I freely admit that I can be a bit of an idealist at times. I resonate with expressions like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” So maybe it’s just an expression of my young, naive, and idealistic nature that I’m just plain weary of ideological labels.
Maybe you’ve come across two articles making the rounds this weekend describing the two sides of the liberal/conservative divide in American churches? The first article is, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, written by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. The second article was a response written by Diana Butler Bass for The Huffington Post entitled, Can Christianity Be Saved? Let me say from the outset that I’m writing this to offer another perspective because I think both authors miss the mark in a big way. Remember, I’m an idealist at heart. So you’ll have to forgive my picky ways.
Here are a couple of quote-worthy snapshots from both articles.
“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”
Later he writes:
“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.”
Now on to Diana Butler Bass:
“A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones…A quiet renewal is occuring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a 20th Century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.”
So let me try to fairly critique both of these articles for missing the mark in a major way for me…
Critique of Ross Douthat
Let’s begin by telling the truth about decline in American Christianity: Every denomination is declining. Let’s just stop playing the broken record of “conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are dying” — it’s not 1980 anymore. The fact is all denominations in America are in numeric decline. Diana Butler Bass rightly notes in her article that this is a thesis that’s been around since the early 1970s. The Church Growth Movement in America — which is largely responsible for the rise of what we now call “mega churches”— began arguing this in its theological literature 40 years ago. In 2012, this is no longer true. There are conservative denominations in decline now. The Southern Baptist Convention is a great example. So no, so-called liberal churches don’t need to be like their conservative counterparts in order to grow — no one is growing right now.
If so-called liberal churches have given into the social whims of the day, then their more conservative counterparts are guilty for selling into the consumeristic whims. If there was a day where more theologically and socially conservative churches were growing, it was often accomplished through appealing to consumeristic tastes in the name of being attractional. In other words, selling one’s reputation of faithfulness on the auction block of being appealing to the masses knows no theological label. We’re all guilty in some respect. One of the greatest flaws of American Christianity is that we’d rather be liked by others than faithful to our mission. The balance we need is figuring out how to be hospitable and welcoming while being faithful and challenging.
Critique of Diana Butler Bass:
Does Christianity really need to be saved? I know she was doing a play on words with the title from the Times, but my fear is that the body of her article actually reveals a position that we, as humans, have the power to “save” our faith. The truth is, the role of faith is to save us — not the other way around. It’s a theological error to assume we humans have the role (or power) to save religion.
Why do we talk about 21st Century forms of church and use 20th Century terms? How can we truly discuss a “new form of church” for the 21st Century while we’re stuck in camps of liberal and conservative? If the church of the 21st Century is to be new, then we need to blur the lines that have divided us for the last century. Her words on rethinking church appeals to me right up until I realize the church she’s talking about has a particular ideology rooted in a liberal worldview. As much as I might resonate with her views, her conclusion is a church I do not want to be a part of. Liberal fundamentalism is not the answer to what ails us in American Christianity.
I don’t want to come off as totally negative about either of these authors. Both articles had merits and both authors made points I agree with. They actually critique each other in good and healthy ways. However they both get it wrong for me because they continue to perpetuate a vision of the church where labels divide us. So the question becomes whether or not we should just accept the coexistence of liberal and conservative churches. I, for one, refuse to accept either as a truly faithful expression of church. Inevitably both sides will leave out necessary parts of faith in order to remain true to their respective camp. As a United Methodist, I’m reminded that the fullness of our Wesleyan theology is found in the combination of the very best from both the liberal and conservative views. We shouldn’t have to pick sides!
So yes, I’m an idealist. I don’t think it’s a faithful act to label ourselves as liberal or conservative. I dream of a church where we can leave our labels at the door when we come to worship. And maybe, if the worship is lively and faithful enough, and we’re sent back into the world in service, then we might just forget to pick up those labels on our way out.