Should Christianity (as we know it) Survive?

Should Christianity (as we know it) Survive? July 18, 2012

There’s been an interesting discussion going on about the future of Christianity in America. Though there have been arguments back and forth about who is worse off – liberal or conservative Christians – for some time, the dialogue has become more concentrated as of late, following the Episcopal Church’s decision to bless same-sex unions.

This, some conservatives claim, is yet another symptom of a Church in moral decline, and their shrinking numbers are proof positive that they have strayed from Biblical principles of discipleship. Then some liberals shoot back, pointing out that, although mainline and progressive denominations have been losing members longer, the same has been happening for years, if not decades, in every conservative Christian denomination as well. Yes, there are big megachurches, most of which tend to be conservative, But these are statistically an aberration in a greater negative trend across the board.

Ross Douthat

The infighting reminds me of what happens when you put a bunch of crabs or lobsters in the same small bucket. As they clamor to get out, they’ll climb on top of one another, and even pull each other back down as they attempt to gain purchase to help them escape.

Meanwhile they all sit there in a pile, getting nowhere fast.New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, himself a Roman Catholic (also in decline for years in the US), penned a column called, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”. Ultimately, his conclusion is “no,” because he argues that any religious group married to contemporary liberal social values is wedded to a fleeting trend that is unsustainable. The movement, then, has no true center, and thus no soul. And as such, God does not honor such self-serving efforts.

Then, on the other side of the debate, Diana Butler Bass writes in a recent Huffington Post article called, “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,” that the question Douthat poses is too narrow, given the evidence of decline in all areas of institutional Christianity. The question she prefers is whether the whole of Christianity can be saved and, if so, is liberal Christianity positioned to save it?

Diana Butler Bass

I’ll preface my following thoughts with the qualification that I love Diana Butler Bass as a person, writer and theologian, and I also agree with many of her points. However, I think there are two fundamental problems with the current dialogue that I feel compelled to point out.First, the whole liberal/conservative dichotomy presumes a modernist worldview that I don’t think is particularly relevant

any more. Few people under the age of 40 care much for identities such as “liberal/conservative,” “democrat/republican” or “protestant/catholic.” We tend to feel boxed in by such proscriptive labels, and others’ attempts to apply such definitions to us smacks of opportunism simply to count us an another warm body within their ranks. The thing is, we don’t tend to care about your institutions in the way you do.We care about the people we’re in relationship more than their party or denominational affiliation. I know socially progressive evangelicals and radically liberal orthodox Christians. We are increasingly identifying as political independents, namely because we don’t feel we owe either party anything. Same goes for religion, which brings me to my second point…

Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez

There seems to be an assumption that institutional Christianity, in and of itself SHOULD survive, simply because it has in the past. And although a robust case can be made in defense of maintaining organized religion in some way similar to how it’s been in the past, I’m not entirely convinced (nor are many of my contemporaries, I’d argue) that this is the best and truest way to serve the mission to which we’re called by the Gospel.

In so much as denominations or networks of churches seek to marginalize or treat any other class of people as “less than,” the Body of Christ is better served without the power of their institution to back up their intolerance, neglect and even violence. To the extent that denominations or individual churches are more focused on institutional survival for the sake of itself over the mission of Jesus Christ, they, too should go the way of the temple in Jerusalem.   

It seems that we’ve gotten into a mindset where we believe that Jesus’ ministry and mission in the world is dependent on the survival of Christianity as we now understand it. But this presumption is a set-up to worship religion, rather than a savior. I don’t need the church to find God; no one does. To the degree that Christianity, on a marco- or micro- scale, is daily, materially, radically making real Christ’s message to a world that needs it, we claim a faith that believes we will have what we need for the journey.

As for the rest, as the prophets and Christ himself said: there will come a day when not one stone will be left, one on top of another.

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  • Christine Watson

    Your conclusion is similar to the one I’ve reached, after many years spanning both conservative fundamentalist and now more liberal progressive understandings of my faith. My current opinion is that ‘organized religion’ of any kind, even my own, is something better off dead for the good of the faith as a whole, and I believe Jesus would agree.

    • Aaron Minix

       I don’t think Jesus would agree at all. Did he not promise Peter that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against his church? (Matthew 16:18). Christianity isn’t an individual sport.

  • Chuck

    It’s not just those under 40 who share this mindset…I’ll be turning 50 this year, and I’ve been feeling this way for years.  Whenever possible, I’ve stopped using the word “Christian” as an adjective – because it’s a noun which defines a person and a relationship.  It means “little Christ” – so how can it define music, books, world views or religions?

    It is who I am, not what I do, that defines me both as human and as Christian.  After all, we are human beings, not human doings…

  • Drew Sumrall

    well said…good article 

    my thoughts:

  • Gregmetzger

    Christian, your attempt to mediate the dialog is not aided by referring to Roman Catholics as part of a sect of Catholicism, however tongue in cheek you mean it there is an edge to it that reveals a bias against RCs. Your statement that it is in decline is also quite striking and parochial–it is not in decline globally. Slow down, show some respect for the Catholic Church and its history and claims and then come at this again, because as this stands it is taking the occasion of one particular Catholic’s column as an occasion for a swipe at Roman Catholicisim.

    • Greg, two points:

      One, I know Catholics who don’t identify as Roman Catholic. I, not being Catholic, understand RC as a mor orthodox sector/segment/what have you of Catholicism. I understand RCs may see themselves as the only true Catholic Church (maybe not?) but this is a genuine attempt to contextualize what the reporter is. 

