Monday, 16 July 2012

Church growth and decline: a matter of perspective

Ross Douthat has written a fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times on the decline of the American Episcopal Church: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?  He notes, amongst other things, that:
[The American] Episcopal [= Anglican] Church ...has spent the last several decades changing ...into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States... In the last decade [2000-2010], average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase... Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance.  
But, lest conservative churches get a big head, he also notes: 
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message. 
Douthat makes a serious mistake that skews his whole article.  It comes to surface late in the piece: 
The defining idea of liberal Christianity [is] that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion.  
That is not theological liberalism. It may be political liberalism, but it is not theological liberalism. Theological liberalism is the idea that the value of "religion" (not just Christianity - any "religious faith") is to be evaluated from a human perspective - through universal human rationality (19th century liberalism), or by its visible, palpable, social benefits (early 20th century liberalism).  The health and wealth gospel is thus a grandchild of liberalism.  Liberalism's basic assumption is that God has to serve us - that's his/her/its job. 

In this, Liberalism starts off in the wrong direction. The Christian faith is understood not from a human perspective but from God's perspective - with reference to God, in Christ, understood through his word the Bible.  The Biblical Christ did not say indulge yourself, he said deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.  The Bible's basic assumption is that we serve God - and that it's actually good and healthy for us to do so.  That's because God's mastery over us, and our service of him, are appropriate to our respective natures.  God's nature is to rule; human nature is to be ruled by God.

The amazing message of the New Testament is: this mighty, ruler God offers to rule us – in forgiveness.  That’s why Jesus came as a humble man, and died and rose for us: so we can be ruled, not by God’s anger, but by his forgiveness.

But we can only understand this properly through the Bible.

If we see Jesus from a human perspective, we will inevitably expect him to make our lives happier.  So, when bad things happen to us – as they do – we will inevitably think Jesus has failed us, and get angry with him.

But, when we see Jesus, not from a human perspective but from God's perspective - through the Bible – then we understand that real value of what Jesus has done for us is invisible, effected by the Holy Spirit, with reference to God: turning away God’s wrath, changing us from God’s enemies to his sons and daughters.

Once we understand this, anything that happens to us from a human perspective is actually irrelevant.  We are forgiven and accepted by God in Christ – we have been reconciled to our creator – so we can be happy and fulfilled.  Our health, wealth, size of our churches & denominations – none of it matters. We can be sick, unemployed, impoverished, spurned by our family and society - all at the same time - and still rejoicing. More than rejoicing - we can love and forgive our family and society, and care for others, even though we're sick and weak and don't have any money. So, having been reconciled to God through Christ, we become healthy, normal humans. Why? Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Simple, really.

So can liberal Christianity be saved? No, because it's not Christianity. Douthat is basically as liberal as the health and wealth false-gospellers, because they both evaluate the usefulness of so-called Christianity according to visible, palpable, worldly standards. It also renders his thesis vulnerable to responses like that by Diana Butler Bass in the Huffington Post.

That said, we do want our churches and denominations to grow – because it’s good for people to treat Jesus as their king, and one sign of treating Jesus as your king is faithfully attending and serving at a Bible-based church.  And we do care for people, especially the poor and vulnerable – that’s another sign of treating Jesus as our king.  Growing churches, and social concern, are outworkings of being healthy humans – of being reconciled to God through Christ.

What I have outlined above is classical evangelicalism.  It’s often called “fundamentalism” because it’s easier to name-call like a playground bully than actually read the Bible and find out what it says.  One of the enduring ironies of this world is how evangelicals grow churches and care for people – then the liberals come along, take all the credit for all the good work the evangelicals have done, wreck it all, then blame the evangelicals (“fundamentalists”) for the mess.

It all comes down to this: how do we evaluate the value of “religion”: from the worldly perspective of human usefulness?  Or from God’s perspective through the Bible?  In the long run, the stakes are higher than church attendance; it’s the difference between hell and heaven.