"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Liberal Christianity–The Decline of Mainstream Churches

Ross Douthat has written an article in the New York Times about the decline of attendance in mainstream Protestant churches, most noticeable in the Episcopalian Church which has seen a decline of nearly 18 percent since 2001, the Lutheran Church 15 percent, the Presbyterian Church 15 percent, and the Methodist Church 10 percent (The Christian Century). Douthat wonders why, in this most religious of countries, this has happened; and he wonders whether it is because these churches have become too secular and moved too far from their spiritual roots for most people. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-can-liberal-christianity-be-saved.html:

The Episcopalian Church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today 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.

This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.

It is no coincidence, says Douthat, that the precipitous decline in attendance paralleled the sweeping changes in the Church.  Why should people go to a church when their spiritual needs are not met and when secular issues crowd out religious ones?

Selecting the Episcopal Church as the focus for examination may not be entirely fair; for no other church has become so embroiled in controversy.  Its positive stance on the ordination of gay priests has alienated many congregants and enraged others.  It has caused a worldwide schism where African churches – once the mainstay of Church growth or at least stability in the religious world – are threatening secession.  The Episcopal Church has therefore not driven people away because its new secular, ‘progressive’ focus; it has done so because many of its faithful feel – as do the believers of other faiths – that homosexuality is proscribed by the Bible.  The ordination of women was bothersome and troubling for many, but the inclusion of gay priests was unforgivable.  That is, it might not have been the secularization of the Church which so offended, but the more doctrinal issues of the nature of the Episcopal ministry.

Yet is was not this issue alone that was behind the mass abandonment of the Episcopal Church.  As cited above, most mainstream churches which had not provoked their congregations, were suffering the same losses. In an attempt to address declining membership, these churches tried to become more ‘relevant’ and ‘young’, but these reforms only served to drive away more believers:

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. 

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.

These two phenomena – secularization of the church and declining attendance – did not affect Episcopalians alone:

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. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Douthat’s conclusions, however, only partially explain the decline.  For one thing people may not so much be rejecting a more staid, conservative Christianity; they are searching for a more dynamic, spiritually uplifting transformative experience. Evangelical Protestant churches represent over 26 percent of total attendance in the United States, surpassing Catholic churches for the first time ever.

Older, traditional churches are seeing a decline in numbers, but larger, modern mainstream churches, or “mega-churches,” are increasing rapidly, said Kimball.  But while traditional Christianity is on the decline, other types of religion are on the rise. Many people are turning more to spirituality, and Evangelicals, or born-again Christians, are also very common across certain parts of the United States, said Kimball (Huffington Post Online)

These churches which put a premium on high-energy participatory services and emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ have not only grown, but they have reformed in successful ways.  They have not turned secular, but modern while keeping their profoundly religious roots:

But the newest trend in church growth is exemplified by the No. 2 ranked church's cross-country reach. Lifechurch.tv transmits pastor Craig Groeschel's worship services from the church's studio home in Edmond, Okla., to 13 locations, reaching 26,776 people in average weekend worship attendance.

"Multiple sites are the new normal for fast-growing and large churches. Lakewood is the exception. The next 10 all have multiple sites," says Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay. "They're contemporary, aggressively evangelistic and evangelical and they're moving beyond the 'big box' megachurch model. The best churches have very intentional systems to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles (in small groups) to going out and making a difference in the world." (USA Today Online 9.09)

The congregations that do well, Roozen [Hartford Center for Religious Research] says, are participatory, involve lay leadership, and have a "strong, clear sense of their purpose."

These new churches are not simply places of worship, but are active and energetic family ministries.  If you go into any one of a thousand large evangelical churches in the South, you will find every room filled with day-care centers, senior citizen activities, women’s groups, bake-offs, music, and Bible study.  Far from moving off message, these churches maintain their ‘strong, clear sense of purpose’ by linking these family activities to a Christian mission – the strength of the family is paramount.  

Another reason for the decline in attendance at mainstream churches is the general increase in non-believers, a trend which continues to rise. 

