Despite doubters, mainline Protestant churches are poised for success

Conservative commentators like Rupert Murdoch’s stable and Ross Douthat of The New York Times are feasting on what they perceive … Continued

Conservative commentators like Rupert Murdoch’s stable and Ross Douthat of The New York Times are feasting on what they perceive as the “death” of “liberal Christianity.”

They add two and two and get eight. They see decisions they don’t like — such as the Episcopal Church’s recent endorsement of a rite for blessing same-sex unions. They see declines in church membership. They pounce.

Such “liberal” decisions are destroying the church, they say, and alienating young adults they must reach in order to survive.

Never mind that surveys of young adults in America show attitudes toward sexuality that are far more liberal than those of older generations. Never mind that conservative denominations are also in decline.

Never mind — the most inconvenient truth — that mainline denominations began to decline in 1965, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it.

Conservatives’ anti-change attitudes not only prevented necessary responses to a changing world, but their sky-is-falling venom fed a public perception of mainline churches as argumentative, judgmental, dull and old. It is that perception that young adults are shunning.

What changed in the 1960s? Everything. Urban neighborhoods lost population to white-flight suburbs. Children and parents lost interest in the old neighborhood church. Women entered the workforce en masse. Sunday became at-home family time.

Denominations were slow to establish suburban congregations. In a fundamental management failure led by the anti-change cadre, mainline churches tried to preserve a neighborhood ethos. When they did establish suburban churches, their efforts tended to be hesitant, under-funded, and focused on replicating old ways, rather than responding to realities of suburban living.

Even as women were entering other male bastions, conservatives resisted opening ordination to women. Even as new cultural languages and forms were emerging, conservatives fought any adaptation of mainline liturgies and hymnody. As people sought new expressions of faith in response to changing times, traditionalists mocked “renewal” as “happy-clappy.”

It was those fights that drove people away. It was also the looking-backward attitudes that prevented church leaders from responding to cultural shifts, many of them painful, such as decimation of the middle class, collapse of disposable income for all but the very wealthy, collapse of employment and safety nets, and eroding infrastructure such as public schools.

In time, many mainline Protestant churches became precious enclaves of old people doing old things. We were still arguing about paint colors when people needed us to help them find new purpose and confidence.

Neither do Douthat and Murdoch’s mouthpieces understand the present moment. Mainline Protestant church leaders are finally getting ready to do what they should have been doing for 50 years, namely, looking outside their walls at a deeply troubled world, resolving to turn their congregations toward being responsive and effective, and allowing young adults into leadership.

The Episcopal Church’s decision on same-sex blessings wasn’t a leap beyond; it was the last gasp of old ways of thinking, namely, that Sunday worship and in-house protocols are what matter.

Now leaders can look outward and onward. Conservatives will find themselves ignored, not because mainline traditions have lost their way, but because they are determined to find their way, and my-way-or-the-highway conservatives have cried wolf too often.

Their next round of emotional and financial blackmail won’t find much of an audience, except, of course, on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

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  • localhistory1

    A couple thoughts here.

    For a church consultant, I’m not sure that he has his facts right or that he has a good foundation for his assertions.

    He assumes that the church must change with the times. Nothing in Scripture (the Bible) tells the church to change with the times. Keeping up with the culture is not the church’s calling.

    Having said that, I think that, in fact, the church and churches have indeed changed with the times. Liberal theology is itself an accomodation to the intellectual challenges that came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This theology was known as modernism. When the intellectual climate changed again to what is known as postmodernism, the church by and large went with it. Belief was relativized. Truth became subjective. One result was the downgrading of the Bible or any confessional statement as a reference point for thinking and acting. As justice became more important in society at large, the church went along. Opening the church to GLBT community became a justice issue in favor of the outcasts of society even though their lifestyle is rejected by Scripture.

    Churches have accomodated themselves to culture in changing their worship to attract young people. Youth became the driving focus of the church.

    As for the lack of suburban churches, I grew up in a suburban church. In my suburban community there were three congregations within walking distance of my home.

    This writer misses the fact that the Episcopal Church and other mainline groups have lost congregations and members directly because the denomination in question has become open to homosexuality. Either he doesn’t believe that is the reason or he is in denial.

  • dennis7

    This article disappoints, not because the views are correct or incorrect, but once I finished reading I saw the author’s identification and realized that his views are probably no more objective than the views of those whom he names at the beginning. Furthermore, he makes several propositions without backing them up.

    As a mainline Protestant myself, I agree with some of what he says, but I don’t think he makes a solid case for his view of the future of mainline Protestantism.

  • massmom

    Here’s a comment I made about a related op-ed, which seems more appropriate in response to this piece:

    Actually, as I remember it, much of mainstream Protestantism was strikingly more liberal 50 years ago than it is today. I’m thinking of the involvement of clergy and congregants alike in the civil rights and anti-war movements, by the tens of thousands. Does anyone remember motive magazine, a super liberal Methodist youth magazine?

    I’m sure many factors played a hand in reducing the number of churchgoers in the US, and some had nothing to do with churches per se. It takes a stable community to support churches, and that stability was undermined by job loss, divorce, changing demographics, the impact of substance abuse on families, an explosion of interest in self-improvement and so many other factors that did not even exist in 1962. We don’t live in the same world as we did in 1962, so how can we expect one aspect of it to remain constant?

    If you figure in some of the things that people turn to today for spiritual guidance and renewal, you may come up with a very different picture.

    I think Douthat got it wrong, or just isn’t familiar with the recent history of Protestant denominations in this country.