Monday, August 15, 2005

mainline protestantism will reach a certain point where it will appeal only to wiccans, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, and people who play the recorder

I realize that this is not an argument against the moral integrity of the agenda of the lib prot's. But it does seem, nonetheless, to represent the facts. Assuming the lib prot's are right (in the moral sense), maybe the Lord just means for the Church to die out???

"No one will feel at home there if they believe in God."

A New Exodus? Americans are Exiting Liberal Churches

"We have figured out your problem. You're the only one here who believes in
God." That statement, addressed to a young seminarian, introduces Dave
Shiflett's new book, Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for
Conservative Christianity. The book is an important contribution, and
Shiflett offers compelling evidence that liberal Christianity is fast
imploding upon itself.

Shiflett, an established reporter and author, has written for The Washington

Post, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and
Investors' Business Daily, among other major media. He is also author of
Christianity on Trial and is a member of the White House Writers Group.

Shiflett's instincts as a reporter led him to see a big story behind the
membership decline in liberal denominations. At the same time, Shiflett
detected the bigger picture--the decline of liberal churches as compared to
growth among the conservatives. Like any good reporter, he knew he was onto
a big story.

"Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer

more traditional versions of Christianity," Shiflett asserts. This author is

not subtle, and he gets right to the point: "Most people go to church to get

something they cannot get elsewhere. This consuming public--people who
already believe, or who are attempting to believe, who want their children
to believe--go to church to learn about the mysterious Truth on which the
Christian religion is built. They want the Good News, not the minister's
political views or intellectual coaching. The latter creates sprawling
vacancies in the pews. Indeed, those empty pews can be considered the
earthly reward for abandoning heaven, traditionally understood."

Taken alone, the statistics tell much of the story. Shiflett takes his
reader through some of the most salient statistical trends and wonders aloud

why liberal churches and denominations seem steadfastly determined to follow

a path that will lead to their own destruction. Shiflett also has a unique
eye for comparative statistics, indicating, for example, that "there may now

be twice as many lesbians in the United States as Episcopalians."

Citing a study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center, Shiflett
reports that the Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6 percent over the
previous decade, while the United Methodist Church lost "only" 6.7 percent
and the Episcopal Church lost 5.3 percent. The United Church of Christ was
abandoned by 14.8 percent of its members, while the American Baptist
Churches USA were reduced by 5.7 percent.

On the other side of the theological divide, most conservative denominations

are growing. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] grew 42.4

percent in the same decade that the more liberal Presbyterian denomination
lost 11.6 percent of its members. Other conservative denominations
experiencing significant growth included the Christian Missionary Alliance
(21.8 percent), the Evangelical Free Church (57.2 percent), the Assemblies
of God (18.5 percent), and the Southern Baptist Convention (five percent).

As quoted in Exodus, Glenmary director Ken Sanchagrin told the New York
Times that he was "astounded to see that by and large the growing churches
are those that we ordinarily call conservative. And when I looked at those
that were declining, most were moderate or liberal churches. And the more
liberal the denomination, by most people's definition, the more they were

Any informed observer of American religious life would know that these
trends are not new--not by a long shot. The more liberal Protestant
denominations have been losing members by the thousands since the 1960s,
with the Episcopal Church USA having lost fully one half of its members over

the period.

In a sense, the travail of the Episcopal Church USA is the leading focus of
Shiflett's book. Indeed, Shiflett states his intention to begin "with the
train wreck known as the Episcopal Church USA." As he tells it, "One Tuesday

in latter-day Christendom, the sun rose in the east, the sky became a
pleasant blue, and the Episcopal Church USA elected a gay man as bishop for
a small New Hampshire diocese." How could this happen? The ordination of a
non-celibate homosexual man as a bishop of the Episcopal Church flew
directly in the face of the clear teachings of Scripture and the official
doctrinal positions of the church. No matter--the Episcopal Church USA was
determined to normalize homosexuality, even as they have normalized divorce
and remarriage. As Shiflett explains, "It is commonly understood that the
election of the Reverend Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to be bishop
of the diocese of New Hampshire was undertaken in clear opposition to
traditional church teaching ! and Scripture. What is often left unsaid is
that this is hardly the first time tradition has been trounced. The Reverend

Gene Robinson's sexual life was an issue and was accommodated, just as the
Episcopal Church earlier found a way to embrace bishops who believe that
Jesus is no more divine, at least in a supernatural sense, than Bette

What makes Shiflett's book unique is the personal narratives he has
collected and analyzed. Exodus is not a book of mere statistics and
research. To the contrary, Shiflett crossed America, interviewing both
conservatives and liberals in order to understand what is happening within
American Christianity. Shiflett's interviews reveal fascinating insights
into the underlying realities and the personal dimensions of theological
conflict. Exodus is written in a very direct style, with Shiflett providing
readers anecdotes and analysis of his personal interaction with those he

