A milestone in the decline of liberal Protestantism

The much-diminished National Council of Churches is closing its headquarters in New York City, a building that also housed the offices of the other major ecumenical Protestant denominations.  Leaving the building once  hailed as the “Protestant Vatican” and the “God Box,” the NCC is moving to Washington, D.C., where it will share an office with the Methodists.  Mark Tooley, writing in the American Spectator, reports on the move and includes some trenchant analysis of why liberal Protestantism has declined.  This is especially noteworthy since some ostensible evangelicals want to adopt the same strategy.

From Mark Tooley:

The once prestigious and now nearly bankrupt National Council of Churches is quitting its famous New York headquarters built with largesse from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and whose cornerstone was laid by President Dwight Eisenhower. Down to a handful of staffers, the NCC will consolidate into the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

“It is important that we honor this moment with reverence and respect for the Council’s history as an iconic presence in the beloved ‘God Box,’” explained NCC President Kathryn Lohre in a press release. “It is equally important that we look with hope upon this new chapter in the Council’s life.” Last year, Lohre had told her board that the NCC faced an “ecumenical winter.” Her chilly prophecy is being fulfilled.

Searching for a positive spin, another NCC official declared: “The critical NCC policy work can be coordinated from any location but to be the prophetic ‘voice of the faithful’ on the ground in the places of power, it is best served by establishing our operations in Washington.” It’s not likely that the much-diminished NCC will be making a big political splash on Capitol Hill, where it has long maintained an office in the Methodist Building.

Such demise for the NCC could not have been foreseen in 1960 when the Interchurch Center, once called the “Protestant Vatican on the Hudson,” first opened on the upper west side of Manhattan next to Grant’s Tomb and Columbia University. More specifically the “God Box,” which originally housed dozens of denominational offices, is next door to architecturally magnificent Riverside Church, also built by the Rockefellers, and Union Seminary, collectively representing the once formidable but now faded power of Mainline Protestantism.

At the Interchurch Center’s 1960 dedication, a German Lutheran bishop presciently warned against the “institutionalization” of churches, noting that a beautiful building and organization were of “no avail without true faith.” Initially the NCC occupied four floors of the 19 story, $21 million imposing midrise that overlooks the Hudson River. The Methodists, Presbyterians, American Baptists, and Reformed Church in America, among others, also based their offices there. . . .

Ironically, nearly all the Mainline denominations housed there would begin their nearly 50-year membership decline just a few years later. A sanitized Protestantism without doctrine or distinctions simply became too boring to sustain. In the early 1960s, about one of every six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, it’s one out of every 15. . . .

The mainstream, Mainline Protestantism that Ike, himself a Presbyterian, embodied began its decline into radicalism in the mid 1960s, mostly in reaction to the Vietnam War. No longer moored to a firm theology, groups like the NCC were easily susceptible to take-over by radical activists. And having tied themselves to American culture and modern secularism, they were ever anxious to stay abreast of the latest social and political fad, primarily from the perspective of New York-based elites.

via The American Spectator : End of the Mainline.

So why are some evangelical/conservative Christians wanting to jettison doctrines and distinctions and tying themselves to American culture, modern secularism, and the latest social and political fads?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Why? Because as sinful creatures (“idol factories,” as John Calvin put it) will always want to stray and do our own thing.

    As for the NCC closing: good bye and good riddance.

  • Pete

    Nothing new under the sun – consider the penchant of the Israelites for drifting off into the habits and practices of the surrounding nations.

  • kempin04

    “So why are some evangelical/conservative Christians wanting to jettison doctrines?”

    Who, exactly, and what doctrines? I think this would be better discussed in the specific rather than the general, otherwise it may become another exercise in venting personal frustration against “those guys.”

  • Paul Reed

    There are plenty of churches with liberal theology thriving (at least numbers-wise). And who is to say that the NCC lost members because of liberal theology? That’s kind of a jump. You might as well say they lost members due to the it’s president being bald. Prove that’s what caused it.

  • Hanni

    @3kempin,
    Amen brother or sister; my thoughts exactly..

