Can Christianity be revived?

Bill O’Leary WASHINGTON POST The Bishops’ Garden on the National Cathedral grounds as seen on July, 18, 2010 in Washington, … Continued

Bill O’Leary


The Bishops’ Garden on the National Cathedral grounds as seen on July, 18, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

In the wake of the Episcopal Church’s recent convention, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has leveled a broadside at the venerable but now struggling denomination. “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” he asks. He identifies two trends that seem to be sealing the once proud church’s fate. The Episcopal Church has been moving steadily in a “liberal” or “progressive” direction both theologically and politically, he declares, and t over this same period Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants have been steadily shedding members. On the face of it both points are incontrovertible. The last fifty years have been a time of social, cultural, and theological ferment as American society has moved from the post-World War II culture to the post-modern 21st century Information Age. Little surprise then that the ways we believe and practice our faith would change. And little surprise that a fast-moving, consumer-oriented, individualistic society would find the older traditions less compelling.

The flaw in Douthat’s argument, though, is the causal link he creates. The Episcopal Church’s liberalism– the changes in worship, reinterpreted beliefs, interfaith openness, and social and political involvement– have caused the numerical decline, he declares. But if Douthat is looking for a comprehensive explanation, he won’t find it there. In fact, the conservative churches are experiencing major decline now as well. And as Diana Butler Bass has pointed out, Douthat’s own Roman Catholic Church, with its firmly disciplined and dogmatic approach to belief and practice, is shrinking as rapidly as mainline churches when the numbers are adjusted for the impact of immigration on their pews.

What Douthat sees as a rising tide of liberalism increasingly weakening the mainline churches is in fact a tidal wave of social change washing over the face of Christianity in North America. To put it simply, Americans are in many cases finding in their churches little of the spiritual sustenance they once did. Many have lost confidence in the institution itself, and are too often finding little in church services to win them away from Sunday morning jogging, gardening, and soccer leagues.

A nation that once went to church on Sunday turns up far less. A culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment, consumer savvy, high entertainment expectations, and impatience with the demands of organizations, does little to encourage the patience required for life in local congregations. And, crucially, many churches have become so at ease in the American establishment that they have lost their sense of urgency for nurturing strong personal faith in their members. The churches have much to learn in this time of transition, and the good news is that the learning curve is now sharp and many are in the game.

The fact is, though, that there are plenty of signs of vitality scattered across the country in individual congregations as Christianity moves through a time of revision and renewal. Churches are reinventing themselves to engage a 21st century culture. Some speak of a neo-liberal Christianity, conservative in its core convictions and progressive in the patterns of worshiping and engaging the culture. It might be called generous-spirited Christianity, rooted in a biblical faith interpreted through contemporary eyes, ready to engage other faiths and traditions, determined to form followers in an ethos that reflects Christianity’s deepest convictions about service to the poor, honoring the earth, and working for a just and equitable world.

Douthat rightly acknowledges the social contributions that liberal Christianity has made in the 20th century, from women’s suffrage, to fair labor laws, to civil rights. It has been doing the same for the rights of gays and lesbians. And he cites historian Gary Dorrien in reminding us that leaders of those earlier social movements had “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” The Christianity that is emerging from this time of transition promises to embrace just this holy union—of love of God and service to humanity and the world.

Controversies over social issues and theological conviction will persist. But the hunger is real for a way of being Christian that recognizes that understandings of scripture and church teaching must evolve over time, and that to be a Christian is to have an inquiring mind and a discerning heart.

Faith is not disappearing in this country. Recent polls report that more than 90 percent of Americans continue to believe in God. This time of flux and transition actually poses a significant opportunity for all the churches. My guess is that regardless of denomination, those congregations that will thrive will embody a generous-spirited, intellectually alive, socially engaged Christian faith. We are seeing in our churches not only the recovery of the experience of God and the centrality of life community, but also the call to live the faith amid the ambiguities of a diverse culture. The real issue will not be which churches are conservative and which are liberal, but which are spiritually alive and which are not.

The Right Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III is the former dean of National Cathedral.

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  • CitizenWhy

    90% in the USA believe in God. But what God? The God tghat demands blind obedience, as Douthat’s church likes to teach? The God that runs the entire show, even being the cause of evils? The nanny God who will do everything we want, protect us from evil, think for us. Clearly the nanny God of Eden is NOT to be obeyed since the Adam and Eve story presents a false idea of God, a God who keeps us from acquiring knowledge of good and eveil, that is, a god who takes away outr responsibility to make moral judhments and govern this world in a just way. Douthat’s church teaches obedience to this God, but the Bible story shows that this notion of God is to be disobyed. The same with the story of Abraham. Clearly this is a story about the obigation to disobey any notion of God that demands human sacrifice and, by extension, any cruelty to other human beings. Instead Doutha’s church teaches that this is a story of obedience, of the obligation of willingness to obey this cruel notion of god. These false notions of God are idolatrous, yet Douthat’s church teaches us to obey them.

