Are ‘Liberals’ Really Destroying the Church?

Are Liberals Really Destorying the church

David French, an attorney and staff writer for the National Review, recently wrote an article titled “If You Want to Destroy Your Church, Follow Liberals’ Advice.” It goes downhill from there.

The article was a rebuttal to an editorial by Rachel Held Evans in the Washington Post. French finds apparent frustration in Evan’s critique of contemporary Evangelicalism. Evan’s main point, French proposes, isn’t an attempt to reform the style or face of the church but rather its “substance”;  Evan’s pushes reforms that are not theological but really just “a progressive writer’s wish list.” He further categorizes Evans (and presumably all ‘liberal’ progressives) as desiring to unlock the “Millennial spiritual energy found in the old ways- not its actual beliefs, mind you, but the trappings of the faith. To (Rachel Held) Evans, the answer is combining high-church traditions with no-church theology.”

French goes on to make the claim- based on statistical data- that mainline churches that have adopted progressive beliefs are “committing slow-motion suicide.” His conclusion is that Evans’ approach to church is not only theologically fallible but that “theological liberalization and cultural conformity” are paths to certain extinction.

“Yes, there are liberals who ‘long’ for the church to change,” French states. “But that’s because they long for it to disappear.”

It’s hard not to discard David French’s article as a straw-man tirade against progressive Christians and/or any Christian who’s ever registered as a Democrat. He uses the word “inclusive” like profanity, conveniently notes that President Obama’s denomination has seen serious decline in recent years, and attributes the demise of mainline denominations to their adoption of gay marriage (while overlooking the recent decline of the Southern Baptist Convention as mere happenstance). French doesn’t exactly invite open discussion on the topic at hand. Which- from a mere glance at Evans’ new book- was kind of her point.

But there is- at the heart of French’s fear-mongering- a pertinent question: is “liberal” theology destroying the American church?

In the aforementioned book Searching for Sunday, Evans joked that “you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.” (That’s the beauty of self-deprecation; Evans beat French to the punch.) This seems to give further validity to French’s point: Millennial Christians are looking for wide paths on ground that can only support narrow gates. 

Or are they?

I’m weary of any discussion on the state of the American church that draws lines based on “liberals” and conservatives.” But, if we’re dealing with the categories as French has arranged them, then we must also say that French represents a facet of American Christianity that is unwaveringly stubborn (or at least tone-deaf) to Millennial calls for reform. We have an arrogant belief in our own flexibility: “unity in non-essentials” we like to say. But who decides the “non-essentials”? In French’s world, it’s the conservatives. This, naturally, means that any congregation which supports gay-marriage has crossed a line from whence they can only return with sackcloth and ashes. That’s hardly flexible. And it’s as ineffective in promoting a theological way forward as was the Diet of Worms.

David French’s approach to the next chapter of the American Church is old and cliche. The use of statistics to measure the health of the church may be practical, but its not theologicalAnd it’s ridiculous- but thoroughly conservative- to quantify theological health with statistics; “well, churches who support homosexuality are shutting down, so obviously it’s decrepit theology.” We’re a religion begun by one man who gathered a small group of people and, with them, defied the religious majority of his age and the most dominant empire known to man. Jesus didn’t win the numbers game; but conservatives like French love to think they should and will. 

What is equally cliche is for conservatives to hang the fate of Christ’s church on a single, politically charged issue. Christ’s gospel does not hinge on preservation of traditional family values, pro-life movements, or Reformed Theology any more than it does on hymns and liturgy. The gospel of Jesus Christ hangs on a cross and pours out of an empty grave. French may decry the “inclusivist” mentality that’s seeping into American churches; but its equally valid to decry the moralistic agendas that attempt to roll the stone back over the grave.

And if we’re really trying to move the church forward, then fear-mongering is an unhealthy way to go about it. French operates under the belief that liberal notions, like the “gay-agenda”, will overtake and destroy the church. So Emperor Nero couldn’t wipe out Christ’s followers but the gay couple on my block will see it through? Thinking such as this is why most theological circles can’t take Evangelicals seriously.

Perhaps ‘liberal’ churches are too lenient. And that’s nothing to disregard. But conservative churches, if we’re playing off stereotypes, have a tendency to kick you while your down then slam the door in your face. Don’t get me wrong-if you fix yourself, then they’ll gladly let you back in. The prodigal son sent a wonderful precedent for church potlucks. But some scars don’t fade. As many know all too well.

So which would Jesus abhor? The wide gate or the harsh Pharisee?