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that while 34.8 million U.S. Adults (15.2%) described themselves as "without religion", almost 90% of these answered "none" with no qualifications. Only 1.4 million positively claimed to be atheist, with another 2 million professing agnosticism (Wikipedia)

About 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now consider themselves "spiritual but not religious." (Phillip Clayton, LA Times 5.11)

Non-believers tend to drop out more from mainstream churches because these churches satisfy no real spiritual need, nor do they provide a secular environment any more informed or committed than other environmental or social action groups.

Other reasons are cited by The Christian Century:

Worshipers attend less frequently. In addition to tracking weekly attendance numbers, some churches are tracking who actually worships during a month. Many pastors sense that the same individuals are worshiping throughout the year, but that they worship less often.

Aging constituencies. Mainline churches have a disproportionate number of mem­bers age 65 and older. This proportion will only grow more pronounced as the first of the baby boomers reach 65 in 2011.

Fewer younger members. The other side of this dilemma is the failure of churches to reach younger persons. This is particularly true for the smaller churches that constitute a large part of mainline denominations.

Lack of interest in religion. Adding to the challenge of reaching younger people is the fact that the age group in which self-identified adherents of "no religion" are found most is 25-34. Additional indicators of decreasing interest in church life are found in the General Social Survey 2008: fewer people report going to church "several times a year" and more people report going "once a year." Fewer report going "less than once a year" while many more report going "never." In fact, the attendance category that has grown the most since 1990 is "never."

An interesting take on the decline has to do with the increasing indifference of women who have always outranked men in terms of church membership and participation:

Since 1991, the percentage of women attending church during a typical week has decreased by 11 percentage points to 44 percent, the Barna Group reported Monday (Aug. 1).

Sunday school and volunteering among women also has diminished. Two decades ago, half of all women read the Bible in a typical week — other than at religious events. Now 40 percent do.

The survey also found a marked stepping away from congregations: a 17 percentage increase in the number of women who have become “unchurched.”

“For years, many church leaders have understood that ‘as go women, so goes the American church,’” wrote Barna Group founder George Barna, on his website. “Looking at the trends over the past 20 years, and especially those related to the beliefs and behavior of women, you might conclude that things are not going well for conventional Christian churches.” (Paige Lawler, University of Oklahoma 5.1, Religion News Service)

These trends, although logical and predictable, are troubling.  The mainstream Protestant churches served another important need, not mentioned in any of the literature – they served as the institutional anchors of the community.  They were the religious counterparts of banks, schools, and Rotary.  They stood for a certain moral rectitude and social integrity.  They all emphasized family, community, and principle.  The new evangelical churches with their charismatic and Pentecostal focus on the personal relationship with Jesus Christ are less concerned with community in the traditional broad sense and more focused on communities of like-minded believers.  There is little ecumenical about them.

As importantly, evangelical churches with their focus on emotion and personal dynamics have lost the more intellectual traditions of older churches.  Catholicism, for all its modern twists and turns, lurching between medieval ritual and hand-shaking, still relies on the logic of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  Biblical exegesis is common in many Methodist churches.  They are, at least in principle, open to logical analysis and conclusion not only of doctrine but secular issues which relate to it.  There is no such intellectual tradition or discipline in the evangelical churches – and as mentioned above, this is their draw, their allure.  At the same time the collusion of religion and politics is far easier within their confines than in the mainstream churches, a dangerous development. 

Douthat concludes:

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.

It appears that this plea will go unheard.  The tide has turned away from mainstream churches, and while many ‘Progressives’ want to keep their traditional blend of liberal religion and social activism; and while many old-line conservatives want to retain the status and position of their mainline denominations, the rest of America will turn to something safe, personal, dynamic, and profoundly spiritual.

1 comment:

  1. the rest of America will turn to something safe, personal, dynamic, and profoundly spiritual. .... and then the end will come.. 'safe and prfoundly spiritual'..maybe the churches will actually Turn to the Living God in the Person of His Christ rather than recreating the Tower of Babel over and over again..but there is no sign of that ever happening nor has it ever been expected that it will happen.

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