Liberal Churches and the Wider World
In this week’s Sunday Times an opinion piece was written analyzing the decline of the Episcopalian church. This article comes after the Episcopalians have within the past week decided to write special rites for gay weddings and ordain transgender clergymen. The presumption of the article is that if the church were to align itself more with the thoughts of the people, especially the younger ones, then the church is making an investment in the future of itself because it will attract younger people to fill it’s pews for years. Unfortunately, as the article points out, this idea has not worked out for the Episcopal church or most of the other mainline denominations. The problem with the set of presumptions is that it misunderstands the market, what people need from spirituality, and the authority of the church.
The churches competition, especially in liberal circles, does not come from other churches but rather from other organizations and groups that come from outside the church. If I open a McDonalds my competition is not just from other fast-food hamburger places, but all other eateries including grocery stores, because we all market the same thing: food. If church markets liberal theology chances are they are marketing along the lines of self-esteem, acceptance, and community. Such ideas don’t sell in traditional church markets but actually expand into the larger world. Clubs sell the same idea, so do bars, teams, television shows, and movies. Almost everything in America today is sold based on the idea that it creates community and makes you feel better about yourself.
This creates a problem for the church because, in all honesty, church is not as fun to the unbeliever as a club. I don’t think you will have trouble imagining why. Old buildings filled with old people would not attract young people no matter how liberal or progressive they are in their thinking because that market has already been filled in the minds of the young. Churches who appeal to the younger through liberal means need to realize that they are trying to fill a need that is already met. People my age don’t need a church to tell us how great we are, we are told that almost everywhere we go.
Another assumption that liberal theology uses is that the church should mirror the spirituality of those it is trying to reach. Therefore the church should be exactly, or near exactly, like the people around it. Paired with a belief in the goodness of men this ideology is deadly, because it leads to an environment of apathy in which dissent is seen as unneeded, discussion is unwarranted, and opposing views unwarranted. One can become as regimented in liberal ideologies as one can in conservative ones, contrary to popular belief. Baseless spirituality which says that men are good is the ultimate poison to both good theology and developing theology. Liberal theologians shake dissent either by dismissing a charge of bad theology or simply propping up dissent to another voice among voices. This creates a pretentious obstinate atmosphere where men are deceived through a thick layer of coyness and kindness.
The major reason why liberal Christianity doesn’t sell anymore is that it supposes the wrong reason the Christian church exists. The church is not primarily about the business of justifying unbiblical behavior, making unbelievers feel good, and accepting all sorts of new behavior. It is about the business of defending and contending for the gospel. The gospel preaches sin, grace for the sinner, conforming to Christ, and then embracing the truth of God in judgment. This makes Christianity unique in it’s message, both more loving and better serving than the modern mainline churches. Such is the grace of God to make the church.