How Capitalism is Killing Liberal Christianity

By Colin Kerr, author and campus missionary

Is liberal Christianity committing suicide? New York Times columnist Roth Douthat thinks so.  Yet by forecasting the inevitable demise of mainline churches that move in the direction of affirming women in church leadership and genuinely welcoming gays and lesbians, he provided a rare opportunity for some healthy soul-searching in my denomination. You see, I serve in one identified by Douthat as doomed to extinction. The Presbyterian Church (USA), like Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian denominations, has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s. Last year alone we lost 63,804  members nationwide.  That’s a bad sign any way you cut it.

But mainline supporters seem to have simply satisfied themselves with a hasty rebuttal.  They’ve criticized the grossly broad brush Douthat paints with on his ambiguous “liberal” versus “conservative” canvas while using a selective interpretation of church demographics. He ignores the fact that theologically conservative churches have also begun to decline in numbers, including his own Catholic faith, which is losing its non-immigrant adherents in droves.  Conversely, if liberal theology really was killing mainline churches, they should have been shrinking decades before the 1960s. However, the decline didn’t begin until the Highway Act of 1956 and mass use of cars in America set off suburban sprawl. This transferred worshippers from the established mainline churches out of the city and into the waiting arms of evangelical churches—a branch of American Christianity practically synonymous with suburban and conservative.

I agree with the mainline defenders up to a point, but I can’t help but feel that if the “women-and-gays-destroy-churches” theory is unfounded, the “suburban sprawl” theory is not much more than an excuse. After all, there were mainline churches in the suburbs that could have absorbed the urban exodus. How then did evangelical churches siphon them away? Not only that, but non-evangelical churches grew rapidly as well. “Prosperity gospel” churches, often known as “health-and-wealth” churches, went from obscurity to making up to 17% of America’s religious landscape—and happen to be one of the few groups evangelicals and mainliners both dislike.

So how do we interpret the data in a way that does not necessarily paint our respective denominations in a good light, but rather gets us closer to the real causes and cures for mainline decline? Look no further than capitalism. Religious capitalism.

The suburban sprawl didn’t automatically transfer mainline worshippers into evangelical churches, but it did level the playing field. Commuting broke the reign of the “parish church” that was attended by those who lived in close proximity and created a new religious marketplace where Christians could easily attend any church of their choosing.  The “winners” would be the churches that a) offered the most clear and compelling message and b) possessed a unique identity.

Both evangelical and health-and-wealth churches rose to this occasion. Evangelicals successfully made converts with a straightforward offer of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, but the “believe in Jesus to get rich” health-and-wealth message was understandably attractive to others as well.   Moreover, these churches created a unique identity around these core messages that could not be met by any other civic institution.   Presbyterians and other mainline churches, often handcuffed by an inflexible culture of tradition, intellectualism, and moralism, simply couldn’t compete.  Even their commitment to civil rights, a redeeming aspect of mainline churches, has yet to make the jump over to a unique identity that can’t be met by participating in other civic and secular groups.

But remember that evangelical churches have begun to decline in America as well.  Evangelical leaders often pin the blame on the vague menace of “postmodernism”, but I believe the internet is the more concrete catalyst.  If the car and suburban sprawl opened up the religious marketplace from the parish church to a smorgasbord of commuter churches, the internet has expanded a religious consumer’s range from a 30-minute drive to the other side of the world.  Information and online communities of every religion, spirituality, and atheistic philosophy are available with a few keystrokes, and our current culture of hyper-individualism has fueled this third wave of religious consumerism.  Unless evangelical churches adapt to this new leveling of the playing field, they will suffer the same fate as the mainline church.

And so the solution depends on the denomination. Evangelicals must effectively adapt to a truly pluralistic culture in a way mainliners already have.  Unlike many evangelicals who have fought tooth-and-nail against evolutionary theory, feminism, and gay marriage, mainline churches have avoided placing unnecessary theological stumbling blocks that interfere with a compelling message.  But for the message to be compelling, it must also be clear. Their challenge is in communicating an identity rooted not in some watered-down Christianity that mimics social progressivism, but rather a holistic, historic, and even uncomfortable Gospel that keeps the redemptive work of Jesus radically at the center.

Either of these challenges may prove too painful for either camp to even acknowledge, but the future of Christianity in America depends on at least one group not sticking its head in the sand for much longer.  The religious marketplace waits for no denomination.

Colin Kerr is director of campus ministry of The Journey at the College of Charleston and the Citadel Military College.  He is author of two books, including A Heaven-Backed Rebellion: Uncovering the Political Vision of Christian Liberals.