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Three cheers for this event. The liberal mainline is in a death spiral. I would not be surprised in the next ten years to witness an organic merger of the liberal mainline and the formation of a church similar to the one in Canada, called, perhaps, “The Christian Church-USA” which will be a merger of the United Methodists, Presbyterian USA, Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I expect it to happen sooner than anyone expects. These churches are already in “full communion” and the only reason they have not merged is because they seek to keep their individual church administrative structures up and running. That will prove impossible as money continues to dwindle and they try to support separate infrastructures.

  • Hanni

    @3kempin,
    Amen or should it be Ahmen;

  • Cincinnatus

    Honestly, Paul T. McCain, I have yet to see a comment of your on this blog that strikes me as “pastorly” in any way. Why would anyone celebrate the decay of once-vibrant churches? I grew up United Methodist. It was heartbreaking to be, essentially, compelled to leave, and it has been henceforth heartbreaking to watch its continued decline. Now, as an Anglican, I get to pile on more heartbreak watching the Episcopal Church slowly kill itself.

    It’s not like the gap offered by these crumbling stalwarts is being filled by churches preaching the true Gospel. That may have been true a couple of decades ago, but now church participation is suffering everywhere. There isn’t much to rejoice about here.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Yeah, I think I might find something to cheer if there was some sort of repentance that changed the course of these groups. That they are just dying, or have died isn’t something I find too cheerful, and I’m one given to schadenfreude.
    I suppose there is the thought, well these churches won’t be teaching their false doctrine anymore, or aren’t getting the audience they once had for their false doctrine. But I’m afraid that isn’t even a real comfort for me, because I haven’t seen the ranks of the LCMS swell with the decline of the mainline. I haven’t even seen the ranks of churches I find more or less tolerable in their teachings swell with the decline of the mainline. So it isn’t as if this decline is the result of any godly movement in society. Rather it seems as if it is the result of people further divorcing themselves from the word of God altogether.
    See I guess for me, despite all the false doctrine I abhor in these churches, I find it a comfort that people gather together to hear the word of God read if nothing else. I know the word of God to be a powerful instrument of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen it work on me over the years, bringing and working repentance strengthening faith and so on. The Bible itself records people being moved to repentance by the reading and hearing of God’s word. But if even that has been silenced, then there is nothing to rejoice about.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Amen, Bror.
    Where are the churches swelling with the ranks of the faithful?
    Oh, right … I’m just longing for the life of the world to come!
    Come, Lord Jesus!

  • Daniel Casey

    Cincinnatus @8, I think pastor McCain was honest and accurate. When a church is more concerned with aligning itself to “American culture, modern secularism, and the latest social and political fads” then it is longer a church.

    I would prefer that many of these apostate institutions be more honest about what they believe, teach, and confess and stop calling themselves a ‘church’.

  • Cincinnatus

    Daniel Casey@11:

    Excellent work missing the point. Regardless of what these churches have recently become, they were vibrant institutions of orthodox worship. I know Lutherans aren’t big on conversion experiences and so forth, but the UMC, for example, essentially pioneered American evangelism and camp revivals (my own grandfather attributed his faith in part to such a meeting). And in other parts of the world–especially Africa–these denominations are still vibrant and growing.

    And even still, these churches are filled with millions of faithful believers–both laymen and clergy–who lament the direction their hierarchical superiors have taken.

    In short, it’s morally wrong to rejoice in the decline of these churches. And it’s factually wrong to label them as entirely apostate.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Kempino, one thing that I’ve seen in evangelical camps is the doctrine of “open theism”, where God’s foreknowledge is an open question. Another–which I read here if I remember correctly–is to cast doubt on Biblical doctrines of sexuality because so many people don’t live by them.

    In other circles, there is the tendency to degrade the doctrine of sola scriptura by saying that “God told me” to do whatever–but of course with no prophetic responsibility clause.

    Regarding the NCC specifically, I would argue that it is what God will do to those who ignore His Word; He will remove their lampstand. And thankfully, out here in the boonies, I am seeing something wonderful in some of the Methodist churches; they cannot find pastors of the liberal theology bent, and so are being forced to accept lay preachers of evangelical faith.

