1Mon, Jul. 23, 2012 Posted: 09:14 AM EDT
In 2006, the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori,
told the New York Times that Episcopalians were not interested in "
replenishing their ranks by having children." Instead, the church "[
encouraged] people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not
use more than their portion."
"Stewardship of the earth" and having children are not incompatible, but if
Schori's goal was a principled extinction, she's about to succeed. The
Episcopal Church, you see, is in a statistical free-fall.
Since 2000, the Episcopal Church has lost 23 percent of its members. At this
rate, there will be no Episcopalians in 26 years.
My friend and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that the collapse
occurred at the same time that the church was transforming itself "into one
of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United
Ironically, this transformation was done to make the church "relevant and
vital." Instead, people stopped going because, as Douthat points out, there
was nothing these churches offered that they "[couldn't] already get from a
purely secular liberalism."
What's true of the Episcopal Church is also true, to a large extent, of much
of the Protestant mainline. As these churches have lurched leftward in the
name of "relevance" and "vitality," their numbers have plummeted.
This isn't new. Forty years ago, Dean Kelly's book "Why Conservative
Churches are Growing" told a similar story. Kelly noted that "the
conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making
strict demands on their members, have equaled or surpassed in growth the
early percentage increases of the nation's population."
What is new is that now some of these conservative churches are no longer
growing. For instance, total membership in the Southern Baptist Convention
has declined the past four years in a row. More ominously, the number of
people baptized has declined eight of the last ten years to its lowest level
since the 1950s.
That's not the only reason theologically-conservative Christians should
resist any temptation to gloat over the decline of the liberal mainline. As
Douthat writes, "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."
Earlier generations of liberal Christianity, according to Gary Dorrien at
Union Theological Seminary, were led by men who had a "deep grounding in
Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship." Their calls for
reform were made in the context of a belief in "a personal transcendent God
. . . the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the
importance of Christian missions."
That's the liberal Christianity that helped produce the civil rights
movement, for example. We owe this tradition a debt.
So what are we - especially we evangelicals - to make of the decline of the
mainline churches? Dr. Timothy George, Chairman of the Board here at the
Colson Center and Dean at Beeson Divinity School, has written an excellent
article about this and we have it for you at BreakPoint.org. He issues a
powerful call to spiritual vitality, theological integrity, humilty, and
most of all, prayer.