Thank You Ross Douthat; A Discussion on Liberal Christianity

Well at least we can all agree that Ross Douthat got our attention with the article he wrote recently for the New York Times.  His dire attack on the so called liberal churches has already stimulated several well written articles, with a plethora of responses to each of these. Google even tagged the discussion.  I received a couple dozen emails from a variety of people asking about my position on Douthat’s thesis and I even received three calls from radio stations, including one from New Zealand, asking for my comments.

I suppose the fact that his paper was published by the New York Times made the difference, but for those of us who have been working in this arena for years, this is old news. Yes, mainline denominations are losing members at an alarming rate and have been for over four decades. But it seems that no one really wants to talk about it…until now.  As Diana Butler Bass points out in her published response to Douthat, it is not only liberal mainline churches that are losing members but all denominations, including the traditional, conservative Southern Baptist.  If Douthat’s thesis was correct, the retro-conservative Roman Catholic Church would be busting at the seams.

Denominational leaders have known this well kept secret for a long time. But you seldom heard the startling numbers at national gatherings. I have attended two such gathering in the last two years and although the loss of financial support was alluded to, nothing was said in these general assemblies about the significant losses in church attendance.

Most denominations have tried marketing experts with advertising blitzes; others have hired church growth experts or done their own in-house studies; and almost all have reorganized, always with a new mission focus. But they have seen no real change in church attendance except in the increased rate of losses.

Thousands of churches have hired consultants, changed their style of worship, removed the pews, added drums, and have opened their doors to people of all sexual orientations in hopes that these changes might stem the losses or save their church.  But like Douthat, they have still missed the real cause of church demise. Too many church leaders do not know what the purpose of the church is anymore.  I believe you can track this inevitable decline back to the fourth century when the Christian church was wedded with the Roman Empire and the movement became the tool of control rather than the conscience of the empire… when the church became the center of the society rather than the critic of the social abuses.

The Christian path, as taught by Jesus, was always about transformation and change. Like most religions, it was started by or based on the teachings of someone who had an extraordinary spiritual, life-changing experience or experiences, and apparently these teachers believed that others could have that same life transforming experience.  After the fourth century Christianity became the tool to support the status quo not a path for transformation.  Although Christian contemplatives are the exception to this critique, for centuries they have been pushed to the outskirts of the faith by corporate denominations and Roman Catholic power politics.

Over ten years ago C. Kirk Hadaway wrote a book called Behold I Do a New Thing. In this book Hadaway makes a case that the church has lost its way because church leadership no longer knew its purpose. Churches in general were too concerned about satisfying people rather than providing the opportunity to be changed or transformed…”to bring down their self-constructed walls, dissolve their delusions and help them see God” (pg 18).  The book was in large part ignored by church leadership and never got the attention it deserved.  I suspect this was due in part because like people, transforming churches is not easy or maybe even possible.

Although I continue to do workshops and give talks about finding ways to revive churches, I am no longer certain that even those of us who love the church and the Christian tradition will be able to save any of it from self destruction.  When I start by suggesting that the main problem is that we have lost our way because we no longer know why we are here, we do not know our purpose, people’s eyes glass over.  Yes, of course there are some wonderful exceptions and it becomes clear why that church is an exception but while we may learn from the exceptions, they may not save Christianity as we know it.

I do think that if more individuals come to discover that the real purpose of the Christian path is to transform lives and create communities of followers of Jesus, something new is going to spring up from the ashes.  It will not be easy nor will churches be the same. Leaders will have to have a different kind of training that what is provided by seminaries today.

You see, to actually be a follower of one who teaches radical egalitarianism through radical compassion is not an easy path and is in direct opposition to our competitive, materialistic culture. It is not easy to move past the dualistic and egocentric mentality that has become the standard of western civilization. It is difficult for us to understand Jesus’ teaching “that only when the inner becomes the outer and the outer becomes the inner, and the outside like the inside, will we experience the Realm of Oneness.” (Book of Thomas Logion 22) It will take dedication and practice. Learning to live without tribal boundaries by reaching out even to our enemies and by seeking the divinity in each and every living thing, requires an unusual level of commitment that is not common in our churches today.

