I hate it when the wrecking ball arrives just as I’m settling into a new home.
A little over a year ago, my wife and I joined the Episcopal Church. We were confirmed on a Saturday. Our daughter was baptized the following day, Pentecost Sunday.
Last week, Episcopalians wrapped up their triennial convention, and the big story was our denomination’s impending demise.
Over the last three years, nearly 200,000 people have fled the Episcopal Church. The long-term picture is even more depressing. One in four regular worshippers have disappeared from our pews during the past decade.
You can feel it in our more-than-half-empty churches. If this pace continues (and it probably will), in 20 years the Episcopal Church will be half its already-diminished size.
Episcopalianism has been a part of this country for over 400 years. At this rate, we won’t make it another 400. We won’t even come close.
Enter conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who blames the decline on the extreme liberalism he sees in mainline denominations like mine. In a recent New York Times editorial, he asked whether “liberal Christianity can be saved.”
Despite some of the reaction to his piece, I think Douthat asks some important questions. His article was thought-provoking and nuanced. We should listen, for example, when he urges liberal Christians to come out of their denial:
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.
Yet Douthat sees no cause for celebration in the demise of liberal Christianity. He warns conservatives — many of whom left denominations like mine years ago — against triumphalism:
The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
Douthat encourages liberal Christians to remember why they exist in the first place — and what sets them apart from their secular counterparts. He laments that most “leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”
There are days when I worry about that too. In my tradition, we’ve devoted plenty of time and energy to the ways in which Christianity needs to evolve. But at the end of the day, is there anything left of “historic Christianity” which, to quote Douthat again, we would “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”?
I think it’s a valid question.
I believe that historic, orthodox Christianity offers a compelling foundation for many of the “progressive” causes taken up by my denomination (and many other Christians as well). But is our engagement consciously rooted in the reality of the resurrected Christ and his kingdom? Would anyone even know if it was?
For example, are we advocating for the Millennium Development Goals (a subject on which our Presiding Bishop has spoken eloquently a number of times) simply because it’s the cause du jour of the industrialized world? Or is it because the resurrected Christ compels us to labor so that everyone can experience life “to the full” now and in the future?
Are we demanding diversity and equality outside the church only? Or do we also practice it in our churches, acting from the conviction that God is making a new, worldwide family — one where the old barriers are rendered meaningless?
Are we just welcoming gays and lesbians into our congregations, or are we also inviting them (and everyone else, for that matter) to make Christ the center of their lives?
These are questions we ought to be asking as we take stock of our diminishment. If what we have to offer the world is indistinguishable from secular liberalism — if it is not at its core a vibrant, Christ-centered faith that compels us to embrace causes like caring for the poor and the planet — then, well, who needs us?
Or as the apostle Paul put it once, if the tomb is not empty, then what’s the point?
That being said, I think there were a few other factors which Douthat didn’t address. (To be fair, Douthat only had about 800 words to work with). Here are some other lessons I think we should take from the Episcopal Church’s decline.
1. All Christians, liberal and conservative, are in the same boat.
Last week, Gallup revealed that public confidence in organized religion has reached an all-time low. Just 4 in 10 Americans have much faith in the church, down from 60 percent as recently as September 2001.
It’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. We may have been hit with it first, but now others are joining the party. The Southern Baptist Convention, a stalwart of evangelical conservatism, has been declining five years in a row. Their rate of decline increased more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2011. (In fairness, they still have a long way to go before they catch up to us.)
Pundits will offer competing theories to explain Christianity’s decline in the West. Whatever you make of it, though, it’s no longer confined to one ideological corner of the church.
2. You can’t have it both ways.
It’s fascinating to hear some Christians interpret the mainline church’s decline as proof of God’s disapproval. Mark Driscoll, for example, is fond of comparing the growth rate at his church with that of other groups with whom he disagrees.
There are, of course, a couple problems with this approach. First, if numbers are the clearest sign of God’s (dis)approval, then we should all drop what we’re doing and start imitating Joel Osteen. (Mark, you’re gonna need a new hairdo.)
Second, let’s be honest. Most of us only apply this logic when it works in our favor. How many Southern Baptists would countenance the notion that their decline is punishment for some doctrinal error or apostasy? When it’s some other group who’s hurting, we tend to assume it’s because they’ve lost their way. Yet when we’re the ones facing decline, either we go into denial (it’s just a fluke!) or we nurse a martyrdom complex (being right has a cost!), as Douthat rightly points out.
Speaking of martyrdom complexes…
3. Sometimes the right course is the unpopular one.
Within two years of ordaining its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church lost 115,000 members. No one questions why they left. And the debate over that decision is a long way from being resolved.
But when was the last time Episcopalians experienced a comparable exodus? 1967 to 1969.
During that two-year period, the church lost an almost identical number of people — in part because it started speaking out against racial discrimination.
Was the fallout from that decision a sign of God’s displeasure? Was the Episcopal Church capitulating to culture, or was it leading prophetically? (Bear in mind it would be another 25 years before Southern Baptists apologized for their support of slavery and segregation.)
Doing the right thing is no guarantee of success. Nor are skyrocketing numbers always proof you’re doing the right thing.
4. Maybe all our fighting is driving people away.
There’s no question many have left the Episcopal Church because of the national body’s more controversial decisions in recent years. Heck, we’ve lost entire dioceses. So in one sense, the commentators are right. This fight is costing us.
But that’s the point. What if it’s the fight (more than the underlying issues) that’s turning people away?
Most people who’ve left the Episcopal Church have done so because their conscience compels them — not because they’re hateful or mean-spiritied. But in the process, both sides have engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight — including, among other things, taking each other to court. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about that?) I haven’t followed every sordid detail, but it seems likely to me that both sides have escalated this fight in ways it didn’t need to be escalated.
So what if it’s not just the Episcopal Church (or the congregations who’ve left) that people are staying away from, but Christianity as a whole?
Today, most outsiders define the church according to its worst characteristics: anti-gay (91% say this), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and too political (75%). Meanwhile, most major denominations are experiencing (or are about to experience) some form of decline.
Is it possible these two facts are related?
Perhaps we should consider the possibility that how we — and I mean all of us, liberal and conservative — handle conflict is driving people away.