  • Grae Rambo

    A fundamental flaw in American Christianity which your piece acknowledges is that Christians have come to see themselves and to actually function as consumers – those who are served rather that those who are empowered as brothers and sisters in Christ to serve one another. When the institutions that “oversee” the faith become consumer oriented we lose both the heart of the gospel and the mission of the church.
    Is it any wonder that the “health and wealth churches” are prospering? Sadly, they grow because they are selling what people want to buy – a message that caters to self-centeredness. All the while, traditional churches, both liberal and evangelical, have suffered because most have departed from their roots – from their unique identities and function within the body of Christ.
    Liberal Christianity is attractive and inspiring when it promotes a social mission bent toward bringing real change in a society given to the oppression of the weak. When the church takes a stand against such oppression it is doing what it was created to do – represent God. After all, social justice has always been a hallmark of the God we worship and His dealings with His people. And yet, any objective appraisal of liberal Christianity would have to acknowledge that the social mission has been largely abandoned by the liberal church. Abandoned may be too strong a word – better said, replaced by lip service rather than the self-sacrifice and action required to truly bring change.
    Evangelical Christianity, on the other hand, is attractive and inspiring when it both promotes and represents the righteousness of God. He is after all holy and righteous, and we were recreated in Christ to bear His image. Yet in recent memory there has been precious little living in accordance with the standards that have been preached. Is it any wonder that an emerging generation of people who want to see the real thing have rejected a form without substance? Hypocrisy is now and has always been unattractive.
    Certainly the way forward is not an either or. For the future of Christianity to be secure the core values of both expressions of the faith must be recaptured and lived out.

    • DEmon KilLer JahStaFfaRrI

      I agree with Rambo mostly because people I know including myself don’t like going to church or the babylonian self proclaimed christian in general because they are mostly self-centered, judgmental, lying, greedy people with no love in their hearts that wave the main stream babylonian banner of Jesus Christ. I think “church” membership is going down because the whole tower is coming down in victory. Not man but God bring it down.

      As for Homosexuals, them lepers of this day, and like all people to one degree or another are afflicted by the dark spirits, so not to be rejected by Christ but rather healed if they want and ask or if Him so choose for Him plan maybe. The spirit of God the Most High is not always around this land and I cannot always see Him I think because the babylonian culture destroys the name of Jah and then the stresses and pressures of babylonian society make it life difficult with all this fussing and fighting and so without God’s spirit around like paul says we do that which we not want to I think because we are just men but in flesh but God and in spirit we are conquerors. All the body needs is the spirit of God but Him no where to be found always in this land I see. Sometime when Him come great feeling some time when Him come the tower falls and get out the way and tough times to live in the rubble of fallen falsity with the evil ones scrambling and hungry for flesh so the body must seek Him spirit more and in this trouble times we grow. Maybe not the biggest tree in the forest but the strongest with the best fruit. In babylon Him come and go like the wind and we can wait with expectancy and hope I know.

      Where, I don’t understand Rambo is that I do not think we can live out a life like Jesus because only Jesus is Messiah, I think but claim not know we may need just accept God’s forgiveness and seek Him and do our bests and praise God with all our heart and when we’re bad our heart knows because it is Holy Heart and so accept grace and forgiveness when we do that bad which in our Hearts we do not want. Only when we leave this flesh maybe we will truly be free of temptation but until then we are free in Christ but our free will and flesh will never be Christ. I think Rambo see’s the hipocracy but I think maybe in his good heart he wants perfection when only God can give that as he so choose. Instead of recapture and live out, me think but claim not know maybe accept God’s grace, walk in humility and let God be in control and always want and ask God to fill your heart with love.

      I think this is a great thought provoking article but I admit I am not able to understand the title completely with the content but I think what is killing the mainstream church is that these buildings with names like st. this or pres that or holy this grace that etc is a lot of time babylonian money to just build a country club where hard hearted and cruel selfish judgmental babylonian or pharisee go that call themselves christian, go to rub elbows with each other and feel good about themselves like they are being presented as some debutant. This is not a church and the True Body of Christ cannot be destroyed. They know not the Almighty and are too busy and do not listen to the voice of Truth that vibrates throughout the universe eternal written on our Hearts. Forgive them for they do not know. Maybe what everyone is discussing is merely a country club membership decline cause the tower starts falling because the money is not there so the babylonians leave too cause they can not fill their vanity at the country club any longer. I do not know. But what Americans call church that I have seen is no real Church and definitely not the body of Christ I say, but that is for God to judge, I am just a man but see maybe this is more like the pharisee in the Bible a false group with rules and judgment for vanity. Although there are some with good hearts being lead astray by the pharisee culture so my prayer is that God will gather the people to live in love and not despair amongst the pharisees.

      The self proclaim christian in this land I see welcomes the spirits of judgment and greed, they worship those evil spirits in the name of vanity and pride and build them so big they know not Him Holy Spirit. The evil spirit kills, steals and destroys but not to be mistaken for when Him come to separate the flock, Him cut off bad fruit, I say keep your heart filled with love and pray that God will come to this land and let Him be the pruner and Him be the shepherd and Him guide and protect us into the Promise Land and then maybe there we can live in the light and feel the love and communion of the Great I am, Him, Most High, Jah, Head Creator, Lion of Judah, Almighty, Holy God.


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