Steadfast in the Pew — Has Liberal “Christianity” Died?

A Facebook friend of mine linked up this interesting op-ed carried by the New York Times this past Sunday. The title of the article, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” What I found particularly interesting from the article is the writer’s claim, “But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed.” “Liberal Christianity has simply collapsed”? The writer’s assessment very much mirror’s that of Dr. Rodney Stark, who is currently a Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University. Dr. Stark had much to say about the decline of mainstream Christianity two years ago in this interview printed at Patheos Evangelical.

The crux of Mr. Stark’s observations is that theological liberalism is slowly killing, or has killed, mainline denominations in America. What really caught my attention from his article is the following quote:

“So, the fact of the matter is, if you look at the leading lights in American Protestantism in the early 20th century, the famous people didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. They were very shaky about the existence of God. They always talked about God, but when you got down into their books and pushed, God was some kind of social value. There wasn’t a one of them who believed in a God who could hear prayers.

Well, they may be right about God. But that doesn’t make for a strong church. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t make for much of anything. If God doesn’t hear or care, if God is not in fact an intelligent entity of some kind, if God is only an ideal, then church is an irrelevancy. Ideals are cheap. They also don’t give you anything. Some of these guys bragged that atheists could embrace their conception of God. Well, that should have told you something! How ecumenical can you get?”

I believe he is correct and would like to provide my perspective in the context of my being a former pagan/atheist. Some years ago I was like a number of people in what is called “post-Christian America.”  If you haven’t heard the term “post-Christian America” before, don’t worry. What the term is supposed to signify is that the denizens of the USA are, for the most part, not Christian in their thinking, but something other. Or, as the two gentlemen I cited above would perhaps say, Christianity is no longer the dominant religion in America. Years ago I would have perfectly fit in such a demographic. I was an atheist who held to an Oprah-esque view of spirituality. Perhaps you have heard it before? Even though I didn’t believe in God, I was “spiritual.” Not “Christian spiritual,” but “spiritual” in the sense that everyone was entitled to their religious beliefs and whatever “faith communities” they wanted to construct. I certainly agreed with the motto found on many car bumpers today, “Co-exist.”

I won’t deny that it is possible Christianity is not the dominate religion in America today and I can see why that would be the case, given the pervasiveness of theological liberalism in the mainstream. Isn’t theological liberalism just a form of unbelief? While an atheist with a “spiritual” twist,  I simply loved to talk with theological liberals, since they had no real “religious conviction.” In fact, the more I talked with theological liberals, the more I learned that we were just two peas in the same pod. They had their therapy and I had mine. In fact, some of my dialogues with theological liberals, when I was an atheist, were fascinating to me, since there was nothing to “deconvert” the theological liberal from. For example, my conversation with a theological liberal might have gone something like the following:

Atheist Jim (Me:) “You don’t believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus, or any resurrection form the dead?”
Theological Liberal (TL): “That’s right.”
Me: “So, Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead, and you and I won’t be resurrected from the dead?”
TL: “Correct.”
Me: “You reject that the Christian Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible word?”
TL: “The Bible is a collection of human inspired documents which point to good moral values and a life philosophy worth living.”
Me: “And sin? What is that?”
TL: “So-called ‘sin’ can be explained in psychological and sociological terms today, but in the ancient world humans needed the concept of a moral law giver who would punish them for breaking the rules in order to survive. We see this need for a moral law giver in every culture around the world. No, there is no such thing as objective morals, or ‘sin’ as some conservative Christians like to talk about.”
Me: “Does the deity as described in the Bible exist? That is, a supreme being who takes personal interest in his creation and will reward those who do ‘good’ and punish those who do ‘evil’?”
TL: “I can’t say if such a being really exists. There might be a ‘god’ like that, but it is doubtful. The ancient mind needed such a deity, but today we can manage with a ‘god’ who is more like a mathematical constant, or even like a theorem in arithmetic. Today’s deity is meant to help us feel good about ourselves; especially during difficult times, but there is no personal divine being in the universe.”
Me: “So, ‘god’, if one should exists, would be an abstract entity like a prime number?”
TL: “Exactly!”
Me: “To sum up, you don’t believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus, there will be no general resurrection of the dead, there are no objective morals, people will not be punished for ‘sin’ or rewarded for ‘good’, the Bible is a collection of man-made stories, and ‘god’ is nothing more than some abstract entity such as a prime number. Would you agree?”
TL: “Yes, that about sums it up.”
Me: “You’re not a Christian. Oh, you might call yourself a ‘Christian’, but as an atheist I would have little to no problem adopting many of your beliefs and still remain an atheist.”
TL: *shrugs shoulders* “You’re entitled to your opinion.”

Why would anyone who doesn’t believe in Christ want to adopt the theological liberal’s way of thinking? The citations at the top of this article drive this point home and express what is surely the reason why mainstream churches are shrinking. No amount of circus church growth gimmicks can replace sound theological teaching. Churches becoming permeable to the culture around them and then finally surrendering to said culture are not inviting to those who already see themselves as “spiritual.” For example, when God gave me  faith so that I might repent of my sins and receive the forgiveness of sins through His life giving Word and Sacraments, the last thing I wanted to do was attend a “church” dominated by liberal theology. Why would I want to climb into a “Christian train wreck” after being pulled out of a horrible “atheistic train wreck?”