It’s not for me to say. But I think we ought to at least be fair in saying- be we “progressives” or “conservatives”- that the other side, though maybe not right for us, isn’t authoritatively wrong. I’m sure this notion makes David French’s skin crawl. But a dose of practical humility would’ve helped things in 1521. And it would really help things now.

I don’t consider myself a progressive. I don’t consider myself a traditionalist either. I consider myself a Christian and an Evangelical one at that. Yet I feel myself being pushed out of my pew. And I don’t want to leave. But it’s increasingly difficult-especially when encountering voices like Mr. French’s- to find reason to stick around.

Unless, of course, I care less about my theological agenda and more about the church

David French might find it absurd that I could allow a gay person to become a member of my church. That’s fine. I find it absurd that he would see this as a threat to Christ. On the other side of the coin, Evans might find it absurd that I support pro-life movements as opposed to advocating for women’s rights and women’s health. That’s fine, too. Let’s all go to Christ’s table together.  

Because it’s within the questions we ask, within the disagreements in humility, that the noise fades and we can hear when Christ calls us to the table. And he calls us to stop quarreling, stop drawing lines, stop slapping labels and making moral diagnosis; he calls us instead to sit and eat and drink and maybe even laugh. He calls us to realize we’re all human and we’re all feasting on his grace together. 

Are liberals really killing the church? I doubt it. And even if they are, even if all the hordes of evil should assemble on red and blue donkeys, I still maintain that Christians shouldn’t be worried. After all, as Rachel Held Evans reminds us:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about.”

Which is to say that- worst case scenario- if ‘liberals’ do manage to kill the church, they might prompt the resurrection we’re all are together waiting for, the resurrection we all truly need.

It’s not likely. But it’d be nice.




Searching for Sunday, Finding Communion: The Refreshing Orthodoxy of Rachel Held Evans

searching for sunday

If hype is something to be trusted, then Rachel Held Evans’ new release Searching for Sunday promises to be one of the most influential publications in pop theology this year.

For a long time I’ve followed Evans’ career with abstract interest. I’ve not read much of her work for no reason other than a lack of available time. But I’ve admired Evans nonetheless. One does not need to be a football fanatic to appreciate the prominence of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. And I’ve often felt the same way about Evans. She is unique. She’s different. She’s provocative in a love-’em-or-hate-’em kind of way. And she’s a necessary voice rising above the status quo, speaking into the realm of western theology which all too often is an Anglo-Saxon sausage fest. For that alone, I hold Evans in high esteem.

And in following the recent buzz around Evans’ new book, particularly in this interview with HuffPost Religion‘s Zach J. Hoag, I’m really excited. I’m excited because her views are refreshing. I’m excited because her insights are creative. I’m excited because her assertions are transparent.

But mostly, I’m excited because her theology rings of orthodoxy.

The backbone of Evans’ posture is her belief that:

“…the church in the U.S. is indeed changing and indeed losing some of its unchallenged dominance over the culture.”

This isn’t news. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Church attendance has been and is rapidly decreasing. Denominations are dwindling. A majority of what is reported as “church growth” is really church cannibalism; other congregations gaining the remnants of faltering parishes. The American church is dying. And denial can only bail the boat out for so long.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Says Evans:

“Death is something empires worry about…not something resurrection people worry about (…) my hope is that, if the American church must ‘die,’ let it ‘die’ to the old ways of dominance and control and be resurrected into the way of Jesus, the way of service and sacrifice.

It’s statements like this that incite a conniption fit to advocates of the Moral Majority. And it underlies a deep tension among older generations in American churches. We are moving out of the era of “Christendom.” The opinion of the church is no longer a commanding presence in society. America is no longer a Christian nation (not that it ever was).  Churches that once attracted converts are now in the headlines for their collapse and decay. 

Evans’ herself has experienced the cycle of church life through her involvement with a church plant that eventually closed its doors. The question is not whether or not the American Church will die, but too what will the church be resurrected? In other words: what will the death of American Christendom mean for the future worship of Christians who happen to be American?

Evans’ presents a vision by saying that, for starters, the American Christians need to come to to the realization that:

“…’right’ is not the point. What I (read: millennials) longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time.”

At first glance, Evans’ statement rings of inclusivism, of relativism and everything (we’ve been taught is) evil about postmodernity. But, truth told, this is an orthodox way of approaching faith. Evans’ proposes a form of Christianity that does not die on our mountains of propositions regarding who God is (ie: pro-life, Republican/Democratic, pro-America, pro-family…etc) but is rather held by the faith that there are certain things God isn’t (evil, unjust, dead, absent, etc). We can say with absolute certainty that there are some things God is not but the nuances of who he is are simply questions that spend our lives trying to figure out- so why not ask them together?

