Is the Mainline Liberal Church in decline? Numerically, sure. Absolutely. But what this means, I cannot say. Many have tried to make sense of it. In the wake of recent editorials, some theologians and others have offered up their thoughts. I surmised it might be helpful to collect one or two of the links here on the outside chance that you missed them.
Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved - Ross Douthat offers some sharp critiques of the tradition. Once the bastion of the Social Gospel movement, the liberal mainline is not all "social" and very little "Gospel."
"But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. 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."
There have been a couple of good direct responses to Douthat's OpEd piece.
Diana Butler Bass offered this thoughtful response that reflects much of the work she has done tracking and analyzing the sociology of Christianity in the United States. Decline? Sure. But there is a kind of renewal at work, too.
"Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is--in some congregations at least--undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were "counter-intuitive" to the usual narrative of American church life."
Jay Emerson Johnson offered this response, When "Liberal" Rhymes with "Theology" It's Time for Evangelism. He echoes something that I have said on several occasions as the moment has come to locate myself theologically. I have said that I am liberal for the sake of Christ Jesus. Jay said, "I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative." Johnson offers a critique of Douthat as well as a critique of his own tradition.
"The fault for that lies not with journalists, but with Christians – with people, that is, like me, and with institutions like the ones I work for right now: seminaries and congregations who simply haven’t figured out how to 'message their message.'”
Of course, it is more complicated than that. I am looking forward to more from Jay.
Finally, Bo Sanders at Homebrewed Christianity offered this reflection entitled, Concern About The Collapse of The Mainline Liberal. Addressing several questions in one post, it's challenging to summarize in a useful fashion. Suffice it to say that they address issues that are social, theological, and tackle the complicated morass of Christian institutions.
"I find myself in an interesting position as one employed at a healthy and growing Mainline church that is about to begin an emergent expression this Fall with the addition of a second gathering. It has been said by numerous folks that I bring an evangelical zeal to being progressive. But when I read stuff about the bigger picture I feel like I showed up at the prom around 11."
I have some of my own thoughts about the issue (specifically about the "bait and switch" of focusing on theology or doctrine after more than a generation of telling people that what they believed didn't matter) and I'll get to them soon. But I felt that these articles needed some attention before I dove in.
Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif., (where this sermon originatec.) You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.org. Follow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.
Church building photo, Kevin Eng / Shutterstock.com