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Measuring Liberal Christianity

There have been a number of posts around the web regarding the decline of liberal Christianity. It got started by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. There have been a number of good responses, including Rachel Held Evans (which connected best with me), Chaplain Mike, and Diana Butler Bass. All these responses are good.

There are so many factors in making a church a vibrant, successful operation that it’s easy to see how people can disagree so widely on what’s wrong and what ought to be done.

My first problem is with how we measure the success of a church. Most of us are quick to claim that numbers don’t matter when the our own numbers are in decline, yet we are quite ready to accept that the decline in someone else’s numbers is an indication that something is wrong with them. And there are good scriptural examples of both. Jesus began his ministry with crowds following him and ended it pretty much alone. The early church, on the other hand, experienced steady growth.

We can easily use “numbers don’t count” as an excuse for not doing our duty. At the same time, I don’t think that numbers really tell the story. When I look at a conference dashboard (a UMC thing!), the first thing I notice is the context-free use of statistics, with numbers not normed for church size nor adjusted for the demographics of the community in which a church is located. But more important, I think managing churches by the numbers is a sign of the very laziness of which some pastors are accused. It’s an excuse for bishops to fail to do their duty to use spiritual discernment in leading the church. I must confess that at first I was merely ambivalent about this approach. But the more I watch it, and the more I read about it, the more firmly opposed to it I become.

This doesn’t mean that declining numbers cannot indicate failure. It’s just that they are not the one and only indicator. Determining the difference requires spiritual discernment and a willingness to take responsibility for acting on that discernment. I think the church is badly in need of this sort of leadership.

But let me now turn my discernment to liberal Christianity, and take responsibility for my own views. I use the label “liberal charismatic” along with “passionate moderate” in the header to this blog. This doesn’t result from a rejection of labels, as one might take it from Brian McLaren, but rather a search for a set of labels that are applicable. I think I look at liberal Christianity with one foot in that camp.

From that perspective I see a great deal of life in liberal or progressive Christianity. Unfortunately, like conservative Christianity, there is often a great deal of difference between the pastors and leaders and the folks in the pews. There are also dead spots in both versions (and all those between). I think these dead spots result from the same thing.

Too many liberals in the pews are liberals not because they are liberal in theology but because they are not conservative. (I’m sure this applies to some pastors as well, but I don’t know many like that personally.) By this I mean that they really don’t have a theology of scripture. They reject the conservative doctrine and then just go along “not taking it as literally” as conservatives. They don’t have a liberal doctrine of the atonement; they just don’t accept the conservative view.

I think it’s quite possible that it’s as a result of this lack of interest in doctrinal positions that liberal pastors often don’t preach much about doctrine. But there are liberal interpretations of all these things, and quite robust ones. I know liberal preachers who do preach about them, and in general their congregations are doing well. (Note that all such comments are from personal experience, not any sort of survey.)

I have the privilege of publishing some authors who would identify themselves as progressive. Bruce Epperly, Bob Cornwall, and Bob LaRochelle come to mind immediately. I hope they won’t mind my taking their names in vain here, but they are all serious about their theology and active in discipleship and mission. They are deeply interested in Bible study. Indeed two of them have written Bible study guides that I publish. I list these three because of personal knowledge, but I would add that when I recently attended the Academy of Parish Clergy conference, I heard a number of presentations from people who are serious about both theology and mission. (Some of these folks should probably be categorized as moderate as well, but they were generally mainline.)

While there are certainly churches in decline, what I question is the potential of the organizations for success. It is not that there is no life at the local level. It is rather that organizations are not tending to respond to the realities of ministry today. In the United Methodist Church, I think there is a substantial number of both clergy and laity whose main occupation is keeping things as they are. It is these people who are bringing death to the church, not the active liberal pastors and thinkers.

I believe there is life in liberal Christianity, and in conservative Christianity as well. There is no life in the way we’re trying to determine success.

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