    Hopefully these new “circuit riders” will gain a quorum and soon a majority there!

  • sg

    Eh, I interpret Pr. McCain as cheering for the failure of false teachers. NCC was never representative of the laity or pastors in parish ministry. They saw themselves as elites and they are a malignant cohort. NCC are wolves in sheep’s clothing leading folks astray. Cheering their rapid self destruction seems appropriate. They barely passed their 100 year anniversary. They labored in vain as they were not standing on the foundation of Christ.

  • sg

    “And even still, these churches are filled with millions of faithful believers–both laymen and clergy–who lament the direction their hierarchical superiors have taken.”

    This really says it all. Faithful children of evil fathers. It really points to the Word being efficacious. God’s Word does convert even if preached in error and by evil men themselves unbelievers.

  • sg

    In July 2005, the Antiochian Orthodox Church suspended its participation in the NCC because, according to an assistant to the denomination’s senior cleric, “the NCC…seems to have taken a turn toward political positioning.”
    Prophetic or what?

    The Council’s headquarters were originally located in the Interchurch Center in New York City, but these were abandoned in 2013. The NCC now works from its public-policy office in Washington DC.

    Just not content with their work of the right hand.

  • http://www.utah-Lutheran.blogspot.com Bror0122@hotmail.com

    Luke 11:24-26 (ESV)
    “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ [25] And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. [26] Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
    Just some words to think about. Sure these churches weren’t exactly orthodox. But being as they haven’t been replaced a by anything resembling orthodox Christian teaching, I do believe we will see it worse rather than better. There is nothing to cheer about here.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The AOC (strictly speaking AOCNA) is rife with intra-denominational politics. So kind of ironic.

  • Al Bergstrazer

    The NCC’s decline is simply due to its irrelevance, it has been eclipsed politically by the DNC, it’s mission and purpose are redundant within the realm of liberal churches, and those that are not liberal that the NCC might influence won’t have anything to do with them. The German Bishop was right, an institutionalizing the church is doomed to failure.

  • fjsteve

    KK,

    I think you’d agree that while most denominations have interdenominational politics to deal, that’s a very different issue than trying to influence or being influenced by secular politics.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    “And even still, these churches are filled with millions of faithful believers–both laymen and clergy–who lament the direction their hierarchical superiors have taken.”

    This really says it all. Faithful children of evil fathers. It really points to the Word being efficacious. God’s Word does convert even if preached in error and by evil men themselves unbelievers.

    That all sounds well and good on the surface, but if faithful children are in the houses of evil fathers, why are they not leaving the house? I realize that there are good exceptions to bad denominations (just like there are bad exceptions to good denominations) but the morally and intellectually honest thing to do in those cases is to leave that denomination instead of bringing guilt by association upon onesself.

    If I learn that a church or any other organization of which I am a member has taken a step in violating a core tenet of the faith, I am going to disassociate myself with that organization. To fail to do this at the very least sends an implicit message of a complicit attitude. I personally know of at least two church bodies bold and faithful enough to do this, so it’s not like such a secession from a denomination (or moving from one church to another) is an impossible thing to accomplish.

    What it boils down to is whether or not we love the praise of men over the praise of God.

  • http://www.Utah-Lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I’m not always sure that leaving a denomination is the best thing to do. And our Lord and savior didn’t seem to care much when it came to guilt by association, I think we could learn a little from that too.
    I’m always reminded of that part in the Lutheran Confessions that says they would gladly stay under the auspices of Rome if they were only permitted to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments according to Christ’s institution. That says a lot to me about what matters in church fellowship. I don’t like this notion of incessant splitting off from each other, packing up the marbles and going home. My attitude is make them kick you out.

  • http://derekjohnsonmuse.com Derek Johnson

    As an LCMS member whose church body is often accused of “isolationalism”, this is an example I’d cite when I’d tell my fellow Christians it’s better to stay in separate communions and work out our issues, rather than stand up and say we agree when we don’t


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