New York Times colum-nist Ross Douthat recently described the collapse of liberal Christianity in America, pointing to a 23 percent drop in Episcopal attendance over the previous decade as evidence of its demise. While Douthat and others single out the Episcopal Church, the rapid decline is shared by other mainline denominations, including my own, the Presbyterian Church (USA).
This collapse is all the more startling in light of the current global success of Christianity. Historian Philip Jenkins observes that African Christianity is growing at 2.36 percent annually, and the number of Christians on the continent is expected to double in less than 30 years. According to Jenkins, the growth of African Christianity represents the largest quantitative religious change in history.
And this expansion is not limited to Africa. Notre Dame historian Mark Noll writes that on a given Sunday, more Christians attend church in China than in all of “Christian Europe” (and despite that as recently as 1970 there were no legal churches in China). Similarly, Pentecostalism, a charismatic form of Protestantism, is increasing globally at 19 million adherents annually, with the number predicted to be over a billion by 2050. Recent estimates report nearly 18 million Pentecostals in Brazil, and 40 Pentecostal churches opening in Rio de Janeiro weekly.
So as Christianity finds fresh life from Latin America to Asia, why is liberal Christianity in America rapidly dying?
Liberals have answered this question in varied ways. Answers range from a failure to accommodate technological trends to an inability to articulate a clear message and cultivate an authentic identity. Some even suggest capitalism and consumerism are the culprits. However, speaking as someone serving in a liberal denomination, I think the answer is more straightforward.
In recent decades, liberals have increasingly exchanged the historic theological truths of the faith for what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Instead of a message of sin and forgiveness through the work of Christ on the cross, they have communicated a therapeutic message of social action and cultural tolerance. Moreover, their identity often has been aligned with a political agenda that distorts the gospel from a message of reconciliation with God through Christ into a message of sexual liberation, environmentalism and an ambiguous call for social justice.
But Christ did not walk the hills of Galilee preaching a message of moral relativism, tolerance, climate change or gay rights. Jesus Christ came with a bold declaration that sinful men and women can be right with a holy God and find new life by faith in him. Sadly, liberals often have not only lost sight of the message of the cross, they have frequently rejected it outright.
In my own denomination, I have witnessed the casual dismissal of essential truths of the faith by pastors and professors. One Presbyterian pastor in Tennessee has gone even further, rejecting the idea that Christ died for our sins — claiming the idea is “absurd” and stating that the cross “doesn’t even make sense.”
Without orthodox biblical truths guiding and protecting the church, liberals have become immersed in religious pluralism, leaving the church with a weakened message of tolerance and theological relativism. Yale theologian Richard Niebuhr described this situation back in the 1930s, asserting that liberals preach a “God without wrath who brings human beings without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a bloody cross.”
However, if liberal churches return to their historic doc- trinal and theological convictions, they can regain the health of previous years. Evidence of this can be found in the experience of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In 1989, he planted a traditional church in one of the most secular, unchurched cities in the country. Today, his church has thousands of members and is planting churches in New York and around the world. How does he explain his surprising success? In his book, “Center Church,” Keller writes that his vision for his church and for Manhattan is the product of a theological foundation grounded in timeless scriptural truths of the triune God and his redemptive plan for the world.
Still, liberals should be commended for not seeking a panacea in the health and wealth message popularized by Joel Osteen or the consumerism of the mega-church movement. However, they need to recover “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and preach it with conviction and clarity. If they do, they might experience the global success of Christianity occurring from Seoul to Sao Paulo. If they don’t, then their collapse will only continue.
Benjamin Carver is director of discipleship at Johns Island Presbyterian Church.