Column: Church challenge: Relevance and survival
Is liberal Christianity committing suicide? New York Times columnist Ross Douthat thinks so. Yet by forecasting the inevitable demise of mainline churches that move in the direction of placing women in church leadership and affirming gay and lesbian relationships, he provided a rare opportunity for some healthy soul-searching in my denomination.
You see, I serve in one identified by Douthat as doomed to extinction, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Like Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian denominations, Presbyterians have been steadily shrinking since the 1960s. Last year alone we lost 63,804 members nationwide. That’s a bad sign any way you cut it.
Mainline supporters seem to have satisfied themselves with a hasty rebuttal. They’ve criticized the broad brush Douthat paints with on his ambiguous “liberal”-versus-“conservative” canvas while using a selective interpretation of church demographics. He ignores the fact that theologically conservative churches also have begun to decline in numbers, including his own Catholic faith, which is losing its nonimmigrant adherents in droves. Conversely, if liberal theology really was killing mainline churches, they should have been shrinking decades before the 1960s.
However, the decline didn’t begin until the Highway Act of 1956 and mass use of cars in America set off suburban sprawl. This transferred worshippers from the established mainline churches out of the city and into the waiting arms of evangelical churches — a branch of American Christianity practically synonymous with suburban and conservative.
I agree with the mainline defenders up to a point, but I can’t help but feel that if the “women and gays destroy churches” theory is unfounded, the “suburban sprawl” theory is not much more than an excuse. After all, there were mainline churches in the suburbs that could have absorbed the urban exodus. How then did evangelical churches siphon them away? Not only that, but nonevangelical churches grew rapidly as well. “Prosperity gospel” churches, often known as “health and wealth” churches, went from obscurity to making up to 17 percent of America’s religious landscape — and they happen to be one of the few groups evangelicals and mainliners both dislike.
So how do we interpret the data in a way that does not necessarily paint our respective denominations in a good light, but rather gets us closer to the real causes and cures for mainline decline? Look no further than capitalism. Religious capitalism.
Suburban sprawl didn’t automatically transfer mainline worshippers into evangelical churches, but it did level the playing field. Commuting broke the reign of the “parish church” that was attended by those who lived in close proximity, and it created a new religious marketplace where Christians could easily attend any church of their choosing. The “winners” would be the churches that offered the most clear and compelling message and possessed a unique identity.
Both evangelical and health-and-wealth churches rose to the occasion. Evangelicals successfully made converts with a straightforward offer of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” and the “believe in Jesus to get rich” message was understandably attractive as well.
Moreover, these churches created a unique identity around these core messages that could not be met by any other civic institutions. Presbyterians and other mainline churches, often handcuffed by an inflexible culture of tradition, intellectualism and moralism, couldn’t compete with such dynamic and personality-driven worship. Even their commitment to civil rights, a redeeming aspect of mainline churches, has yet to make the jump over to a unique identity that can’t be met by other civic and secular groups.
But evangelical churches have begun to decline in America as well. Evangelical leaders often pin the blame on the vague menace of “secularism” or “postmodernism,” but I believe the Internet is the more concrete catalyst. If the suburbs opened up the religious marketplace to a smorgasbord of commuter churches, the Internet has expanded a religious consumer’s range from a 30-minute drive to the other side of the world.
Information and online communities of every religion, spirituality and atheistic philosophy are available with a few keystrokes, and our current culture of hyper-individualism has fueled this third wave of religious consumerism. Unless evangelical churches adapt to this new leveling of the playing field, they will suffer the same fate as the mainline church.
And so the solution depends on the denomination. Evangelicals must adapt to a pluralistic culture in a way mainliners already have. Unlike many evangelicals who have denied evolutionary theory and opposed feminism and gay marriage, mainline churches have avoided placing unnecessary theological stumbling blocks that interfere with a compelling message.
But for the message to be compelling, it must also be clear. The challenge of mainline churches is in communicating an identity rooted not in some watered-down Christianity that mimics social progressivism, but rather a holistic, historic and even uncomfortable Gospel that keeps the redemptive work of Jesus radically at the center.
Colin Kerr is director of campus ministry of the Journey at the College of Charleston and The Citadel. He can be reached at charleston firstname.lastname@example.org.