Thoughts on the alleged demise of liberal Christianity

I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Ever since the Episcopal convention last week, all the Christians bloggers are talking about whether or not the liberal church will survive. The conversation thread that I’ve followed has included John Meunier, Ross Douthat, Diana Butler Bass, and Rachel Held Evans. I spent my twenties in struggling mainline liberal churches that were very active in social justice causes in their community and painfully empty on Sunday mornings. Since I feel like my own observations and convictions are inadequate to explain the sociological shifts that are occurring in American Christianity, I’m not going to present this as any sort of coherent theory, but rather a series of points that respond to what I’ve read in no particular order.

1) Churches grow and shrink for both worldly and Spirit-driven reasons

I have an unhealthy degree of mistrust and even hatred for the megachurches that have risen up all over the landscape over the past twenty years. The reason why I hate them is because they seem to be doing what Walmart and Home Depot did to all of the mom-and-pop stores in the eighties and nineties. It seems inevitable to the workings of capitalism that just as Walmart will one day conquer everything retail, all Christians one day will be part of a giant megachurch with ten thousand campuses, each having a huge LCD screens on which the face of whoever turns out to be the sexiest rock star pastor will deliver the perfect, focus-group-tested sermons.

And yet… that’s not the real story. It’s a cynical construction of “truthiness.” The cynic in me wants to believe that megachurches are successful because they’re providing “family safe, kid friendly” theology that is super-shallow and designed to make yuppies feel good about themselves and validated in their judgments of poor people, gays, Muslims, etc. But it’s envy that makes me say that, not any basis in empirical reality. I have no idea what combination of Seth Godin marketing principles and genuine movement of the Holy Spirit is responsible for their success. It would be really ignorant of me to assert that God is not moving in their midst (and I really should be celebrating the lives that are being transformed instead of wallowing in envy).

The same is true in mirror opposite form with struggling mainline congregations. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of postmodernity is that we live in a world where any theory will do. The commentators and critics of our blogosphere no longer take responsibility for researching issues in depth before writing about them (I’m guilty!). The new standard is logically coherent reasonable plausibility, a.k.a. “truthiness.” So I think it’s fair for Diana Butler Bass to call out Ross Douthat for asserting without any empirical basis that liberal churches are shrinking because they don’t have coherent theology. I don’t think there’s any data out there that can adequately explain what is happening in a myriad of different ways for different reasons in each local community. Are the liberals staying home from church because they’ve been alienated from Jesus altogether by the Religious Right? Are the moderates transferring from liberal churches to more conservative ones because they’ve had it with liberalism? Are young adults who grew up mainline leaving the mainline to go to evangelical megachurches with thriving singles ministries because they’re lonely and looking for social outlets?

What I choose to believe about whatever shifts are happening in American Christianity is that Gamaliel’s principle holds. Gamaliel was a Pharisee who gave a speech to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin regarding the threat of the early Christian movement. He said if it’s of God, it will persevere; if it’s of man, it will perish (Acts 5:34-39). I have to trust that God will prevail in the end. If the liberal mainliners are being faithful to a genuine call from God, then God will deliver them in unexpected ways. Whichever megachurches are built on hype and worldly marketing practices but not God will be empty stadiums in 2050.

2) Deliverance attracts more than “open-mindedness”

Now I’m going to say something that is based on my theological convictions and intuitions rather than any empirical data. I have benefited greatly from the relationships I had with older Christians who gave me permission to ask questions, said things aloud that I had thought were taboo even to think, and even let me cuss in front of them. It’s been a huge part of my development to have pastors who were real with me and didn’t judge me for my doubts and questions. I always try to be that pastor to other people.

Here’s the but. You knew it was coming. Open-mindedness alone doesn’t compel discipleship. I had a very great relationship with a psychotherapist for half a decade. But he didn’t make me a disciple. He comforted me with the unconditional positive regard that he showed me, but he didn’t set me on fire and give me a hunger for God. Here’s what I wonder: do churches decline when their pastors are good at the unconditional positive regard part but they lack the “fire in their belly” that comes from radiating the conviction that their lives are the product of God’s deliverance? I’m not talking about preaching style; I’ve known very meek, soft-spoken pastors who had fire in their eyes that exuded their trust and gratitude for God’s deliverance.

