At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorthy’s dog Toto pulls back a curtain to reveal that the great and powerful Oz isn’t quite so great and powerful.
After The New York Times article “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”, it made me wonder if the same thing is happening to so-called “liberal” or “progressive” Christianity.
(Hereafter, and though I hate labels, I will use the word “progressive” rather than “liberal” as I think it more acurractely describes the issue at hand, namely the trajectory of so-called “progressive” churches.)
We have been told for so long that the radical revolution we have witnessed in mainline denominations like the Episcopal and Presbyterian (USA) churches reflects the real heart or opinion of the people in the pews who are either too afraid, too young, or too lacking in ecclesial power to change the status quo.
One would expect, then, to see these churches, like the Wizard of Oz, to be growing in power and prestige as they acquiesce to the purported majority sentiments of the church. But as this article points out, that simply is not the case.
In fact, these churches aren’t just not growing, they’re dying off at a staggering rate.
Now, to be fair churches across the board are, generally speaking, either plateauing or losing member. It’s also important to note that mainline denominations do not encompass the totality of progressive Christianity. However, it is those denominations which have renarrated the faith the most who are experiencing the most precipitous fall in allegiance.
So why hasn’t this large scale effort to acquiesce to popular sentiment been successful?
Aside from the fact that I don’t think the popular sentiment of radical revolution extends as far into the church as these denominations believe it has, I believe the fundamental problem with progressive Christianity is that it fails to understand that Christianity isn’t progressive. Christianity doesn’t continue to exist because of it’s ability to change, but because of it’s resistance to change.
What has enabled Christianity to not only survive, but thrive for 2,000 years (despite constant reports of its immenent demise) is not that it has constantly adjusted to prevailing cultural norms in an effort to stay relevant, but that it steadfastly continues to proclaim the same message it has for 2,000 years.
Christianity has the audacity to claim that it needs no progression because the future has already been realized in Jesus. It is this stability in the midst of an ever changing world, a sense that answers to life’s questions have been found and truth has been revealed which attracts people to faith.
Progressiveness, however, implies a trajectory towards something; in this case towards a more “authentic” Christianity. In this sense, progressive Christianity is no different than “primitive” Christianity. Whereas primitive Christianity seeks to return to a mythical, primitive past, progressive Christianity looks to a mythical future where Christianity will be stripped of all its “superstitious” and “antiquated” distinctives, yet someone continue to be Christian. In both cases the goal is neither attainable nor desirable.
Certainly the Christian faith is moving forward as it moves towards the eschaton, but that movement does not require the fundamental and constant changes called for in progressives Christianity. While it may be en vouge to eschew the slippery slope, the truth is that our decisions do have consequences. They do lead us somewhere and in doing so they often open up unforeseen and unwanted problems. If that wasn’t true, then the myth of Pandora’s box would have died out thousands of year ago.
Yes, the church should respond to shifts in culture and new scientific discoveries. However, if these sorts of things are allowed to shape the faith, then the faith will eventually become so indistinguishable from the prevailing culture that it ceases to exist.
In the end, what I think this article demonstrates well is the fact that the progressive Christianity we are witnessing in mainline denominations is doomed to die mostly because it lacks the backbone to stand for anything. This is exemplified well in the proposal offered at the recent UMC convention to change to Book of Discipline to state that members of UMC “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality. Such weak theology appeals to no one because it inspires no one. It calls people to nothing and asks nothing in return. People want a cause to champion, something they can put their passion behind, invest their lives in, and support, even if only nominally. Consequently, when all a church is willing to offer if an indifferent and ambiguous universalism, it’s doomed to die.
While I often disagree with him, in this case I think Kevin DeYoung is spot on when he says
“So my plea is for these denominations to make a definitive stand. Make it right, left, or center, but make one and make it clearly. Insist that member churches and pastors hold to this position. And then graciously open a big door for any pastor or church who cannot live in this theological space to exit with their dignity, their time, and their property. Because sometimes the best way to preserve unity is to admit that we don’t have it.”
So is progressive Christianity done progressing? Almost. Progressive denominations still have a few more Christian doctrines to fully dismiss before they simply merge with the Unitarian Universalists.
I just wish they would go ahead, do it, and save everyone the trouble.
Grace and peace,