Jerry Seinfeld has a bit in his popular standup routine where he addresses the various labels on pain relieving medicine:
this one’s quick acting, this one’s long lasting.
“Hmm, when do I need to feel good?”
“Now or later?”
“I don’t know.”
I tend to think about this routine whenever I read about updated statistics on church decline and growth in America. The latest Pew research report from the Washington Post leads with the exceedingly frank title: Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving. Here are two lengthy but insightful quotes:
After statistically analyzing the survey responses of over 2,200 congregants and the clergy members who serve them, we came to a counterintuitive discovery: Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline.
This quote leads to the meat of the findings:
What explains the growth gap between liberal and conservative congregations? In defense of liberal churches, one might venture that it is the strength of belief, not the specifics of belief, that is the real cause of growth. In this case, pastors embracing liberal theology are just as likely as conservative pastors to experience church growth, provided they are firm and clear in their religious convictions. Yet different beliefs, though equally strong, produce different outcomes.
I have seen this last sentence first hand in my life. My dad grew up in the home of conservative Southern Baptist parents. And his reaction to their strong beliefs was to strongly believe in a practical form of Atheism for most of his adult life. Then, in his 50s, he was dramatically converted to Bible-believing, Jesus worshipping Christianity. Shortly after his conversion, I entered seminary and began studying theology broadly across the various positions on the spectrum. In a moment of tender honesty, my dad asked me a question that has stuck with me today — for it is the question that many a new believer will eventually ask as discipleship is taking place:
Why would anyone choose to be a Liberal Christian?
Keep in mind that my dad was a staunch political Liberal before his conversion. He knows the world of Liberal philosophical thinking well and has traveled in its company for most of his adult life. So when he asked why anyone would willingly choose to be a Liberal theological Christian, he was assuming that Liberal is something self-evidently antithetical to Christianity and therefore something of an oxymoron in the spirit of Microsoft Works, king crab, or the living dead.
Making matters more complicated, I was in a period of seminary training when a great many of my fellow seminarians were flirting with the idea of moving over to Liberal Christianity in their own theological journeys. In each conversation I would ask my peers what was motivating them to switch sides from a more faithful reading of The Bible as authoritative to a more referencing attitude towards holy scripture as a helpful tradition. In many of the cases, the answer was the same: The Christianity I inherited (Conservative, traditional, Baptist) was either incapable of or uninterested in speaking to the pressing social issues of the time. Whether the place of gay people in the church, or human trafficking, or political rights of the marginalized, or women’s rights at large — my colleagues felt that the conservative church wasn’t moving at all or fast enough in addressing these issues. So the motivation to switch sides was to do something about the issue of injustice and marginalization.
I think it would be fair to summarize the statements made by my classmates in the following manner: We want justice, and we want it now.
This is certainly an overwhelming motivation to leave the safe suburbs of conservative theology and move into the urban areas of Liberal theology. Since the ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch, Christians have viewed Liberal theology as the framework that best approximates immediate action, swift justice, and real change in society. As the Washington Post article mentions, much of this impulse to change for the sake of change reveals the attitude towards the Bible made most recently famous by Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” If Christians will throw out the literal interpretation, Song writes, they will be poised to address current issues. If they maintain a literal interpretation of God’s Word, they will be unable to help.
And many of my seminary friends bought in to Liberal theology and were able to act quickly.
And many Americans have bought in to Liberal theology and were able to act quickly.
And the Washington Post reports, this quick action is, tragically, not long lasting. In economic terms, the Liberal churches are quickly losing a labor force that could help them with their social agenda. And that leads me to another crucial question: Why are so many Liberal churches dying? I have a few thoughts on why this is:
- Liberal theology is ill-equipped to address the significance question. There will always be a tension between the difficulty of the mission and the reason for the mission. If the mission is challenging and the reason for the mission is weak, the mission will fail. Liberal theology has historically struggled to answer the big “Why” question in any type of compelling way. Thus, the lack of a compelling reason undermines the very mission effort of social justice and change. For example, a parishioner may ask, “Why are we helping fight sex trafficking? Why does this effort matter?” A Liberal theology that denies the resurrection and denies the authority of Scripture (usually the same philosophical move) has no compelling reason to provide the justice and help that it was originally aiming to provide. Again, “Why do you want to help victims of sex trafficking?” Because it is an immoral thing? But immoral according to whom? According to what standard? When you have no authoritative standard, or when your authority is something fluid like an appeal to “common humanity” or “it just is,” your standard will struggle to hold up to the “Why” question. And your mission and standards with both struggle to hold up to the great effort that true justice ministry will require. I suspect that one reason for the shrinking of Liberal pews is an unsustainable and flat reason for why effort should expended towards the mission of justice in the first place.