As a preacher myself, I never want to preach a sermon that’s just interesting; I hunger and thirst for a word from God that delivers people, that takes them to that place of metanoia, the word that is inadequately translated as repentance but means most fully “never being able to see the world the same again.” My worship leader gets on me when I drop Greek in my sermons, ironically because he’s coming from the same place I am on this point, and he just doesn’t have as geeked-out a starting point as I have. He also doesn’t realize how much worse I could be, quoting 19th century poets and German philosophers to give a word that sounds cultured and stimulating but doesn’t take people to the foot of the cross. While I appreciate the integrity and intellectual passion of somebody who tells me about the disagreement that scholars have over whether the scriptural passage in front of us was written by the Yahwist or the Deuteronomist, what I need to hear from the pulpit is how God is going to deliver me based on what He has done to deliver His people before.

3) There is no church without Jesus’ cross and resurrection

The deliverance that is the centerpiece of a church where people are fired up about God (and not about the hot lead singer of the praise band) is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything emanates outward from this eternal reality. It is only because of this reality that Paul can write, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:7-10). The cross and empty tomb that happened not only historically but constantly happen eternally are the power that causes ordinary people to do extraordinary things in Christ. The cross and resurrection should be front and center of everything we do as a gathered body in worship. That’s why Eucharist was the focal point of Christian worship for millennia and remains so for Catholics and Orthodox, because everything we are and do as Christians has its source in our participation in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by which the world is reconciled to God and the resurrected life that emerges on the other side of this utter transformation.

A church that completely avoids talking about the cross because it’s too bloody and the empty tomb because it defies science shouldn’t survive because it’s lost the heart of Christianity. I realize that very ugly misconceptions and monstrous caricatures about the cross have legitimately alienated millions of people, but that doesn’t mean we can put the cross in the closet. You can’t build a religion off of some vague notion of “loving God and loving your neighbor.” These two commandments are only possible to fulfill for people who have stopped trying to prove their worth to God and the world and surrendered to the reign of God’s mercy established through Jesus’ blood. Plenty of people do things to help others because it’s “the right thing to do” and it makes them feel good about themselves. But helping other people is not going to make you fall completely in love with God unless you understand it to be part of the cosmic reconciliation in which you are the mere recipient and pass-through vessel of a love that comes from Someone who let Himself be raped by the world’s nails because He wanted that badly to restore our ability to radiate His image. Everything starts with the cross and resurrection in a healthy church.

4) The kingdom should be our only cause

I’ve been to many protests in my life. Usually there are at least several speakers up front wearing clerical collars. I realize they are under a lot of pressure to frame their speeches in generic, “spiritual,” interfaith language. I don’t think I could do that if I were ever invited to speak at a rally for immigrant rights or health care or whatever else, because everything I believe about all the particular political issues of our time is shaped by my reflection on what the kingdom established by Jesus’ cross and resurrection is supposed to look like. I would try my best in such a situation to be respectful and acknowledge that I’m speaking out of my own faith tradition, but then I would actually speak out of my faith tradition just as I would expect a rabbi and imam to speak out of theirs. And my speech would not merely be in support of some particular piece of legislation or community initiative; it would be an invitation to enter God’s kingdom because I honestly believe that people who live in the kingdom are better equipped to propagate God’s justice and mercy throughout the land than people who support this cause or that cause because of their intellectual convictions, a rebellion against their upbringing, their cynicism, their love for Jon Stewart, or whatever else it is that makes people activists who haven’t been filled with the ravenous hunger to see the kingdom of God come with power.

It’s because of my understanding of the kingdom that I can respect the Teavangelical perspective that, yes, society needs to be transformed, and yes, the poor need to be empowered, but we are called to take on the work that needs to be done and it should not be outsourced to the government. I disagree with their views of the proper role of government and I think there’s some naive utopianism at play in their thinking, but maybe I’ll be surprised one day when the safety nets are cut and ordinary people rise to the occasion. In any case, I really feel like liberal pastors will be more effective at accomplishing their social justice objectives if their congregations are grounded in a vision for God’s kingdom rather than a list of issues that bleeding hearts should care about.

