While on vacation I posted on Facebook a superb article by Ross Douthat of the NYT asking the question, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” It generated quit a bit of discussion on my FB page. It generated quite a bit of discussion across the country as well. And, as you might expect, a number of liberal/revisionist/progressive writers offered rejoinders.
In this follow-up, Douthat takes on one of the more well written rejoinders authored by Diana Butler Bass. Here’s a snip from Douthat:
But with all of that said, the distinctiveness of the liberal churches’s decline —its depth, duration and seeming irreversibility — remains an incontrovertible fact. Yes, two generations after the Episcopalians and United Methodists and other bodies like them entered a long swoon, denominations like the Southern Baptists are experiencing some reversals, and the post-1970s evangelical revival seems to have hit a kind of demographic ceiling. But it would take literally decades of decline for conservative churches to come close to sharing liberal Protestantism’s current sickness-unto-death. Consider the following statistics (taken from Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America”): In 1940, for every 1,000 churchgoers in the United States, 224 belonged to one of four major Mainline bodies (United Methodists, PCUSA Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists), while 77 were Southern Baptists. By 2000, the Southern Baptist share of the churchgoing population equalled the share of those four more liberal churches combined — not because SBC growth was extraordinary (though it was significant), but because the liberal churches’ decline was so astonishingly steep. The fact that the SBC has struggled in the period since those numbers were published tells us something important about the challenges facing even conservative churches. But five years of declining membership is simply not the same thing as a multigenerational (and perhaps accelerating) collapse.