Heated debate continues this summer on the future of the church, liberal and otherwise. In his latest NY Times column, Ross Douthat responds to the response he got from Diana Butler Bass to his column, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Under the headline “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” he writes:
Bass is right to see a broader ebbing of traditional Christian faith and a broader weakening of Christian institutions as the most important religious story of our times. She’s right that there’s no evidence that “infidelity” to Christian orthodoxy directly explains church decline: Many of the most successful preachers and religious bodies in the United States are offering messages that diverge in stark and significant ways (See Osteen, Joel, among many other figures) from the doctrines that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants have traditionally held in common. And (as I said in the column), she’s right that there’s no reason for conservative Christians to feel remotely smug about the likely fate of bodies like the Episcopal Church. Overall, “can Christianity be saved?” is a question that American believers of every political and theological persuasion should be wrestling with today.
But with all of that said, the distinctiveness of the liberal churches’s decline —its depth, duration and seeming irreversibility — remains an incontrovertible fact. Yes, two generations after the Episcopalians and United Methodists and other bodies like them entered a long swoon, denominations like the Southern Baptists are experiencing some reversals, and the post-1970s evangelical revival seems to have hit a kind of demographic ceiling. But it would take literally decades of decline for conservative churches to come close to sharing liberal Protestantism’s current sickness-unto-death. Consider the following statistics (taken from Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America”): In 1940, for every 1,000 churchgoers in the United States, 224 belonged to one of four major Mainline bodies (United Methodists, PCUSA Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists), while 77 were Southern Baptists. By 2000, the Southern Baptist share of the churchgoing population equalled the share of those four more liberal churches combined — not because SBC growth was extraordinary (though it was significant), but because the liberal churches’ decline was so astonishingly steep. The fact that the SBC has struggled in the period since those numbers were published tells us something important about the challenges facing even conservative churches. But five years of declining membership is simply not the same thing as a multigenerational (and perhaps accelerating) collapse.
What’s more, Bass stacks the deck somewhat by comparing liberal and conservative denominations, since much of conservative evangelicalism’s post-1960s gains were concentrated in nondenominational churches rather than bodies like the SBC, and the growth of nondenominational congregations continues apace today. Some of these congregations, it’s true, are more theologically and politically liberal than the evangelical norm, in the style of “emergent church” figures like Brian McLaren and hip pastors like Rob Bell, and to the extent that liberal Christianity seems to have any kind of future at the moment it’s more likely to be found in the liberal wing of evangelicalism than in the faded Mainline. But overall, most of the vitality and growth in American Protestantism is still concentrated in congregations that are culturally and politically conservative, if not necessarily orthodox or theologically rigorous. And meanwhile, alongside the nondenominational category, the other fast-growing form of American Christianity is of course Mormonism — which obviously isn’t an orthodox form of the faith, but clearly isn’t anything like a self-consciously liberal or progressive form of Christianity either. (Per Stark’s numbers again: In 1940, there were roughly three Episcopalians for every Mormon; now it’s roughly the reverse.)
He has a lot more to say. Check out the piece in its entirety.