The Decline and Fall of Mainline Denominations in America

I recently read Dave Shiflett’s Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity (New York: Sentinel, 2005). Shiflett writes from the left and analyzes the downfall of the Liberal American mainline denominations.

The book contains some startling statistics such as “a 1995 study found that Methodist churches had been losing one thousand members a week for the past thirty years” (xv). On the other hand, “by the mid-1990s, the Southern Baptists were taking on 750 members and five churches per week” (xvi).

Shiflett recounts the experience of a student in a liberal seminary who was told by his fellow classmates: “We’ve been talking about you. We know you’re having a rough time, and we’ve finally figured out what your problem is…. You’re the only one here who believes in God” (72-73).

Liberalism systematically undermined belief in God and the authority of Scripture. Christian vocabulary was redefined to express secular philosophy rather than biblical teaching. When Scripture could not be bent, it was broken. Shiflett explains,

The bishop [of Wales] had provided a blueprint of the mechanism by which Scriptural admonitions are neutralized. The process is quite simple. Step one is to find a passage in the Old Testament that is startling in its brutality–cutting off limbs, executing unruly children, and stoning women are popular choices. Step two is to fine the New Testament passage on wants to undermine–in this case, passages critical of homosexuality, and before that admonitions against divorce and remarriage and female ordination. Step three is to insist that if one is indeed taking one’s cues from the Bible, then one must take the book all in all. The Old Testament thus neutralizes the New and leaves wide the way for the substitute virtues, such as tolerance, inclusion, and the insistence that sexual behavior traditionally considered sinful is to be considered morally co-equal with heterosexual monogamy.

As liberal denominations ceased believing in God and rejected biblical doctrine, they lost their reason for being. Shiflett’s thesis is simple and sound. Mainline denominations are failing because:

Progressive clerics are talking themselves out of a job. Their admonitions that we should all be nice to one another–be accepting, tolerant, hospitable, and open–are welcome enough in a harsh world. Yet they are not giving the world anything it cannot get from television chat shows, movies, op-ed pieces, and the other soapboxes where contemporary sages gather. Their advice is much the same, if not identical, and sofas are much more comfortable than pews (25).

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