However, when I spend time with some of the young adults I meet all over the country these days, I have real hope that there may very well be a rebirth of new Christian communities across the Western hemisphere someday. I do not think that they will be large communities that will support church buildings, paid leadership and pension programs. They will not be guided by dogma or creeds but rather by the spirit of compassion. They will be faith communities of people who simply by their lifestyles will challenge our culture, our beliefs and our social norms.  They will not need absolutes but rather will be comfortable dwelling in the Great Mystery. Maybe some of these remnants of our corporate churches will lead us to a new way of thinking and a new way of behaving that is needed, if our precious, fragile world is to survive as we know it.  And Christianity will once again have a story of salvation…albeit a very different one.

Thank you, Ross Douthat, for opening the conversation.

Review & Commentary

  • Barbara Walters

    My favorite line… ” the tool of control rather than the conscience of the empire… when the church became the center of the society rather than the critic of the social abuses.” We talk like the change is for us as an individual but I believe Jesus meant that we needed to change the society in order to change ourselves!

    • Fred Plumer

      It may be a little of both but I believe that it has to first start with changing ourselves so that everything that we do, every action that we take is from the heart with an awareness that all life is filled with the divine spirit. As the book of Thomas suggests when we become truly aware, we become spirit people. Obviously as we work on that, especially along with others, society will be changed.

  • Edward Nugee

    In the first three centuries AD one of the main aims of Christians was to obtain eternal life, as promised by Jesus on several occasions, when they came to be judged – whether at a single moment of Last Judgment of all or on their individual deaths. The way in which they sought this aim was by doing their best to faithfully follow the teaching and example of Jesus: “faith” (Greek pistis) means being faithful to Jesus, not a belief in some theological proposition. This is well expounded in “Moral Transformation – The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation” by AJ Wallace and RD Rusk, a book which, for me, threw a flood of light on the beliefs and practices of the early church.
    Part of the problem with the Church is that many people have lot any belief in life after death. It seems to me that this is an essential element in Christianity; and the salvation brought by Jesus is the demonstration, by his life, death and resurrection (as well attested as any event in history) of the way to obtain eternal life. We need both a new way of thinking and a new way of behaving, though once one gets rid of the “monstrous” doctrine of the atonement (as Jeffery John described it in a memorable Holy Week radio talk three or four years ago and as Bishop Spong does in this week’s essay) it is all there in the gospels and in much of the teaching of the Church through the centuries.

  • Thanks for these encouraging and guiding thoughts, Fred. I agree completely. I do think that communities, and mostly small(ish) communities, will become more central and important. I also think we will increasingly have “virtual communities” as we do some now; and they will help us construct more full-orbed communities.

    I will also add that I’ve been watching the dissatisfaction of many Evangelicals, especially the younger and more educated ones, and how they are dialoging (even with us Progressives), challenging their more conservative peers and leaders, experimenting with “doing church,” etc. I think it’s building momentum and that Evangelicalism may soon be “blindsided” the way liberalism has been. In my observation, some of these folks are more thoughtful (even if still basically orthodox) than many liberals. It’s an interesting and exciting time!

  • Dick Carter

    Right on Fred! Best regards, Dick

  • Lowell Streiker

    You mean C. KIRK Hadaway

  • Garth Bulmer

    In my view culture and religion have part ways in western civilization. And most of the church belongs to culture-a culture in which the Way of Jesus is so compromized that that these churches have little to say that is life-giving to the culture.

    That being said, the Way of Jesus is hard and in offering such a path in a culture like ours we should not expect lots of takers. I know that some of the church will survive because God likes working with remnants in the renewing of the Kingdom. But I doubt that it will look much like what is presently instiutional Christianity

  • Louise Mahood

    Thanks for articulating that the first problem is the too cosy relationship with the Empire and the emerging church of the 4th century. Essentially, saying that the church has lost it way because the church dropped the goal of walking with others through the transformation. If I get your point, we lost our prophetic voice. The voice that needs to challenge all the principalities that surround us, including the corporation-based economy, even corporate control of democracy.
    I like being part of God’s abundant empire, and God’s economy. It is simply too late for the institutional church to undo its ways before it officially dies. But I remain hopeful that the drive for transformation will compel people to find Jesus’ core wisdom.