“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

increasingly irrelevant to anybody but themselves?

Retired Bishop Spong

For one thing, Douthat had dared to cite yet once again John Shelby Spong’s 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “The reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark,” wrote the Times columnist, “was a uniquely radical figure – during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition – but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

“And in the process, they have provoked a historic schism” with entire dioceses going to court attempting to separate their churches from the denomination — and losing. At the convention, the hierarchy reported headquarters had spent $18 million suing its own congregations – forcing them in court to leave behind buildings they’ve built over the last 250 years with their own sacrifices, labor and love. At last count, nine bishops had decried the convention’s actions in a formal statement. Entire congregations have ceremoniously filed out of the buildings they lost in court and walked down the sidewalk to new facilities where they have started again, liberated from the dictates of a headquarters that had dramatically failed them — attempting to force failure and death on their congregations.

“The Episcopalians are hardly alone,” observes Joseph Bottum. “Many commentators, analyzing the decline of liberal denominations in recent decades, have pointed to the gains of conservative churches.” He, again, cites Kelley, who started the discussion of why people go to church. Is it to be told that sins listed in the Bible really aren’t wicked anymore? To hear that the the Bible is a compilation of Babylonian fairy tales? To listen to doubts over whether Jesus rose from the dead? To debate whether it’s OK to appoint as bishop a man married to another man?

No, reported Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald A. Luidens in their analysis, Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline.  “In our study,” they wrote, “the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief – orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.”

The Episcopalians aren’t the only old mainliners vanishing. Disappearing at a record rate are the Disciples of Christ – the liberal branch of the Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. That same movement spawned the arch-conservative and militantly locally autonomous Churches of Christ, which remain annoyed with the arch-liberal and shrinking Congregationalists who now call themselves the ”United Church of Christ.” The two groups could not be more disimilar. 

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus