A pox on all your houses

Christopher Craig Brittain is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. He has looked at both church attendance and what we make of it.

For a long time, liberal mainline denominations have been in decline and conservative churches were said to be growing. A year ago, Ross Douthat stirred up a tempest when he wondered if the mainline churches could survive. Conservative churches have been declaring victory since at least 1972, when in fact their decline is now just as steep as the mainlines.


It appears that it is the Pentecostal’s turn to gloat. But we read over and over about “the rise of the nones” and the prevelance of the spiritual but not religious.

Brittain suggests that it is the emphasis on the importance of the individual– personal religious experience–that sows the seeds for the institutional decline of the various churches. If this is so, then Pentecostal churches now on the upswing in traditionally communal cultures should begin to see the same decline as their counterparts in the “global north” as the next generation begins to live out the values of an individualized spirituality.

He also suggests that people in areas where this has taken hold are simply tired of the churches bashing each other all the time.

He writes in the Religion and Ethics blog of ABC (Australia):

Simply put, if the Christian churches that are currently experiencing significant growth are at the same time helping to spread modern individualism (as well as increasing social mobility and the undermining of local cultures and traditions), then we have every reason to anticipate that the issues Douthat and Hauerwas criticize in American churches will become increasingly prominent in many churches in other parts of the globe – whether they are “liberal” or “conservative.” Like so-called “liberal Christians,” Pentecostals are increasingly learning to adapt Christianity to their own beliefs and needs.

As it becomes clear that the fates of liberal and conservative Christianities may not be as distinct as is commonly assumed, the time has arrived for a re-evaluation of liberal Christianity. For conservatives, the task is to stop interpreting the demise of liberal congregations as a victory for evangelical Christianity, and to explore what might be learned from the fact that liberal Christianity’s roots lie in the attempt to adapt and respond to cultural diversity and modern individualism. For liberals, the challenge involves far more than finding the courage to address the significant decline in church membership. Their task begins only after acknowledging that liberal Christianity has a real problem transmitting itself to subsequent generations. As Steve Bruce has observed, liberal churches generally appeal more to disaffected conservatives than they do to people with no previous background in Christianity. This fact suggests that liberals need to give greater attention to why the doctrines and traditions of Christianity should matter to someone not already familiar with them.

These considerations suggest that, contrary to Mary Eberstadt’s enthusiastic declaration of victory for conservative churches, Christians of all persuasions have good reason to distance themselves from the tendency to define churches by the terms of the “culture wars.” Enormous theological, ecclesiological and missiological energy is being directed towards “winning” the battle over how to interpret same-sex relationships; meanwhile, both liberal and conservative churches are in sharp decline in the Global North. Both sides tend to explain the failures of their opponent as resulting from their problematic attitude towards homosexuality.

It is now clear, however, that such diagnoses are well off the mark. Articulating the “correct” position on homosexuality will not turn the tide of church decline. Should conservatives and liberals begin to admit this reality, perhaps then the ecumenical task of analysing the decline of Christianity in the Global North can finally truly begin.

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One Comment
  1. brsholl

    Brittain’s insightful analysis should be distributed and read far and wide. Pentecostalism is our younger sibling aping us. Our culture encourages individual self-actualization by means of the acquisition of power/status/money, and our churches (liberal or conservative) are often shiny mirrors. Should we be surprised? So the perennial question: How can the churches meaningfully embody a gracious difference? Maybe we could start with the grace of non-contention.

    Brian Sholl

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