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.
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.