Douthat rightly cautions against evangelical hubris, and proposes that we should hope that “liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.” Perhaps that’s a columnist’s way of saying “pray for revival?” Whereas cultural observers are tempted to propose sociological explanations for mainline decline, I incline toward a more theological answer:

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).


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