Why Liberal Protestantism Should Quit Living in Fear of Its Own Death

I’ve grown accustomed to the popular ecclesiastical trope, which argues that liberal denominations are dying because they’re liberal. As somebody who writes about this stuff, I can spot the whole liberals-are-killing-the-church thing from a mile away -- because of their love of gay people, and black people, and poor people and immigrants, etc.

“Social justice? Harrumph!” (Interesting fact: “social” is also the first part of “socialism.” So, you know … )

I get it. If mainline Protestant denominations would just shut up about all that liberal stuff -- the soft stuff that gives liberals a reputation for bleeding hearts (like caring about the poor and the oppressed), and start focusing on the real moral problems confronting American life -- like gay marriage, or the loss of traditional family values, or “the war on Christmas” -- then they wouldn’t have to worry about bleeding members at such distressing rates.

“Liberals-are-killing-the-church” has become conventional wisdom. It’s just something everybody with any sense knows.1

But I recently came across another line of argument, which basically argued that liberal churches lose people because liberals aren’t arbitrary jerks. The article from last year sets down the hypothesis that what inoculates conservative churches against the viral depredations of decline are strict rules that don’t necessarily make sense, but that are highly exclusionary and keep members securely in the fold. It seems that arbitrary edicts are a magic bullet that help prevent people from reflexively checking for the exits.

Things like keeping women in their place and LGBTQ people on the run (Southern Baptists, conservative Catholics and other strains of fundamentalism), fidelity to Republican politics and tithing (mainstream Evangelicals), wearing funny underwear and steering clear of Coca-Cola (Mormons), belief in glossolalia and public healing-on-demand (Assemblies of God and other Pentecostals), it seems, are the tickets to putting the brakes on decline. Emphasize some tangential point of doctrine as the mandatory cost of admittance, and you are well on your way to creating a more stable membership environment, one that will defy the downward trend experienced by the less committed among mainline Protestants.

Liberal denominations, according to this way of accounting for decline, are losing members due to their lack of vigilance in setting up a finely calibrated system of gnat-straining.2

But distilled to its essence, the contention that liberal denominations are losing members because of their liberalness or because they don’t make one’s stance on gay marriage a test of fellowship can’t but appear to be an appeal to utility dressed up in ecclesiastic garb. That is to say, if you begin from the premise that the church’s primary function is to survive, then anything that threatens that survival is bad, while anything that promises to aid in keeping the doors open is good. If the primary question centers on figuring out what works, then whether liberal theology is a faithful reading of the vocation of following Jesus or that insisting on doing away with high-handed legalism better reflects the message of the gospel is largely beside the point. The primary consideration is whether a belief or practice succeeds in helping keep the doors open -- or, if you’re the more ambitious type, allowing you to add to your church the qualifier “mega.”

But, I mean, come on, we follow a guy publicly executed on a garbage dump. How concerned with “success-as-survival” can we be?

If congregational or denominational survival requires something other than faithfulness, then the message of Jesus’ life (and death) is that it’s not worth it.

Jesus doesn't call us to succeed; he calls us to die. Consequently, we who would follow him can never have as our primary consideration naming that which will save us from death.

Are we too liberal? Do we have enough arbitrary rules to halt the decline and sustain a stable membership? These are questions that should be qualified by being asked in light of the most important question: Are we following Jesus faithfully? Until the latter is answered satisfactorily, the former are merely distractions.

(This article first appeared at the Huffington Post.)



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  1. And though, it should be pointed out, conservative denominations are also presently embattled, I’m not interested (at least in this article) in indulging in a little good old fashioned schadenfreude--though, after all the crap liberals have taken on this whole issue, it certainly is tempting. I just want to point out that, because of the news of Evangelical decline, the “liberal theology = congregational death” meme is more accurately seen (as many of us have been saying all along) as correlation and not necessarily causation. ↩

  2. I know that seems like question-begging and a cheap-shot on conservative religious groups, since they don’t see those issues as straining at gnats at all, but as important theological expressions. From outside the walls of those groups, however, those kinds of rules do appear arbitrary and intentionally exclusive -- which is precisely my point.) ↩