Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The New York Times’ contrarian wunderkind Ross Douthat wonders aloud: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, against the backdrop of the collapse in the membership of the Episcopal Church.

The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Progressive christian guru Diana Butler Bass asks a different question: Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat. Bass points out that liberal churches are not the only denominations in decline, pointing to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church, the first two of which have lost members in recent years, with the third maintaining its numbers only through largely hispanic immigration. Bass thinks that the liberal churches may have got there first but that conservative churches are not that far behind. Nevertheless, despite discouraging numbers, she believes there is vitality in liberal churches:

Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is—in some congregations at least—undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.

There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, 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 twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.

A focus on membership statistics is not entirely out of order, of course, as a chronically empty building with stained-glass windows can hardly be said to be a church by anyone’s definition. Nevertheless, an ecclesiastical populism that simply panders to the crowd scarcely makes for satisfactory church life either. It seems to me that both conservative and liberal churches are caught up in similar games, even if their strategies are quite different.

Conservative churches generally maintain the purity of the gospel message, that is, the focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, better than do liberal churches, but they too easily cast off the historic creeds, confessions and liturgies that have shaped the church down through the ages. The church itself is no longer an authoritative institution bearing the keys of the kingdom; it is rather a gathering of spiritually like-minded individuals who prefer to worship a certain way – a way which, not so incidentally, mimics much of contemporary popular culture. Litur-tainment, if you will. Worship itself is differentiated according to market share, with traditional, contemporary and blended worship services catering to a variety of tastes at what might be called an ecclesiastical smorgasbord.

Liberal churches tend to overuse such buzzwords as “inclusive,” “open,” “affirming” and “safe,” playing down confessional distinctives and much of the content of the gospel message itself as summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Gone, very largely, is the call to repent and to live a biblically obedient way of life – apart, of course, from voting for the received politically correct causes. Liberals rather implausibly stake a claim to occupy the “mainline” of protestantism, although their version of the faith is increasingly distant from the historic mainstream of the christian faith itself, as J. Gresham Machen observed already nearly a century ago. In other words, the understanding of what constitutes the mainline is historically shallow and is based on the primacy of subjective experience and preferences over biblical revelation. Jesus Christ may be held up, but more as an ethical example than as actual Redeemer from sin and death.

Thus far, the liberal approach has succeeded in emptying the pews, despite the rhetoric of inclusivity. As it turns out, a church whose message is indistinguishable from that of the larger culture and refrains from calling to repentance and conversion quickly finds itself becoming redundant. Why bother getting up early on sunday morning for such thin spiritual gruel? Bass may be correct in noting the presence of vitality in some liberal congregations. But mere liveliness can be found in a variety of settings, including workplaces and garden clubs. It’s not an argument for the church as such.

The “conservative” approach may be winning more people at present, but long-term prospects remain in doubt. Many of today’s most successful mega-churches are heirs of the 19th-century “New Measures” revivalism of Charles Finney which places an emphasis on the use of clever techniques, including the notorious Anxious Bench, to elicit huge numbers of “conversions.” If Michael Horton’s analysis is correct, Finney himself appears to have held to a moral example view of Christ’s atonement. The “conservatives” may be standing unknowingly on the same shaky ground that is failing to support the liberals.

What if the church were to subordinate concern for numbers, budgets, and social and political causes to the primary imperative of biblical faithfulness? What if it were to place its concern for bringing in converts within the larger context of the call to live the new life in the power of the Holy Spirit? The church might be smaller or larger than it is today. Its members would not be ignoring social and political issues; in fact they might increase their engagement with these. But they would do so along lines that recognize the clear authority of God’s written word over the whole of life. They would be pursuing not just personal moral effort, nor social justice as understood in a narrowly ideological sense. They would seek instead to advance the kingdom in all its fulness through unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ, consisting of properly oriented – dare I say “converted” – labour, leisure, liturgy and life.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles