Have Americans lost faith in the old "mainline" churches?

Millions are attending unaffiliated churches that lack liberal, irrelevant and even litigious national hierarchies. Will Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians gradually fade away?

BY: Rob Kerby, Senior Editor

 

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friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.’”

Religion writer Dianna Butler Bass

In the Huntington Post, religion writer Dianna Butler Bass scoffed at Douthat, noting, “In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. The reason? The church has just concluded its once every three-year national meeting, and in this gathering the denomination affirmed a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Conservatives assert that the Episcopal Church’s ever-increasing social and political progressivism has led to a precipitous membership decline and ruined the denomination.

“Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan,” wrote Bass, “continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church’s future. However, Douthat broadened the discussion.

“Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.

Two editions of Kelley’s study

“His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley. Drawing on Kelley’s argument, Douthat believes that in the 1960s liberal Christianity overly accommodated to the culture and loosened its ties to tradition.”

Indeed, “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley wrote, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

Kelley noted that it had been generally assumed that churches, “if they want to succeed, will be reasonable, rational, courteous, responsible, restrained, and receptive to outside criticism.” These churches would be highly concerned with preserving “a good image in the world” — and that meant especially within the world of the cultural elites. These churches, intending to grow, would be “democratic and gentle in their internal affairs” — as the larger world defines those qualities. These churches will intend to be cooperative with other religious groups in order to meet common goals, and thus “will not let dogmatism, judgmental moralism, or obsessions with cultic purity stand in the way of such cooperation and service.”

However, the opposite is true, wrote Kelley: ‘These expectations are a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise, and arise from a mistaken view of what success in religion is and how it should be fostered and measured.’”

“That was 1972,” downplayed Bass. ”Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same.”

That justification was repeated in the other attacks on Douthat — claims that now conservative churches are shrinking, too.

“Certainly attendance in the Episcopal church is decreasing, but, as many of the critics of Douthat’s piece have pointed out, church attendance is decreasing across the board,” proclaimed religion writer Jonathan D. Fitzgerald. 

The problem with that defense is that the decline at conservative churches is miniscule. Membership loss by the Southern Baptists this year, for example, was cause for concern at their annual convention — but amounted to less than 1 percent.

Why are the defenders of the shrinking Protestant mainline churches so annoyed with this entire discussion — or assertions that they are

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