Vanishing Christianity — A Lesson from the Presbyterians

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    Vanishing Christianity — A Lesson from the Presbyterians

    Albert Mohler

    “Liberal Protestantism, in its determined policy of accommodation with the secular world, has succeeded in making itself dispensable.” That was the judgment of Thomas C. Reeves in The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Protestantism, published in 1996. Fast-forward another fourteen years and it becomes increasingly clear that liberal Protestantism continues its suicide — with even greater theological accommodations to the secular worldview.

    The latest evidence for this pattern is found in a report just released by The Presbyterian Panel, a research group that serves the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA]. The panel’s report is presented as a “Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians, 2008.” The report contains relatively few surprises, but it is filled with data about the beliefs of Presbyterian laypersons and clergy.

    A majority of church members, pastors, elders, and specialized clergy describe themselves as moderate, liberal, or very liberal in theological outlook. Less than half of church members (44%) and elders (48%) report a conversion experience. Interestingly, ministers were not asked that question.

    In general terms, elders were slightly more conservative in belief than other church members. Female pastors were significantly more likely (51%) than male pastors (23%) to identify themselves as liberal or very liberal. Among other ministers (identified as “specialized clergy”), 62% of females identified themselves as liberal or very liberal, compared to 45% of males.

    Majorities of all groups indicated agreement with the statement, “There is life beyond death.” But the most significant theological question concerned the exclusivity of the Gospel and the necessity of belief in Jesus Christ for salvation. On that question there was great division, with over a third (36%) of PCUSA church members indicating that they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

    Among ministers, the division is even more apparent, with 45% of pastors disagreeing with that statement and fully 60% of specialized clergy disagreeing. Roughly 20% of both pastors and specialized clergy reported themselves “neutral or unsure” about the question.

    Only 43% of church members disagreed or strongly disagreed with the claim that “all the world’s religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.”

    This is a church that has lost its confidence in the Gospel in terms of the clear biblical claim that salvation comes only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This latest report confirms the continued abandonment of the Gospel in an increasingly secularized denomination.

    Liberal Protestantism — institutionalized in the old Protestant “mainline” denominations — has been following a path of theological accommodation for a century now, and there appears to be little hope for a major theological correction. Renewal groups have been working within these churches for decades, attempting to call the denominations back to biblical Christianity. To date, they have won only isolated battles in most of these churches.

    As Reeves explains:

    “And so the mainline churches wane — disheartened, aging, increasingly irrelevant, all too often satisfied to serve as a sort of sanctimonious echo of National Public Radio or the left wing of the Democratic Party. For a variety of reasons, many liberal Protestants, especially church leaders, have endorsed a view of reality and a way of life that have helped produce a society that is breaking up. And they have become part of the problem.”

    But this report points to the most devastating reality among these churches — the loss of faith and doctrinal conviction among church members. Theological compromise appeared first among the pastors, theologians, church executives, and seminary professors. Denominational bureaucracies again and again prove themselves resistant to correction. For years, the hope had been that laypersons — the church members themselves — would force a correction and lead a return to evangelical conviction.

    This report indicates just how distant that hope now appears, largely because the church members themselves have adopted liberal beliefs.

    Back in 1994, a team of sociologists considered this phenomenon, looking particularly at the Baby Boomers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens published their findings in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Protestant Baby Boomers. They identified the phenomenon of “lay liberalism” in the PCUSA and throughout liberal Protestantism.

    As they explained, “This perspective is ‘liberal’ because its defining feature is a rejection of the orthodox teaching that Christianity is the only true religion. Lay liberals have a high regard for Jesus, but they do not affirm that He is God’s only son and that salvation is available only through Him.”

    The title of their report points to the quandary of liberal Protestantism. As the boundaries between liberal Protestantism and the secular culture vanish, there is little reason for anyone to join one of these churches.

    That report explained that “lay liberals who are active Presbyterians do not differ sharply in their religious views from the people who are not involved in a church but describe themselves as religious. There is, in short, no clear-cut ‘faith boundary’ separating active Presbyterians from those who no longer go to church.” The researchers also repeated their point that the defining mark of “lay liberalism” is “the rejection of the claim that Christianity, or any other faith, is the only true religion.”

