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The Twilight of Mainline Christianity?

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 States.”

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 10 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, humility, and most of all, prayer.

I encourage you to come by our website and read what Dr. George has to say — and then please share it with friends and family.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: July 23, 2012

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