I have no idea the extent to which this is or isn’t happening now. But I am convinced that we cannot get to God’s true justice if we’re starting from a generic secular discourse on human rights. The best justice that human rights can generate is “fairness,” where people get what they deserve. That’s not good enough for God. God’s justice (mishpat) is so much more than just getting what you deserve; it’s getting what you don’t deserve but what you need in order to have the existence of perfect completeness and fulfillment captured by the Hebrew word shalom, which some people just call “peace.” Mishpat and shalom can only be established in a space where God’s mercy reigns, where Jesus’ blood has made all things clean and the Holy Spirit has resurrected all things into a new life built on grace. That space is the kingdom of God.

Conclusion:

Churches gain and lose momentum for a variety of good and bad reasons. When Jesus told the crowd in John 6 that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, many of them turned away saying that it was a hard teaching. So if liberal churches are declining because they refuse to conform to the worldly expectations of “focus on my nuclear family” suburbanites, then God bless them for being faithful. But if they’ve lost their mojo because their openness to questions and doubts is louder than their testimony of God’s deliverance, if their anxiety about causing offense has caused them to hide the cross and empty tomb under a bushel, and if their passion for causes is not anchored in a hunger for God’s kingdom, then the most merciful thing God can do is to crucify and resurrect them (as He needs to do with all of us).

  • http://twitter.com/johnleek John Leek (@johnleek)

    It has been an interesting discussion for me to observe and occasionally comment on.

    I’m afraid that much of what is now termed “liberal Christianity” is practically bloodless and cross-less. Creeds and liturgy may maintain reference to these basic truths, but when a preacher never testifies to the truth of those words I fear they too become like clanging cymbals without meaning.

    I say that with some real sadness as one who agrees with my often liberal brothers and sisters. (I called my senators just last week regarding AIDS funding, for instance.) I can’t however practice a faith with people who seem to have long lost sight of both the source and reason for our faith.

    (Separately, do you feel it is appropriate to the text to use John 6? I’m unsure, as you will see directly after this comment, what can be faithfully drawn from it. The Holy Spirit had not yet come and they were not yet Christians. Jesus didn’t drive off Christians in John 6 by his teaching, because none had the Holy Spirit.)

    I find the Disciples’ response to be more illuminating for this discussion. After he says “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood,” he asks if they are going to leave. Where would we go Simon Peter responded. You are the Holy One of God.

    They had a God worth following because they knew Him.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Regarding liberal friends, I wouldn’t dissociate from them unless they’re being abusive which liberals can be. What I’m doing at my theologically liberal, politically conservative church is trying to make sure I always preach and evangelize with the story of God’s deliverance through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, not attacking anybody but not being shy about it either.

      Regarding John 6, that’s a bit nit-picky, John, don’t you think? People are driven away by hard teachings in addition to losing enthusiasm when there’s no gospel being preached. That’s my only point. We draw on examples from the Old Testament all the time that describe exemplars for us who lived pre-resurrection.

      • http://twitter.com/johnleek John Leek (@johnleek)

        I fully concede I’m being “nit-picky” ;). Careful consideration of the bible texts on their own terms is a bias Asbury has taught me and I may err (meaning truly error) in the direction away from applicability.

        I haven’t truly “disassociate(ed)” with anyone, but wouldn’t welcome them into teaching roles of people I’m responsible for. I suspect I’ll find myself in a similar situation as yourself as a predominately theological conservative, somewhat politically liberal person. I may call on you for some suggestions!

  • http://nailtothedoor.com Dan Martin

    Worthwhile comments, Morgan. Sharing back on FB…

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  • http://www.gospelpolitics.com Mo Johnson

    This post got me thinking and then I read more that made me think some more and I wrote about all that at http://www.gospelpolitics.com/liberal-christianity-should-offer-the-whole-package.html

    Basically I say that the essence of liberal Christianity is a big part of the gospel that is ignored in conservative churches. But, liberals fail to identify it as such.

    Curious to hear folks’ thoughts.