Episcopal News Service Photo by Mary Frances Schjonberg
I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Ever since the Episcopal convention last week, all the Christians bloggers are talking about whether or not the liberal church will survive. The conversation thread that I’ve followed has included John Meunier, Ross Douthat, Diana Butler Bass, and Rachel Held Evans. I spent my twenties in struggling mainline liberal churches that were very active in social justice causes in their community and painfully empty on Sunday mornings. Since I feel like my own observations and convictions are inadequate to explain the sociological shifts that are occurring in American Christianity, I’m not going to present this as any sort of coherent theory, but rather a series of points that respond to what I’ve read in no particular order.
1) Churches grow and shrink for both worldly and Spirit-driven reasons
I have an unhealthy degree of mistrust and even hatred for the megachurches that have risen up all over the landscape over the past twenty years. The reason why I hate them is because they seem to be doing what Walmart and Home Depot did to all of the mom-and-pop stores in the eighties and nineties. It seems inevitable to the workings of capitalism that just as Walmart will one day conquer everything retail, all Christians one day will be part of a giant megachurch with ten thousand campuses, each having a huge LCD screens on which the face of whoever turns out to be the sexiest rock star pastor will deliver the perfect, focus-group-tested sermons.
And yet… that’s not the real story. It’s a cynical construction of “truthiness.” The cynic in me wants to believe that megachurches are successful because they’re providing “family safe, kid friendly” theology that is super-shallow and designed to make yuppies feel good about themselves and validated in their judgments of poor people, gays, Muslims, etc. But it’s envy that makes me say that, not any basis in empirical reality. I have no idea what combination of Seth Godin marketing principles and genuine movement of the Holy Spirit is responsible for their success. It would be really ignorant of me to assert that God is not moving in their midst (and I really should be celebrating the lives that are being transformed instead of wallowing in envy).
The same is true in mirror opposite form with struggling mainline congregations. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of postmodernity is that we live in a world where any theory will do. The commentators and critics of our blogosphere no longer take responsibility for researching issues in depth before writing about them (I’m guilty!). The new standard is logically coherent reasonable plausibility, a.k.a. “truthiness.” So I think it’s fair for Diana Butler Bass to call out Ross Douthat for asserting without any empirical basis that liberal churches are shrinking because they don’t have coherent theology. I don’t think there’s any data out there that can adequately explain what is happening in a myriad of different ways for different reasons in each local community. Are the liberals staying home from church because they’ve been alienated from Jesus altogether by the Religious Right? Are the moderates transferring from liberal churches to more conservative ones because they’ve had it with liberalism? Are young adults who grew up mainline leaving the mainline to go to evangelical megachurches with thriving singles ministries because they’re lonely and looking for social outlets?