Today’s post is going to be something of an unexpected departure for those of you who know me well enough to know my theological/political commitments. Today I am going to speak in defense of the so-called godless liberal mainlines.
Now before I begin, let me lay all my cards out on the table. If you’ve been tracking with me for awhile, my political/theological commitments are no secret: I am a conservative megachurch evangelical. Thus everything I say today will be from the vantage point of a bemused outsider with absolutely zero skin in the game. But then, I am a blogger and as such it is part and parcel of my vocation to offer my unsolicited opinion on things where I know nothing and have zero skin in the game.
Today’s post is directed toward those of you intellectual liberals who sit at home drinking fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee and reading the New York Times and watching all the Sunday morning political commentary talk shows on CNN while I am off at church singing/dancing my fool heart out under the strobe lights and listening to my celebrity pastor hold forth on whatever strikes his fancy for just a little south of an hour. My aim is simple: I want you to come back to church.
Don’t worry, I am not asking you to come to my church. My celebrity pastor talks routinely about “invest and invite” (it’s pretty much what it sounds like: “invest” in intentional relationships with your friends/neighbors/coworkers and others with whom you interact on a day-to-day basis and then leverage said relationships to “invite” these people to church) and I am sure he would very much appreciate it if I would “invest and invite” some of you to my church. But I am not going to do that. My church does an awful lot to be a place that “unchurched” people (our terminology for people who for whatever reason do not regularly attend church) love to attend, much to the chagrin of some prominent voices in evangelicalism. But even so I recognize that for many of you, coming to my church (or any other church over here in conservative evangelical megachurch-dom, for that matter) would simply be a bridge too far. So instead I am going to ask you to make a much smaller and more manageable leap of faith: I want you to go back to the mainline churches of your youth.
Contemporary liberalism has a problem. Much of liberal Protestantism is now post-Protestant, as the well-educated intellectual liberals who in prior generations used to pack out all the big Episcopal/Lutheran/Presbyterian/Methodist/Congregational/UCC churches that fill the downtown areas of almost every major city here in America now sit at home on Sunday morning with CNN and the New York Times and, yes, their fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee. Those churches nowadays are among the oldest and grayest and emptiest on the planet, with a retention rate ever-so-slightly north of zero. It is a wonder that any of them are still in existence.
As a conservative evangelical, I have my own opinions about this. Conservative evangelical pundits have opined for years, decades even, about how the mainlines’ decline reveals that political/theological liberalism in Christianity is not to be trusted, that the open, social gospel preached in these churches is a hopelessly pathetic, watered-down thing with zero power to save. But I am not going to sit here and crow like a Gator fan in Atlanta the first week of November. Because the decline of mainline Protestantism comes at a cost, one which we all have to bear in some form or fashion, regardless of which side of the issue we are on.
You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the co-op: As liberal Protestantism became less Protestant, it also became decidedly less liberal. What I am hearing about the collegiate experience nowadays testifies to this: It is a routine occurrence for conservative speakers to be un-invited from speaking engagements at liberal campuses and/or vociferously protested if they do speak there. Just this past year Tim Keller, a conservative Presbyterian pastor, was to have been honored with a major award from Princeton Theological Seminary, a mainstay of the liberal wing of American Presbyterianism. But many of you liberals rose up in howling protest. Princeton heard you, and rescinded the honor. A few years ago, Louie Giglio was to have given the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. But then some of you went snooping through the sermon archive and found some things he said about homosexuality–well over a decade ago, I feel compelled to note–that you did not like and just like that Giglio was off the program.
What’s more, liberal Protestantism sans the Protestantism has struggled to find any sort of compelling organizing principle, any sort of persuasive, overarching language of the common good. The result is that contemporary liberalism has morphed into a fractious melange of victimologies: the gays, the immigrants, the labor unions, the feminists (the “feminazis” as Rush Limbaugh used to call them back in the day), the global warming crowd, the Black Lives Matter crowd, and many more. All of these have their own orthodoxies which are not to be questioned, and persecute dissident voices in their ranks with a zeal that would make John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, etc. very proud. And all of these look with uneasy suspicion on the other groups that share their space under the banner of contemporary liberalism.
All this to say: Contemporary liberalism is not very liberal.
