A few years ago, one of my children, new to the Toronto area, was looking for a church. He visited a lot of United and Unitarian congregations along the way. What he found, for the most part, were small struggling churches where most of the membership was female and older than 65. His comment to me was, “Anything goes, nobody shows.”
Really? Is that the best that can be said of the liberal church? Perhaps. Over the past month the press has been full of similar negative assessments of the liberal Church. This recent spate of articles began with Ross Douthat, a Catholic, writing in the New York Times, on July 15. In an article entitled, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved,” Douthat accounts for the steady erosion of liberal church membership by arguing that liberal churches, “often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.” Then on July 28, Margaret Wente, writing in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, argued that the liberal church’s move to a “more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive” faith has been a colossal failure, in part because the United Church now offers, “intellect, rationality and understanding” instead of spirituality and social activism instead of the gospel.
And then, of course, there is the irascible Tom Harpur, who contributed his nationally syndicated column to the Northumberland Times on July 30. Entitled, “Tsunami Due for Religion as We Know It,” Harpur argues that, “the ‘half-gods’ of the old religion are in the process of being taken apart.” The half-gods Harpur refers to are a witch’s brew of the worst of Christianity: unbelievable doctrines, literalistic understanding of ancient texts, and disgraced priests and evangelists. Interestingly, Harpur doesn’t just go after the liberal churches, but all churches. Before the end of his article, however, Harpur also offers a note of hope for those of us who want the best for the future of faith. He writes that, “the end of religion as we have known it is the beginning of something much greater,” that is, “the evolution of the highest spiritual attributes of human kind.” Unfortunately, he is very vague about what these attributes look like, or how we might achieve them.
The most interesting of the recent commentaries on religion comes from Diana Butler Bass, author of the acclaimed Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Writing in the Huffington Post on July 15, (“Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,”) Butler Bass makes the point that it isn’t just the mainline churches that are declining—all churches are, including Evangelical churches. So, for example, the denomination I left this year has been losing members for years, and is a shadow of what it was twenty years ago. Recent commentators have pointed out that one in ten Americans considers himself or herself a former Catholic. Were it not for immigration the Catholic church would be a shell of what it is now. The most conservative large American evangelical church, the Southern Baptists, have also been declining for at least ten years, having lost, by some estimates, nearly 20% of their membership.
Like Harpur, Butler Bass is nevertheless hopeful, though she’s also more specific. She argues that that the future of Christianity is with churches where “a form of faith that cares for one's neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus' injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life.”
I like the direction Butler Bass is suggesting. In her book she argues that whatever is happening in our institutional churches, and no matter how suspicious people are of those institutions, it is clear that the public at large is still deeply interested in, and engaged in, spiritual pursuits.
But to get to young adults like my son, our churches have to be more than places where anything goes. They also have to be places where he can find warmth, community, friendship, purpose, and a humble longing and awe for God.