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One of the hot takes of the 21st century as it relates to Christianity has been this, “The Church is dying because it won’t conform to culture. We’re going to keep losing our young people if we don’t change some things here.”
Before we keep going, I need to define a term that will be used throughout: “Mainline Protestantism.” A lot of you reading the blog probably have no idea what Mainline Protestantism is. Just a couple of years ago, I thought Mainline meant “stereotypical conservative evangelical church.” Well it doesn’t. Here is a helpful definition of Mainline Protestantism from Theopedia:
Mainline churches is a term used to describe the main traditional Protestant denominations in the U.S. as differentiated from and on the theological left of evangelicalism. These denominations are viewed as having adopted more liberal theologies and open stances to new ideas and societal changes while maintaining traditional practices regarding their public gathering and church polity. They tend to be influenced by higher Biblical criticism, increasingly open to the ordination of women, and less dogmatic regarding issues such as homosexuality and abortion. In general, “Mainline churches” are less focused on doctrine. This, along with a lesser emphasis in soliciting new members, makes Mainline churches a diminishing percentage of overall Protestant adherents.
Some Mainline traditions you may have heard of include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and many more. Typically, these are churches with “old school” worship practices, but “new school” doctrine, accepting a variety of lifestyles/theologies that have been rejected throughout Church history.
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s keep going.
So my question for those evangelicals is this: Is it worth it?
Is a “victory” against gay marriage really worth leaving thousands of needy children without financial support?
Is a “victory” against gay marriage worth losing more young people to cynicism regarding the church?
Is a “victory” against gay marriage worth perpetuating the idea that evangelical Christians are at war with LGBT people?
And is a “victory” against gay marriage worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks, “what if we get this wrong?”
I, for one, am tired of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.
For a long time, it’s been the same song. If the evangelical Church does not come to terms with same-sex marriage, or other such issues, it’s going to die because young people are leaving it.
What’s the point of giving yourself to a God whose standards and Word you don’t even care about, really?
There’s only one problem with that: it’s not true. Check out this graph from the General Social Survey depicting the denominational affiliation of Millennials:
So why is this happening? A friend came across an article from 2013 by Connor Wood, a Patheos blogger who studies faith but does not appear to ascribe to a brand of Christianity himself.
I thought the article was fascinating. Below are a number of paragraphs from it:
Well, the first thing we have to realize is that conservative churches are almost always stricter than their liberal counterparts. They demand more investment, require their members to believe in more rigorous, exclusionary creeds, and don’t look kindly on skipping church four Sundays in a row to sleep in.
Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?
According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.
And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements. Members receive more valuable benefits, in the form of social support and community, than members of other communities, because the social fabric is composed of people who have demonstrated that they’re totally committed to being there. This muscular social fabric, in turn, attracts more members, who are drawn to the benefits of a strong community – leading to growth for groups with strict membership requirements.
But if your community doesn’t have any of these costly requirements, then you don’t feel that you have to be really committed in order to belong. The whole group ends up with a weakened, and less committed, membership. Liberal Protestant churches, which have famously lax requirements about praxis, belief, and personal investment, therefore often end up having a lot of half-committed believers in their pews. The parishioners sitting next to them can sense that the social fabric of their church isn’t particularly robust, which deters them from investing further in the collective. It’s a feedback loop. The whole community becomes weaker…and weaker…and weaker.
So what if liberal Protestants kept their open-minded, tolerant theology, but started being strict about it – kicking people out for not showing up, or for not volunteering enough? Liberals have historically been wary of authority and its abuses, and so are hesitant about being strict. But strictness matters, if for no other reason because conservatives are so good at it: most of the strict, costly requirements for belonging to Christian churches in American today have to do with believing theologies that contradict science, or see non-Christians as damned. What if liberal Protestantism flexed its muscle, stood up straight, and demanded its own standards of commitment – to service of God and other people, to the dignity of women, and to radical environmental protection? Parishioners would have to make real sacrifices in these areas, or they’d risk exclusion. They couldn’t just talk the talk. By being strict about the important things, could liberal Protestant churches make their followers walk the walk of their faith – and save their denominations in the process?
In short: what’s the point of giving yourself to a God whose standards and Word you don’t even care about, really?
The answer: there is no point. More and more Mainliners are realizing this, and they’re leaving the Church.
For many young people, they leave the evangelical churches in which they were raised because they don’t like the doctrine and moral standards they were called to, but they still like the idea of God. Then, they get to a Mainline church that has a doctrine as loose as theirs, and they realize there isn’t really much point, so they leave.
“Adapt or die,” they say.