That’s a problem, don’t you think?
Okay, I get that most of what the liberal mainlines have to offer is already embedded in the culture at large nowadays (much to the chagrin of many of my fellow conservative evangelicals, especially those who voted for Donald Trump). The things they have been pushing for for ages–ecumenical spirituality, a progressive social Gospel–are now all over the place in academia, the media, pop culture, and the Democratic Party. So what’s the point of going to church when you can just stay at home and watch CNN and get the same thing? you ask. Well, as noted above, liberal Protestantism sans the Protestantism has become an awful lot less liberal. So the present state of affairs, in which the mainline churches are withering on the vine but the things they have fought for are dominating the culture, probably won’t last (especially if the rise of Donald Trump and his jacked-up alt-right Neo-Nazi thug supporters is any indication) and probably doesn’t deserve to.
So please, my intellectual liberal friends (I’m sure there are at least a few of you running around out there reading this): Go to church. DVR the Sunday morning CNN and watch it later. Leave the New York Times–it’ll still be there for you when you get back home. Go find a mainline congregation that is convenient to you and start going. Get plugged in and start attending/giving/serving regularly. They’ll have coffee for you. Some of the more progressive congregations might even have fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee. If you’re feeling really brave, perhaps you can even “invest and invite” some of your friends/neighbors/coworkers to whichever church you wind up going to.
Do it for the sake of first principles. So many of the great progressive movements of the modern era–abolitionism, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and many more–all emanated from a decidedly Christian ethos, from people who wrestled with what a truly just society organized along Christian principles would look like and sought to make this happen in our world. By going back to church, you would place yourself squarely in line with your movement’s noble history. You would help your movement gain a greater level of intellectual coherence (the word “created” in the phrase “created equal” is there for a reason). Furthermore, you would help your movement regain an overarching vision and language of the common good, a robust framework to hold all those factions together.
Do it for the sake of your movement’s internal consistency. You cry out against Caesar and against Christians taking up and using the power of the state when it suits your social justice impulses, yet you are oh-so-quick to turn to the state when there is an injustice needing to be addressed, such as lack of adequate access to healthcare for many of our nation’s poor. That is really not a good look for you liberals. By staying home from church on Sunday morning, you leave the state as the only player capable of addressing oppression and injustice in our world. Go back to church and help build a counter-cultural polis that is truly capable of addressing oppression and injustice in a manner consistent with your anti-empire, anti-Caesar political critiques.
Do it for the sake of your communities. Thriving churches and congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump protests can’t top.
Do it for the sake of your families. My church has one of the finest singles ministries on the planet, but even if your church doesn’t have anything like that, any church beats the hell out of Tinder as a place to meet a prospective mate. Even in its most modernized form (my church looks exactly like an office building and our service is basically a rock concert followed by a TED talk), church is still a thing which connects us with those who have gone before us and points us toward ultimate and transcendent realities.
Do it for the sake of your eternal soul. Oh don’t worry, I’m not talking about hellfire and damnation. I get that you aren’t concerned about anything like that. But surely you are concerned about…uh, you know…death? None of us is getting out of this world alive. Don’t you think a little bit of once-a-week preparation might stand you in good stead?
Okay, there is the matter of actual belief. That may be a problem. Or so you think. But I really don’t think you’re quite the hardcore atheists you make yourselves out to be. Many of you are already on board with the open, social gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach. You pursue spiritual experiences in some form or fashion, and you are even sympathetic to orthodox Christianity when it comes to you in the form of a Marilynne Robinson novel or an MLK speech or a U2 song. You say you’re “spiritual but not religious” because you associate “religion” with dogma and hierarchies and strict rules about sex. But the mainline churches are bending over backwards to accommodate you on all these points and more. Of course, by staying home on Sunday morning you are vindicating me in my conservative evangelical distrust of said accommodation, and I appreciate that. But perhaps you are being a tad ungrateful, a tad selfish by staying home when these churches are trying oh-so-hard to be the change you say you wish to see in Christianity?
Finally, for the really hardcore atheists, because I know there are at least a couple of you running around out there: Uh…yeah. Free will and consciousness are all an illusion but human rights and gender identity are completely real.
Just go to church, people. That’s all there is to it.