The decline and/or death of mainstream Christianity surely has much to do with what others have called a “famine of the Word.” In a post-modern world, living in a post-Christian era, we certainly are facing a crisis where some church denominations do not think their members are really interested in studying doctrine and hearing solid law and gospel preached across the pulpit. Indeed, too many Lutheran congregations have bought into this myth and focus on offering praise bands, coffee shops, and seminars on how to be a “better you” all in the name of being “missional” or growing the Church. Worse yet are those synods which have capitulated to theological liberalism and are now the bastions of so-called “progressive theology” which abandoned the Gospel for a social justice “gospel.”  These churches are following the “growth plan” of anything but solid  teaching and sound doctrine. And, just like the mainstream, they might just find their program of giving the “spiritual customer” what he wants not only doesn’t work, but drives away those freshly brought to the faith as I once was some time ago.

There’s nothing like having the “Real McCoy.” Why would anyone want a fake?



Steadfast in the Pew — Has Liberal “Christianity” Died? — 19 Comments

  1. This situation is exactly what St. Paul is talking about in 1 Cor 2 (see esp. verse 14): But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

    Only the truth of God’s Word can save us from such “Christianity.” That’s why the devil encourages the famine of the Word in “liberal Christian churches.”

    If you look at the history of American Christianity, you see that the Unitarian/Universalists are the root of today’s “liberal Christianity.” Their “fellowship” has always seemed to me to be bereft of anything that is truly “spiritual” (as in the world of the Holy Spirit). Without that, they are nothing more than a social group and they have nothing to offer as a “church.”

  2. Liberal “Christianity” may be dead, but it always seems to rear its ugly head in another form later on like all other heresies.

  3. Great post Jim. I imagine liberal “Christianity” will die in this country as the Church is more broadly and openly persecuted here. Liberal “Christianity” just keeps reinventing itself as one meaningless club after another where people try to comfort and reaffirm each other in their self made belief system. Adding the title “Christian” to man made religions gives a certain historic stature and credibility for those who are willingly or unwittingly deceived by them. This will not be the case as it becomes more and more acceptable to persecute the Christian Church in this country. Liberal “Christianity” will have to rebrand itself as Orthodox Christianity becomes more and more hated. Non-Christian spiritualists will no longer want to be associated with Christianity if they have to suffer for it and it becomes obvious that the Christian Church on earth is a body of believers under the cross instead of an institution of glory.

  4. “And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the women who had given birth to the male child.”
    -Revelation 12:15

    Unfortunately Satan will never stop pursuing the Church. Once liberal “Christianity” has died Satan will continue to attack and infiltrate those who are faithful. Faithful, confessional churches will themselves be wracked with liberal teachers, leaders, and false doctrine. (or maybe this is already happening!) Yet God will preserve His people and has secured for them, through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, victory over sin, death, and the power of this devil.

  5. I will not be all surprised to see in the next, perhaps even ten years, an organic merger among the liberal mainline, whom are all in full communion fellowship now anyway:

    United Church of Christ
    United Methodist Church
    Presbyterian Church-USA
    Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
    Reformed Church in America

    I think it will become what exists now in Canada, a generic sort of liberal Christian national church body, that has ties to various historic expressions of Protestantism, but are united by their commitment to liberal theology.

  6. Some of the comments from readers on this article were thought-provoking too. And so very sad.

    Ben Kotowski, Chagrin Falls, OH

    My family came from a long line of liberal Christians, Mr. Douthat. My great-grandparents were Catholics who became Congregationalists, my grandparents were Congregationalists who became Unitarian Universalists, my father was a Unitarian Universalist who became an atheist, my mother a Christian who became an agnostic, my sister and I are atheists who’ve adopted moral utilitarianism as the framework of our morality.

    Since all of us were all raised in liberal households that encouraged open and individual thought, we came up with our own ideas, and now our younger members have come to the honest conclusion that God does not exist. We don’t believe you need religion to be a good person. You don”t need someone to tell you to a moral obligation to other people.

    That’s why liberal Christianity will die- liberals don’t need it. It’s problem is simple: no matter how accepting you are of homosexuals or women or other faiths, you won’t win over the growing number of people who don’t believe in a higher power. Conservatives, people who indoctrinate their children from a young age, will pass Christianity on to their children. That’s the great divide, between the religious and the non-religious.

  7. @Jan Payne #6
    It appears that Ben Kotowski’s parents successfully passed the beliefs and values they cherished most on to him, and Ben Kotowski did the same with his children. Perhaps the difference is more the beliefs and values the religious and the non-religious cherish most, rather than whether they do or do not ‘indoctrinate their children.”
    -Matt Mills

  8. The crux of Mr. Stark’s observations is that theological liberalism is slowly killing, or has killed, mainline denominations in America.

