Monday, July 16, 2012

We Need to Offer Something the Secular World Doesn't

As part of her weekly "Sunday Superlatives" yesterday, Rachel Held Evans mentioned a New York Times editorial by Ross Douthat as "Most Likely to Start a Big Ole’ Argument on Your Facebook Page When You Share It." Since my Facebook account is one the primary venues whereby family and friends read my blog entries, I am probably therefore asking for trouble by commenting on it here. Arguments tend to flare pretty much whenever the labels "conservative" and "liberal" are tossed around, and although I try to be consistent about pointing out that the definitions of these terms depend on who's talking about what and in relation to what, they remain well-worn labels that convey some semblance of meaning in discussions about religion and politics. With that in mind, despite the fact that my positions tend to make liberals ill at ease whenever I try to claim to be one of them, and despite the reality that I'm increasingly suspect to certain circles within conservatism... here I go again.

At first glance, Douthat's editorial reads a lot like the typical "liberal churches are shrinking/conservative churches are growing" bit that folks have been saying for some time now. I've already suggested that such reasoning is too simplistic, but a careful reading demonstrates that Douthat goes a bit deeper than many who have made that argument in the past.

For one thing, Douthat, who writes from a conservative perspective, is willing to point out a caveat in the "conservative churches are growing" statistic that I haven't seen addressed elsewhere:
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
This is hardly the kind of "growth statistic" that most of my Evangelical friends (either left or right and, yes, Evangelicals can be either) would be comfortable with. If numbers are growing, but the growth yields little theological understanding of who God truly is, and what Christ truly wants for His people, then surely such growth is nonetheless not what God wants for the church.

On the other hand, we're probably not doing evangelism properly if our numbers are shrinking too greatly, either. I would certainly agree with Douthat when he points out that liberals have failed to properly deal with the facts that show that their churches are predominantly losing members. This is not to suggest that I think that mainstream denominations such as the PC(USA) and the Episcopal church (the latter of which seems to be Douthat's biggest target as a "liberal" church that is failing to do what is necessary to avoid extinction) are entirely wrong in their focus. Indeed, Douthat himself has some good things to say about liberal Christianity:
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. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
Ultimately, Douthat's point in this editorial is not to trumpet conservative values. Rather, he argues that liberal churches "don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism." To the extent that this is true (whether or not it is might be a discussion worth having, but is beyond the scope of this post), I agree with him completely. Sometimes Christians seem to forget that we don't hold a monopoly on good behavior. Just teaching people to "love thy neighbor" doesn't give people a reason to go to church. We must do more.

But while liberal churches cannot survive unless they recognize this truth, I would say the same of conservative churches that fail to offer anything one can't already get from secular conservatism, and in at least some cases, I worry that this might be true on that side as well, especially as the Christian right is increasingly tied to right-wing politics. But, in general, conservatives have indeed been doing a better job of articulating religious reasons (however shallowly argued at points) for their positions. I know for a fact that liberals are capable of doing so, but we need to get better at it. Otherwise, while liberals might well win the secular world, they might well lose where it matters the most.
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? — Mark 8:36 (NIV)

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