The Decline of Liberal Christianity

The crest of the United Church of Canada

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had a controversial editorial asking Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? It sparked off a great deal of debate about the Christian blogosphere. It mostly stuck to the American context, though. Then a few days ago, Margaret Wente wrote a similar editorial for The Globe and Mail here in Canada, with the focus on The United Church of Canada. The central question: what is going to happen with the liberal forms of Christianity? Wente points out that the average age of members of the United Church is 65, and there are a lot less children joining and sticking around than there are older members dying.

Why is this happening? This is the common answer:

Back in the 1960s, the liberal churches bet their future on becoming more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive. They figured that was the way to reach out to a new generation of worshippers. It was a colossal flop.

I’ve studied United Church history at my UCC seminary, and it is definitely historically accurate. In its early years, the UCC was a fairly evangelical organization (not politically conservative which is not a synonym, but orthodox with a strong value on the person of Jesus). In the 1960’s, at its peak, church leadership decided to take it in a completely different direction, starting the New Curriculum (as it was so creatively called). It has done many important progressive things since then, including the most controversial issue: same-sex marriage.

But unfortunately it often stops at the social issues:

As the United Church found common cause with auto workers, it became widely known as the NDP at prayer.Social justice was its gospel. Spiritual fulfilment would be achieved through boycotts and recycling. Instead of Youth for Christ, it has a group called Youth for Eco-Justice.

This is why many evangelicals think that the Social Gospel is a bad thing, because it often now means that doing good social work is all there is to Christianity. Historically this isn’t true of course – the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century was extremely grounded in the person of Jesus and the uniqueness of the Christian message to bring restoration to the world. But it is all too often true of many churches today. The article talks about a former ministry who “lately has even started praying” which was something unheard of while he was a UCC pastor; his seminary education was all about intellect and nothing to do with personal experience.

When some churches proudly proclaim that they don’t even believe in God, what’s the difference between them and any of the great secular charities? They aren’t as good at it is about all I can come up with. So even us who are socially liberal have absolutely no motivation to join a church that offers us nothing more than our local soup kitchen.

Response

The first point of response is a reminder that most conservative denominations are also declining, although the decline started about a generation later. But, on the other hand, non-denominational churches with orthodox theology are still growing fast, usually claiming the labels of charismatic and/or evangelical. I have never heard of a growing liberal non-denominational church. So the point still stands, but that distinction should be kept in mind because it could be argued that it is denominationalism as much as liberalism that is turning off the younger generation. While I think this is also true, I definitely still think that the secular nature of many liberal churches is a major turn-off in and of itself.

I also want to point out that the liberal-conservative dichotomy is itself a turn-off to a lot of people under 40. Many of us are hesitant to sign up for a church that prides itself on being strictly one or the other. The main difference is that conservatives at least pay to young people in things like styles of worship, and they do at least offer something unique.

I think that liberal Christianity will indeed be dead within a generation or two. I suspect that conservative Christianity will be about a generation behind. But this does not mean that Christianity will be dead. On the contrary, lost in this whole discussion is the fact that Christianity as a whole has been growing at a rapid rate, just not in traditional conservative or liberal churches and not in North America and Europe. African and Asian churches, usually of a Pentecostal flavour and unencumbered by the trappings of European modernism, are our new future. What’s left in North American and Europe will learn to adapt to our post-modern times. Like a seed needs to be buried before it can flourish, and like Jesus himself was buried before rising again, in 100 years we will look at these challenging times not as ones of the final burial of the church but of ones necessary for new life.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.