The events at the recent general convention of the Episcopal Church have generated a wave of the usual outrage/concern-trolling/Schadenfreude over the supposed demise of liberal/mainline Christianity. Conservatives have been riding this hobby horse for years, arguing that while churches that espouse more liberal theological or social positions have seen declines in membership, more conservative churches have been growing (or at least declining at a slower rate). The lesson–sometimes explicit but more often implicit–is supposed to be that embracing conservatism is the key to growth (which is in turn understood as virtually synonymous with success).
As is so often the case, the reality is a bit more complicated than this narrative suggests. Certainly all is not well in the mainline, but there are a few things we should keep in mind:
–Most major church bodies in the U.S. are experiencing some degree of decline, including the Roman Catholic Church and the famously conservative Southern Baptists.
–Churches labeled “conservative” aren’t necessarily growing because of their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy; many of them downplay theology in favor of various self-help, personal growth techniques; “prosperity” preaching; or right-wing politics that have little to do with the historic Christian faith.
–Churches that take “liberal” stances on political or social issues aren’t necessarily “liberal” on theology or liturgy. Liberal or progressive social positions can be based on “conservative” theology, and many mainline churches are quite traditional in their liturgy and approach to worship.
–Mainline denominations are actually not as liberal as people think but contain a wide range of theological and political views. For instance, in 2008, Barack Obama got only 44 percent of the white mainline Protestant vote (see, e.g., this study). Similarly, a review of official church statements on issues like marriage and abortion would show that mainline churches have hardly bought into “sexual liberation” hook, line, and sinker.
–Liberals are often accused of “capitulating to the culture,” but many positions espoused by liberal churches (on the economy, war, or immigration, for example) are actually “countercultural” with respect to the dominant American culture.
None of this shows that liberal Christianity has a bright future–or that mainline denominations don’t have major institutional problems that need to be addressed. But I’m not convinced that “liberalism” explains these churches’ problems or that being less liberal is a panacea for what ails them.