    Are the words “killing” or “killed” metaphors for a loss of members? If so, what is killing the LCMS? I mean we’re losing members too. Also, where are these mainline liberal lost sheep going? To conservative churches like ours?
    And where do our lost sheep go? To liberal churches or to non-Lutheran conservative churches?

    I think we all agree that all churches have experienced a persistent loss of membership for the past 30 years. But as for the question of where these former saints are heading?~I fear that our friend Ben Kotowski could be right; they’re simply quitting the religion all together.

  9. @#4 Kitty #8


    You have some good questions over where these people are going. I don’t have an answer to them. I think you may be right with your fear that Mr. Kotowski is correct. If they aren’t “quitting the religion all together,” they are falling into the generic religion sometimes referred to as “therapeutic deism.” Which, of course, is “quitting the religion.”

    As for my use of the words “killed” and “killing” you are right, they are metaphors for “a loss of members.”

  10. The wagons are circled. You have have irrefutably defined the problem. What are the answers? The LCMS just pulled out of the Seminex “problem” but at what loss? The “rotting corners” of the LCMS; AKA Rev. Becker, ULC, alley, worship wars. That post about 98% are OK was correctly challenged. Well The Author has made the case! ANSWERS?


  11. Ahhhh, so liberal theologians and Buddhists have a lot in common.

    Compare the contrast the conversation in this Steadfast article by Jim Pierce with the concepts of The God Idea:

    Contemplative Prayer defined:

    Contemplative Prayer and Rick Warren (Willow Creek Lutherans take note!):

  12. @#4 Kitty #8

    Problem: A declining birthrate is hurting all mainline churches – including all Lutheran churches.

    Solution: Blame the liturgy and imitate the Evangelicals, because research by “church consultants” has shown that young people dislike the liturgy, hymnals, and Luther’s Small Catechism. Close traditional campus ministries and reopen them as non-denominational coffee houses.

    Unintended consequence: Imitating the Evangelicals is killing the LCMS.

    Both churches use the same worship and study materials recommended by Saddleback and Willow Creek. Therefore, why remain Lutheran if the praise band and coffee are far superior at the non-denominational church down the street?

    Does anyone know what happens to disaffected members of non-denominational churches? Would most prefer to quit church altogether instead of move towards a traditional church such as the LCMS?

  13. @Lumpenkönig #12

    Problem: A declining birthrate is hurting all mainline churches – including all Lutheran churches.

    I agree that this is one of half of our “perfect storm”. The other half can be understood by a recent Pew survey which is reported
    here in this weeks USA Today. In brief, it reports that People who check “None” for their religious affiliation are now nearly one in five Americans (19%). Apparently, this is the highest ever documented.

  14. There will always be a “liberal” Christianity. It won’t be Christianity as we know it, but it will always be around. In my experience, liberal Christianity always seems to devolve into nothing more than good works–social Gospel stuff. Many of the pastors who studied at the CSL during the 50’s and 60’s preach a sterile version, of sanctification that is devoid of Gospel, except as information.

    As a result the church becomes just another social service agency, an ecclesiastical version of United Way. What is worse is that these churches adopt the agenda of the culture, and become spokesmen not for Christ, but for the culture. Having rejected the doctrines and the message that bring salvation, they are impotent, nothing more than eunuchs in the harem of apostasy.

    I highly recommend Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion: How We Have Become a Nation of Heretics.” Although his writing is clear and his prose elegant, it is a disquieting read– but well worth the effort.

  15. “Liberal Christianity” may be in bad shape if you limit it to just those dusty old denominations that defined liberal theology 100 years ago.

    If “liberal Christianity” is defined by those who hold a liberal theology, then “liberal Christianity” is doing just fine with or without the old denominations. If the figure includes anyone who believes that true theology is based on the regenerated subject or the theologizing individual instead of the Word, then many modern evangelicals are included also.

  16. #4 Kitty :
    @Lumpenkönig #12

    Problem: A declining birthrate is hurting all mainline churches – including all Lutheran churches.

    I agree that this is one of half of our “perfect storm”. The other half can be understood by a recent Pew survey which is reported
    here in this weeks USA Today. In brief, it reports that People who check “None” for their religious affiliation are now nearly one in five Americans (19%). Apparently, this is the highest ever documented.

    In Nothing We Trust

    From the article: “Stodgy mainline churches are losing worshipers in droves.”

    Why do increasing numbers of people distrust religion?

  17. Current theological liberals are not even interesting anymore. There was a time when theological topics would be hotly debated and analyzed. Now its all social stuff. boring

  18. Mr. Pierce, your dialogue between yourself and a Theological Liberal reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and in particular chapter 5: the conversation between Dick and “…the Episcopal Ghost”:
    I disagree with some of Lewis’ theological assertions but as usual and for the most part he is right on target. The copyright date for The Great Divorce is 1946: sadly, the Episcopalians, (with other denominations catching up to their decline) have been dying this slow death for sometime now. I find it more than curious that the culture, esp. in movies and TV, has had a recent fascination with zombies because that is what the liberal prot denoms are like. You just can’t trust a zombie. Yet, the hope is still in the fact that in many of these liberal denominations the liturgy is important and so the chance that the person in the pew will still hear that Christ died and rose for us all.

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