  • intrepid1776

    Church attendance in the US may be declining, but God is still with us. Christ’s message and invitation to all is still offered as our chance to be reconciled with him. As he says, ““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

  • kycol2

    Christ was not the last name of Jesus of Nazareth. That avatar was added many years after his death along with the tons of mythical and pagan baggage placed on his shoulders. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth would have a far better chance of fulfillment if the entire Christian Establishment were totally dismantled.

  • paultaylor1

    America’s Christian faith hasn’t kept relevancy with modern life. “Community,” in today’s parlance, may be more about social electronics, where we seek out, and find, a customized community, which can be relevant to us, personally, and as autonomous as we’d like to make it.

    And, though modern life has also created a backlash that’s sent some Christians into a time warped, culture-protective bubble, it has not marginalized people’s need for spiritualism. I believe many people have given up institutional religion as having little relevance to their lives. They’ve gotten deeper into a more spiritual, sensual, but secular, awareness of themselves in relation to a perceived universality. Yoga, and the Japanese and Chinese arts and martial arts, have been driving elements of this. Not to mention Hindu spiritualism that was pioneered by the Beatles, in popular media. That seems to have given way to the philosophy of Buddhism, not always organized in its potential coherence, but which can provide a flexible kind of spiritualism, both personal and universal in expression.

    I don’t think we should lament the loss of institutional religion. The new awareness is more flexible to our personal needs. We can customize our spiritual awareness to where it breathes with us, and not down our backs.

  • massmom

    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.

  • msw13

    The bible has an awful lot more to say than that. You have to ignore an awful lot to come to the conclusion that Christianity isn’t focused on fear and snake oil.

  • brianwaldsmith

    Christianity will never be ‘revived’ because its most visible and loud adherents have co-opted the power of spirituality to pursue their own hateful political views.
    It’s not possible to reconcile the corruption. I don’t trust self-professed Christians. Not in this day and age. Not in America. It’s too hypocritical. They treat Jesus like a bank. A moral credit system. They can’t differentiate between the Soul and the Self.
    I could go on and on. And when the next Jesus-peddler comes knocking, I’ll be nice and listen a bit, but I’m not buying their tainted product.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    We would study him alongside Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, etc. right where he belongs.

  • Henry

    Thank you for your well thought out peace, reverend. I have a few comments that I would like to add. I believe that the main challenge faced by Christianity in the U.S. is the direction that education has taken in this country and the way that main stream as well as newer denominations deal with¿h these challenges. On the one hand the more educated segment of Americans, while still believing in God and in the basic teachings of the church (help the poor, 10 commandments, etc), they are becoming more alienated by the more ancient tenets, such as Whether Jesus was God or only his son, and whether the virgin was really a virgin, and whether the King of England should be the leader of the Church, and many other theological details that don really resonate among the educated public anymore.
    On the other hand, the less educated segment of our society, is deeply attracted by the attention given those ancients tenets. Leviticus, an eye for an eye, God must be feared, Joseph Smith discovered that the Israelites were indigenous to America, etc, etc As the country’s young become better educated, they are moving away from these kinds of teachings and looking for spiritual and moral guidance that helps them keep life in perspective, in a way that supports the basic goals of society: peace among men (and women). Whoever fills that void, will gain the following of the people.

  • kycol2

    TTS: Nothing tyou have said is fact. It is what you believe and I can refute everything you have said simply by saying, “I do not believe.”
    HVII above puts things into perspective. Jesuse of Nazareh was one of very few people in history who understood, accpeting the writings in the New Testament which are suspect, how a viable world could be administered.

  • kycol2

    TTW: Nothing you have said is a matter of fact. It is only your belief. I can refute everything you have said merely by saying, “ I do not believe,” and you cannot prove otherwise. Jesus of Nazareth should be honored as one of very few people in history who attempted to provide, or spread from other sources, a viable philosophy for administering a world. Unfortunately, his simple precepts were obfuscated by mysticism. mythology, pagan belief, which rendered them useless for those who profess to believe in them.

  • Dawn Martin

    I tell you with the love of Christ that this Nation will be judged soon. She has become a cage for every dirty bird. A sword IS upon her treasury, and the axe is at the root. God will NOT tolerate disobedience. Those that follow His commandments and have the tesitmony of Jesus Christ ARE the only ones who do His will. Every knee shall bow and every toungue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. America is now trying to tell God what marriage is like the old Babylon tried to tell God that man didn’t want to or need to spread out and fill the whole earth like he commanded after the flood. To those that care about what they will do after the last breath, come out of this wicked people. You have been warned. Glory, Honor, and Praise always to our Lord and Savior.