    This abandonment of biblical Christianity is a tragedy of the first order. Churches and denominations birthed in biblical orthodoxy have been ransacked and secularized. The crisis has migrated from the pulpits to the pews, and recovery is only a dim and distant hope.

    Evangelicals should consider this tragedy with humility and theological perception. If similar trends are allowed to gain traction among evangelical churches and denominations, the same fate awaits. The larger issue here is not the continued vitality of any denomination as an end in itself, but the integrity of our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Make no mistake — in the end, vanishing theological boundaries will amount to vanishing Christianity. This report makes that point with devastating clarity.

    Conservative Presbyterianism, and Reformed theology in general, doesn't teach that someone should have a conversion experience, except for people who have converted from another religion. A child raised as a Christian from birth doesn't normally have a conversion experience. The doctrine that people raised Christian should have a conversion experience is a modern doctrine in these days of declining faith.

    Speaking of declining faith, most large denominations are shrinking and the total number of Christians in America is declining. Embracing SSM isn't the only way churches are abandoning the Bible. Supposedly conservative churches themselves are busy embracing folly, as well. For an example, see my post on the Decline of of the SBC.

      Either Christians in America are declining or an awareness is increasing and people are not being deceived as to whether they are genuine or not. As for me I find the statistics suggesting that as much as 80% of all Americans identify themselves as Christians as misleading. It doesn't matter how an individual identifies themselves... I think the actual number is around 30% given the statistics I have read in surveys amongst proclaimed Christians siding for or against key issues pertaining to Christian life, such as abortion, sodomy, etc.

      God bless,

        The PCUSA has at least one openly Atheist minister. He calls himself a Christian. What does that say for the majority of people in charge of PCUSA, who also call themselves Christian, that he hasn't been defrocked? It says that they're not Christian. But, we know that anyway, as they support SSM.

        I think 30% of the public being Christian is optimistic. I think only about 20% of the public attends church regularly.

          [FONT=trebuchet ms][SIZE=16px]In Australia weekly attendance at a christian place of worship is at around 5% or the population. The USA will have a higher percentage but 20% seems exaggerated.[/SIZE][/FONT]

            2067: the end of British Christianity

            "It’s often said that Britain’s church congregations are shrinking, but that doesn’t come close to expressing the scale of the disaster now facing Christianity in this country. Every ten years the census spells out the situation in detail: between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million — about 10,000 a week. If that rate of decline continues, the mission of St Augustine to the English, together with that of the Irish saints to the Scots, will come to an end in 2067." (The Spectator)

            The article touches on the USA as well.


              I can't speak much about outside the US. The US may be more religious for the moment, but religion is declining here, rapidly. The decline is stunning given stubbornness of people to hold on to their religion until they die. What I mean is, anyone who is a Christian, it's no thanks to the modern church; but thanks to your stubbornness. If you moved to North Korea and couldn't find a church or even a follow Christian, you'd likely stay Christian. But, here or in North Korea, your children likely won't be Christian.

              But, that same stubbornness that keeps someone a Christian also prevents that someone from embracing a more effective form of Christianity. 2000 years of growth of the Christian church undone by our generation, using doctrines that you wouldn't find in practically any church 200 or 2000 years ago.


                This age is being referred to as the Post Christian age I think because of the absolute lack of real influence the modern Evangelical congregation has(at least in America)

                  Originally posted by Beau Michel View Post
                  This age is being referred to as the Post Christian age I think because of the absolute lack of real influence the modern Evangelical congregation has(at least in America)
                  The movement of the west in general and the USA in particular, into a post Christian age is both interesting and difficult, I think. I don't know enough about all the drivers of social opinion and change to really understand why/how it has happened. I wish I understood it better.

                  It is a difficult subject for me, because I feel a great loss as a result of it. Even though much of so-called Christianity was only nominal or cultural, at least we all shared a common understanding about where our moral foundations came from, and the value of a virtuous society.

                  But, I have to keep reminding myself that God is sovereign in all things, including this, and He has his reasons for all the changes of history. The upside is that suddenly, our own country has become a rich mission field. The fields are white. I pray that I will be a faithful worker (Jn 4:35-36, Mat 9:37-38).
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