The Southern Baptist Convention reports 16.2 million members. Again, it is difficult to report actual Baptist numbers due to all the unaffiliated and independent Baptists that dot the countryside – Alliance Baptists, American Baptists, Bible Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Continental Baptists, Evangelical Free Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Full Gospel Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, General Baptists, Indian Baptists, Landmark Baptists, Missionary Baptists, National Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Regular Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Six-Principle Baptists, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, United Baptists, Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and Unity Baptists.

An independent Baptist church

Given the rise in such non-mainline groups, will the old Protestant churches soon fade away? Their defenders roll their eyes in boredom at assertions that they are approaching irrelevancy. But, frankly, if somebody announced that all 150 of the Shakers left in the U.S. had voted against funding NASA, who would care?

Today’s old mainline Protestant churches have shrugged off such baggage as the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the divinity of Jesus. Their apologists sigh impatiently at any talk of sin or repentance or hell – making the casual observer wonder why they don’t remove the stained glass windows, too – which eventually are going to offend somebody.

Douthat suggests that the Episcopalians and Presbyterians “pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.”

The Episcopal Church’s NYC headquarters, now up for sale

While indignantly denying their impending demise, the Episcopalians quietly voted to sell their Manhattan headquarters because they can’t even pay for its upkeep. Yet, the big media headline was their approval of transgender clergy and homosexual marriage. At their own convention, the Presbyterians seemed headed in the same direction, then hesitated, falling short of the votes needed to embrace same-sex weddings and shunning anybody who does business with Israel.

“At its biannual conference,” reported the Huntington Post’s Robert P. Jones, “the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) debated for more than three hours before narrowly rejecting a bid to modify the definition of marriage in the church constitution as ‘a covenant between two people.’”

“Today the Episcopal Church,” mused Douthat, “is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, 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.” Members have responded by voting with their feet – demonstrating

that these are not the issues that draw them to church. Neither is “ecumenism” – trying to unite the old, shrinking Protestant churches.

An independent church

“During 1960s-era social transformations, conservative laity withdrew money and support from organized ecumenism,” notes Jill Gill on the Religion Dispatches website. “Meanwhile young liberal Christians often left it behind to do social justice work within a secular environment that offered quicker, bolder action. Others comprised a growing exodus of people embracing a post-Protestant ‘spiritual but not religious’ identity, while adults still within the fold bore fewer children than evangelicals. Many secular intellectuals pooh-poohed religion altogether, as the Democratic party excised religious values from its lingo.

“The result: greying mainline denominations struggling to pay bills while facing steady membership and funding declines. Its corollary: an ecumenical movement facing even steeper financial challenges, worsened by the recession. News of a resulting restructuring effort underway in the nation’s historic flagship ecumenical organization, the National Council of Churches, is occasionally met with the query: ‘You mean it’s not dead yet?’”

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