  • Rongoklunk

    Reading in a British newspaper yesterday a piece by a English educator writing that indoctrinating children to believe myths is child abuse. She says that denying evolution and teaching children goddidit is anti-education. This says clearly that the trend is away from superstition and towards science and commonsense. And that’s religions’ big problem. We are being educated beyond such fantasy. We know there are no gods. You might say we’ve outgrown it. intellectually. Each year there are more and more atheists. Each year churches get fewer and fewer worshipers. But there’s still time for some religious maniac somewhere to blow us all to kingdom come.

  • Rongoklunk

    “Anyone who tells children that God – literally – created the world in seven days 6000 years ago is guilty of perverting education. The truth – and education should be above all else a search for truth – is that the world and the flora and fauna in it, including homo sapiens, evolved over millions of years. But of course, whatever the founders of the Exemplar Academy in Newark soon to open as a state authorized school might think, the divisions between the two points of view are not quits as cut and dried as that.

    There is for example, more than one sort of truth. There is factual, scientific truth and there are deeper metaphysical truths. For example, I don’t for a moment believe that Adam and Eve were ever physically living people and neither, for the record, do any of the committed Christians I know. But there is a great deal of truth in their fallibility and curiosity. In a sense the Adam and Eve story is a novel, and like all the best novels it is full of insights and truths.
    Intelligent, responsible adults working with children teach them the science and then,if they wish, explain that the creation stories – and every religion has one – originated as man’s way of explaining truths he didn’t understand. It actually makes quite an interesting education project to explore and compare those stories and see what a lot they have in common.
    And as for God. Well, he was man’s name for the almost unimaginable force which drove (drives) the process of evolution and change – a personification. So, if you want a religious approach, the science and the creation myth compliment each other. You don’t have to argue the literal and absurd case of an old man in the sky striding about making decisions for and about human beings. Good educators – parents, teachers, and others, ensure that children learn to think and reason for themselves. They don’t thrust propaganda and bigotry at them or withhold facts and information.
    A friend of mine taught for a while in a tiny school run

  • Rongoklunk

    part 2.
    from yesterday’s Independent.UK.

    “I am not a religious believer or church goer. But I am a great admirer of much that is in the Bible and in other religious texts. They contain fine poetry a great deal of human truth in many of the stories , and an encapsulation of the cultures that they sprang from and influenced, all of which I want children and young people to be led to think about. We can all learn from them.
    But we must never indoctrinate or permit our institutions to use indoctrination techniques. The Department of Education is trying to make a slippery and unconvincing distinction between a school which has a ‘faith ethos’ and a ‘faith school’. Call it what you like but the school in question is founded by blinkered creationists who don’t see education as a free unending journey. Does anyone really believe it will restrict itself to pedalling its distorted truths (lies) in RE lessons?
    Real education is about open-ended questioning and challenging the mind. It also involves encouraging the learners eventually to move way beyond their teachers so that each generation explores new ground. Blinkered, limited, propagandist, religious thinking attempts to hold back or stop that process.
    Brainwashing is a form of child abuse. It should have no place in any place of learning.”

    from “The Independent UK” yesterday. But somehow I;ve lost the name of the brilliant lady who wrote this. Apologies.

  • Rongoklunk

    The name of the lady who wrote the essay below is SUSAN ELKIN.
    A writer on education for The Independent, in the UK.

  • Rongoklunk

    Get help.

  • ThomasBaum

    The question: “Can Christianity be revived?”

    Don’t need to be, Christianity is an instrument of God and it has a mission and this mission will be fulfilled.

    Judaism is a covenantal relationship between God and a people.

    Christianity is a covenantal relationship between God and a person.

  • Rongoklunk

    The most devoutly religious act I ever witnessed was on 9’11 when nineteen holy martyrs sacrificed their very lives to be with Allah up there in Heaven. Who amongst us can claim such devotion and love for our creator? Who amongst us can boast of such depth and honesty of faith. There was no doubt at all in the minds of these brave Muslim lads, that God was waiting for them, and wanted them to bring down the twin towers – and remove 3000 heretics from the face of the earth. They didn’t ‘believe’ there was a God up there. They KNEW there was a God up there! THEY KNEW!!! They also KNEW there would be a special bonus of 72 virgins a piece. They knew. That’s how religious they were.
    They weren’t crazy at all. Just religious! Like TBaum and the Alphabet man.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Who on earth told you this country’s young people were becoming better educated?