- Liberal theology is continually uncomfortable with absolutes. Again, this premise undermines the mission. If there is no absolute right and wrong, and if everything is somewhat relative, then why again is sex trafficking wrong at all? Isn’t it relatively wrong? Isn’t continual oppression of gay Americans only relatively wrong (in other words relatively right)? Isn’t denying Syrian immigrants entrance into the USA relatively wrong? Or relatively right? Who is to say? And that is a huge problem. When there are no absolute truths, there is no authoritative source to which humanity can commonly appeal for unity, alignment, and guidance. Thus, it becomes the blind leading the blind. Or worse, it becomes the law of the strongest. Whoever is strongest wins. Might makes right. And that ironic — that the problem which Liberal Christians try to fight — namely oppression and injustice — becomes the end to which Liberal Christians work — namely that they will be able to use might to get their justice accomplished. This is why, I suspect, many Americans are saying no to the Liberal church.
- The Jesus of the Bible isn’t welcome in the Liberal Church. To be fair, Jesus isn’t always welcome in every corner of the conservative and evangelical church (cough cough race issues). The churches I have been a part of have their fair share of blind spots and tone deafness. But there is a substantial difference between blind spots (which we all have) and closed doors. And the Liberal Church has closed their doors to Jesus. What they want is something akin to Jesus as a malleable symbol onto which Liberal Christianity can project its current pressing issue agenda. To this approach, pastor Tim Keller says, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.” Again, the conservative church can tend to have an unbiblical vision of Jesus from time to time, but the conservative church pairs with this vision a commitment to studying the Bible and being submitted to what it actually says. Thus, there is a course correction built into the very framework of evangelical Christianity to mitigate against error. The Liberal church doesn’t have this same framework and thus is adrift in the sea of relativeness.
It is to this last observation that I return to Jerry Seinfeld. Liberal Christianity may be quick acting, but conservative Bible-based Christianty is long lasting. This past week I had the pleasure of attending the Passion Conference in Atlanta with 60,000 college-aged Christians and leaders. Over the past decade, Passion has been responsible for leading the way in fighting sex trafficking on a global scale — to the point that President Obama initially invited founder Louie Giglio to pray at his inauguration. This past week, Passion students adopted more than 4000 children at risk in 4 countries, through Compassion International. Neither of these social justice issues were part of the Passion project when I first started going in the early 2000s. But now they are an integral part of Passion.
What happened in the span of 15 years?
The conservative, Bible-believing church caught up. They are long-lasting. And they always will be.
Yes, the Church often lags behind in addressing the world’s need. Sometimes they are behind because they are sticking their head in the sand (American slavery, racism, etc…). But more often than not, they are principally not quick-acting because they need to pray, discern, seek wisdom, and make sustainable infrastructure changes so that they can be long-lasting. And this adjustment period often takes time.
So, if you are someone who is leaning towards Liberal Christianity for the purposes of quick action, I would encourage you to stop. Instead, I would encourage you to spend your efforts ringing the clarion call before the leadership of the conservative Biblical Church. Ringing may take time. In fact, ringing towards new things will often take time. But keep in mind that prophetic activity is often a long-play ministry (See the Old Testament). And keep in mind that conservative Bible-based Christianity is the only labor force who can change the world. And keep in mind that Liberal Christianity is dead on arrival. And keep in mind that its not about you. God is in control. He wants Justice far more than you do. Play your part. Ring the bell. Pray for ministry and change. Start helping in your own individual ministry way. And keep worshipping Jesus as the God of the universe — He will come through.