One of Shiflett's interviewees was the Reverend Bruce Gray, Rector of St.
John's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. In an interesting comment,
Shiflett recalls that this was the very church where Patrick Henry gave his
famous speech in 1775--the speech in which Henry cried: "Give me liberty, or

give me death!" As Shiflett notes, "The Episcopal Church, by freeing itself
from many of its traditional beliefs, sometimes appears to be well on its
way to achieving both." Revered Gray supports the election of Gene Robinson
as Bishop of New Hampshire, and he told Shiflett that the biblical
condemnations of homosexuality had been considered by thoughtful people who
had decided that the texts do not mean what they appear to mean. He cited
his own bishop, who had issued an episcopal letter arguing, "Many people
believe any homosexual activity is purely prohibited by Scripture . . . .
But other Christians who take Scripture seriously believe that the Biblical
writers were not addre! ssing the realities of people with a permanent
homosexual orientation living in faithful, monogamous relationships, and
that the relevant scriptural support for those relationships is similar to
the expectations of faithfulness Scripture places on marriage." That is
patent nonsense, of course, but this is what passes for theological argument

among those pushing the homosexual agenda.

In order to understand why so many Episcopalians are leaving, Shiflett
visited Hugo Blankenship, Jr., son of the Reverend Hugo Blankenship, who had

served as the church's Bishop of Cuba. Blankenship is a traditionalist, who
explained that his father must be "spinning in his grave" in light of
developments in his beloved Episcopal Church. As Shiflett sees it, the
church that Bishop Hugo Blankenship had served and loved is gone. In its
place is a church that preaches a message Shiflett summarizes as this: "God
is love, God's love is inclusive, God acts in justice to see that everyone
is included, we therefore ought to be co-actors and co-creators with God to
make the world over in the way he wishes."

Shiflett also surveys the growing list of "celebrity heretics" whose
accepted presence in liberal denominations serves as proof positive of the
fact that these groups will tolerate virtually anything in terms of belief.
Shiflett discusses the infamous (and now retired) Episcopal Bishop of
Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong. "When placed in a wider context,
Spong is simply another character from what might be called America's
religious freak show." Yet, the most important insight to draw from Spong's
heresies is the fact that he has been accepted without censure by his
church. As Shiflett explains, Spong's views, "while harshly criticized in
some quarters as being far beyond the pale, are present not only throughout
the mainline but throughout Protestantism, even in churches that are assumed

to maintain traditional theological rigor."

In Shiflett's turn of a phrase, these liberal theologians believe in a "Wee
deity," a vapid and ineffectual god who is not much of a threat and is
largely up for individual interpretation.

On the other side of the divide, Shiflett spent time with conservative Roman

Catholics, the Orthodox, Southern Baptists, and the larger evangelical
community. In considering Southern Baptists, Shiflett largely drew upon
interviews he conducted with me and with Richard Land, President of the
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Shiflett understands recent Southern Baptist history, and he takes his
readers through the denomination's "conservative resurgence" that defied the

conventional wisdom that denominations can never be pulled back in a more
conservative direction.

More importantly, Shiflett understands that doctrinal beliefs are the
crucial variable determining whether churches and denominations grow or
decline. He deals with the statistical data honestly, even as he points to
the larger context and the underlying factors at work.

Shiflett's opening story about the seminarian who was confronted by his
peers underlines the importance of theological seminaries as agents for
either the perpetuation or the destruction of the faith.

In this case, seminarian Andy Ferguson, who had questioned the
anti-supernaturalistic claims of his seminary professors, was confronted by
a fellow seminary student who said, "We've been talking about you. We know
you're having a rough time, and we've finally figured out what your problem
is . . . . You're the only one here who believes in God." Andy Ferguson
decided that his fellow student was right. "They believed in things like the

redemptive power of the universe, but I was the last one there who wanted to

defend the biblical God--the God who makes claims on us, who said we should
do some things and not do others, and who put each one of us here for a

In the end, Andy Ferguson left the liberal seminary, converted to
Catholicism, and went into the business world. He told Dave Shiflett that
liberal Protestantism is doomed. "Mainline Protestantism will reach a
certain point where it will appeal only to Wiccans, vegetarians,
sandal-wearers, and people who play the recorder. No one will feel at home
there if they believe in God."

Exodus is a book that is simultaneously brave and honest. Refreshingly, he
eschews mere sociological analysis and points to the more foundational
issue--truth. No doubt, this book will be appreciated in some quarters and
hated in others, but it is not likely to be ignored.


R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. For more articles and resources by Dr.
Mohler, and for information on The Albert Mohler Program, a daily national
radio program broadcast on the Salem Radio Network, go to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary, go to Send feedback to


Becca said...

No one will feel at home there if they believe in God ... a very sad commentary on the majority of liberal protestant churches. Without God ... the church first becomes a place where people worship ideas and then themselves, then it becomes a museum and then a ruin ... but the Spirit of God simply moves elsewhere where he is invited and lights a fire in another realm of the kingdom ... it will be interesting to see what becomes of the Episcopal Church here in the US in the next ten-fifteen years.

J-Tron said...

Amusing title, shockingly poor journalism.

Four major problems with Mr. Shiflett's argument-

1) He never defines his terms carefully. What are liberal protestant churches, really? Would conservative mainline churches count? What, for that matter, are conservative churches? Conservative politically or theologically? On what scale? Catholicity?