      Second point, bear in mind, as I note in the first sentence of the article, and as both other writers I reference state, this discussion is about religion in America specifically. And as Bass notes, barring the inflow of new immigrants to America who already were Catholic, the number of native-born American Catholics still connected with the church is in as much decline as mainline Protestant churches.

      No jabs, no malicious intent. Just trying to give people some perspective.

      • Gregmetzger

        Christian, my thoughts on Douthat/Catholicism are complicated, but one thing I know for sure–Douthat would never describe himself as a “Roman Catholic” part of “Catholicism”. That label is used by some Catholics to describe other Catholics that they (almost certainly) disagree with. It is not something Ross would ever use to describe himself as it is basically saying I am not really being true to the universality of the church. It is a bit like calling a progressive Christian a “soft on the Bible” type–it is unfair and is something no progressive would say about themself (I say that as one who often calls myself a progressive). 

        Ross may describe himself as a more orthodox Catholic, but it should be noted that he is not easy to characterize when you take into consideration his published statements on gay marriage and contraception. 

        All of which is not to say that I stand strongly with Ross’ views. I found much in Peter Steinfels’ review of Ross’ book that rang true.

        I just think that you inadvertently described Ross in a way that was unfair to how he would describe himself.


    • Also, bear in mind that, while we split ecclesial hairs, most folks who read this could not care less if we’re Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline, independent Christian or other. We’re all the same to them.

      • Gregmetzger

        Well, I was just responding to what you wrote. 

  • This is clearly something you’ve been thinking about for a while.  My approach to the topic is slightly different, in that I start with the reason for what you term the “institutional church” – and identify its Biblical roots.  Through this, we can see that the local assembly has a very important role to play, particularly in the teaching of the Word, building up of one another in the faith, and encouraging each other as we grow into the fullness of Christ.

    Interestingly, the Scriptures blur the edges between the local assembly (church) and the body of Christ (church), far more than we are usually willing to admit: the work of the local assembly is very directly connected to the body of Christ, in that when it works properly at the local level, it is the body of Christ which is being built up (e.g. notice how the gifts which operate in the local assemblies of Ephesians 4:11 cause the growth of the body into Christ in 4:15-16).

    So, whilst God is not constrained to using the local church as a means of believers coming to him through Christ and maturing in their faith, yet the local church is the means which God has deliberately appointed for this very thing.  This should mean three things: first, that any idea of dropping the local assembly from the Christian faith is out of the question entirely; second, that Christians should be particularly concerned for God’s work in the local church; and third, that the “institutional church” at every level needs to be constantly re-evaluating itself against its Biblical mandate, ensuring that what happens there meets this as closely as is possible – whether the leaders or members ‘like’ it, or whether they fight against it tooth-and-nail.

    • isaacplautus

       Well said.  I think there’s a real danger with throwing baby out with the bath water when I hear emerging folks speak glibly about the death of the church.  I think Christ did call people to come together as a body.  Granted there are many paths and interpretations as to how that comes about.  But the fact is a lot of people still draw spiritual sustenance from the institutional Christian churches in their various forms.

  • skb

    I’m in the upper 60s, mid-western, raised as fundamentalist,  evangelistic and yet, have felt uncomfortable in churches for years… feeling like “God in the box” and that “they” have all the answers, to which we do not dare question. Finally someone verbalizes exactly the way I think and feel about church. I have no qualms about my faith in God and seek serenity and joy on my own.  Thank you for allowing me to feel like I am not a “heathen” for questioning. 

  • I like your question, however, I think your answer may be “over thought”.
    Should Christianity (as we know it) survive? In a word, “Nope”.
    I think if the big-Kahuna (notice the upper case K) were to interject himself into this discussion, he would reflect on what a horrible job we have been doing sharing His message, using our gifts, and generally being peachy. I think He would want to tear down every church and scatter His followers into their homes to rebuild the church with a mind-set that it is about living a life based on His teaching. He would paddle the butts of many pastors, deacons, and elders with the “New Visitors” parking sign.
    I think organized religion has only slightly better street-cred than Congress. Christianity needs to focus on the family, home and community and get out of the political domain. We don’t need to spend a dime of His money fighting to keep His name on their money or in the pledge or in a crèche at the courthouse. These acts are the ultimate in folly. Please – please – point me to the first person that had a conversion experience by looking at a nickel in their pocket or driving by the getting their car tag renewed in December.

  • Paul Freeman

    Well said Christian, So how do we carry the message of Jesus forward, if we allow these Christian institutions to fail?

  • Tony

    I echo skb’s sentiment in every way (except for my age! 😉 ). I no longer rely on the Church, nor obedience to its Rules, to find my way to God. He’s there for me whether the Church likes it or not 😀

    And yes, I consider myself an heretic, but only in terms of the Church, not in terms of Jesus.

    • Aaron Minix

       I can understand your desire to want to declare independence from the Church, but I think it is sorely misplaced. One of the things that has struck me about Catholicism as I am studying it is that it emphasizes the Church as being the Body of Christ much more than I knew from Protestant traditions. In fact, the earliest Christians wouldn’t be able to see the difference between the Church and Jesus, since they emphasized being a member of the Body of Christ so much, and that meant being a part of the Church. The issue is how do you know you are getting closer to God? Throughout history the faith has been beset by many, many heresies, too numerous to detail. For example, Arians thought Jesus was a created being, not one with the Father. Other groups denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit or the doctrine of the Trinity altogether. Many of these groups looked to Scripture to form their ideas. How do we know who’s right? Might all these “rules” and “doctrines” and “dogmas”, instead of being arbitrary, instead be the result of faithful Christians holding to what they learned from the apostles and through prayer?

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