2) He elevates the anecdotal to epic proportions. Stories about particular extremes, IE the apocryphal story of the seminarian being told that his problem was his belief in God, are made out to be accurate indicators of what is happening at all levels in all mainline or liberal Protestant churches. The equivalent would be for me to tell the story of the snake handlers at the Pentecostal church up the street from where I went to college and then to state confidently that this is symptomatic of the way all "conservative" churches operate. Likewise, he invents statistical comparisons that are not only not factual, they are ridiculus. The relative number of lesbians in the United States as compared to the relative number of Episcopalians in the United States is no comparison at all. It's taking one thing he doesn't like and pitting it against another. That would be like me saying that the number of child molesters in prison is larger than the number of people who watch EWTN and then drawing some correlation.

3) Shiflett appears to make the claim that Americans are embracing more "traditional" forms of Christianity. But this doesn't even bear out when compared to his own shoddy evidence, which concludes along with the rest of us that the churches that are growing tend to be non-demoninational free churches, built on a variety of principles that are highly problematic for traditional, orthodox Christians (instant salvation, the use of magical words, literalizing of the entire biblical text, the gospel of prosperity, the "Left Behind" style rapture, etc).

4) This is perhaps the most important point that Mr. Shiflett fudges over. He says, "Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity." Even if we take the vast leap of logic to validate this statement by suggesting that non-denominational free church movements are somehow more "traditional," this statement would still be nonsense. Mainline Protestant denominations are stagnant in their growth. Non-denominational parishes are growing. This does not mean that everyone who leaves a Mainline church does so in favor of a non-denominational church. In fact, the opposite is more often true. Most folks who leave a church that they have grown up in, any church, leave it in favor of no religion at all. The folks who leave directly for a more "conservative" pew were inclined to go to church anyway. It's the folks who get fed up and stay home that are worrisome.

Johnny Awesomo said...

This post isn't long enough,

J-tron and Bob Carroll

Craig Goodrich said...

J-tron's post is notable for the degree to which it reflects the same denial visible in 815, in PCUSA's headquarters, UMC's headquarters, etc. PCA is growing; PCUSA isn't. LCMS is growing; ELCA isn't.

Does J-tron really, really think people would seriously disagree on what is meant by "liberal protestant churches"? That Shiflett doesn't use anecdotes mostly to put some flesh on solid statistics? That only independent evangelical megachurches are growing? That Shiflett is unaware of the increasing numbers of unchurched?

Give me a break...

Anonymous said...

J-tron's comment isn't quite as long as WB's. Judge for yourself.


J-Tron said...

Mr. Goodrich confuses assertion with fact. I've seen nothing to indicate the trends he suggests, that PCA is somehow growing while PCUSA isn't, etc. But even if by some miracle of math he is correct, the fact remains that any growth in the mainline, conservative or liberal (including in ECUSA which has grown in recent years, at least prior to GC2003), is a drop in the bucket compared to the numbers inhabiting megachurches, which are themselves only statistically interesting when placed next to the number of folks currently inhabiting no church at all.

J-Tron said...

I sure wish I knew how to read. Then I could look at all these nifty long posts. Plus, I'd know what I was writing right now.

Johnny Awesomo
AKA Captain Protestant

Anonymous said...

Mr. J-Tron confuses working with sitting around all summer writing a novel while his wife supports him. It's too bad I can't read, so that I can see the fruits of all that "work."
Johnny A.

Adam said...

One thing that does not necessarily note church success is the number of members or churches a denomination has. There are plenty of churches growing out there that lack any theological or Scriptural base that grow because they appeal to what people want: a show, presentation, fun time, big music, etc. Those churches grow, but are a mockery of what the Church really is. Conservative churches have many problems with theology because they choose not to evaluate and re-evaluate; re-translate Scripture; review historical truths. They choose to resist any change, whether good or bad, etc. Statistics do speak a worldly truth of the churches growing. In another sense, they could show how lost human reason, and the ability to choose, have become far more corrupt than in the past.

I am a PCUSA seminary student, and there have been many poles taken on this topic, and overall, when they are all put together and evaluated, all denominations are shrinking in general in the U.S. with the exception of non denominational churches and mega-churches because their main focus is on homogeneity rather than Christ's example of an all inclusive Church body. The Church in the U.S. is shrinking in general as well with the influence of other religions, science, and other unknown factors. We are entering a time where people think they can individually have faith, and the Church is not necessary.

Coming back to my original point, numbers mean absolutely nothing other than there is one denomination growing while others do not, but there is no way of knowing completely why. For one to say that a growing denomination is a good thing vs. those that are not, is naive. The real poles that should be taken, are the reasons why people are choosing one denomination or the other.

From my experience and research, those considering more conservative churches want to identify with what they see as stability. They think because a church lays stagnent in the realm of their own religion that it is more stable then those one's discussing theological questions of the here and now, taking into account human history, experience, and reason.

The last pole I checked, the PCA was in decline with most other church denominations...If I had time I would get into the discussion of women in leadership and give Scriptural references, but I don't have time now.

I also think that j-tron brings up a good arguement.