Along these lines, Evans doesn’t hold any punches in outlining her belief that the resurrection of the American church is going to require a reassessment of our priorities:

“The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out.”

And perhaps Evans pushes the envelope a little to much at such points. But perhaps not. There’s something to be said for the American church needing more of Zaccheaus & Mary Magdalene and less of the Pharisees. And, on her worst day, I would align Evans with the former.

Evans’ goes on to say:

“Jesus doesn’t need a bunch of gatekeepers committed to keeping the ‘wrong people’ out of the kingdom. (We’re all ‘the wrong people,’ after all.) Jesus needs is a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, ‘Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.’ This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy. It’s a kingdom for the hungry.”

And this lays the foundation from where Evans’ orthodoxy hits home. Being the disillusioned Christian that she is, the last thing I expected to find in Evan’s Searching for Sunday‘s Table of Contents was a book organized according to the seven sacraments!

As such, Evans’ book once again outlines a perspective on the next phase of the American church that is arranged on the framework of orthodox Christianity. Says Evans:

“I have found that it is in those moments when we recognize God’s presence in ordinary, tangible things — bread, wine, water, words, suffering, singing, a gentle touch, a casserole on the doorstep — that we create church, we create sanctuary.”

I left an Anglican church to go to seminary. Today I attend a beautiful church with beautiful people. We sing along to Hillsong renditions. We listen to thoughtful and profound sermons. But worship doesn’t feel complete. Because we only take communion once a month. We don’t use a liturgy. There’s no daily confession, no responsive reading of the Psalms. The service ends in time for us to grab lunch and catch the game. It ends with a benediction. It ends with us leaving the sanctuary- but there’s no body and blood for nourishment and no procession paving the way.

Which is not to say any of this is a bad thing. But it’s worth pointing out that I – and, statistics will tell you, many in my generation- leave these services, sometimes feeling a little empty. Because there’s an identity attached to the tangible nature of the sacraments.

The Lord’s Supper is a very real event. This is not a Catholic notion; Luther and Calvin both espoused the significance of the event in the life of a Christian. It was not merely a remembrance but an act, a celebration; an articulation of the grace of Christ into the practical, everyday needs (food and drink) of the believer. In the Lord’s Supper, grace has a taste, a feel, a scent. It’s something real that I can hold in the palm of my hand. If I come to church after a week of being unable to read the Bible, a week when I’ve sinned gregariously, a week following which I’m feeling undeniably broken, lost and stumbling, desperately looking for Christ, after that week I can still “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) as opposed to just hearing a sermon about how good and great he is while my mind is wandering, preoccupied by the past week and burdened with the stress of the days to come.

Evans’ relates to this struggle. “Being a Christian,” Evans states, “was (presented to me as) all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life.” American Christendom was founded upon the drawing of lines, the explanation and apologetics of salvation, and the “yes” or “no” label it attaches to life, regardless of it’s nuances.

But this black-and-white approach to faith fails to translate the reality of grace into a postmodern context. It is not tangible, just theoretical.

And what we’re coming to find is that the post-modern individual must be approached by the church as the post-modern person: body, soul, spirit, and mind. Too often the American church acknowledges and cares for the heart or the spirit but in discarding the use of and reliance upon the sacraments they’ve also discarded a spirituality that engages the entire individual, a spirituality that is pragmatic and heavenly. The sacraments connect the grand spiritual experiences of confession with tangible dunking in the water; they connect the sacrifice of Christ and the spiritual nourishment it provides with the actual bread and wine. They bring Christianity down from abstraction to real life. And if Christianity has a hope in a world that is increasingly relational, increasingly emotive, it has to find itself rooted, once again, in real life itself.

If Sunday is to be found, then it must be found within an orthodox communion of saints that evolves around the sacramental understanding of faith as a journey, a road on which we all must trod. The sacraments are the foundation from which a faith of open doors and feasting banquets is built.

As a colleague of mine once put it, the use of the sacraments present an environment in which: 

“…the edifice of belief doesn’t shift no matter who is inside the building. You don’t (personally) believe in the resurrection anymore? Okay. We do. Now come to the Lord’s Table with us and let’s learn together. You don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a Christian? Okay. But you’re still an Episcopalian (Lutheran, Mennonite…) because that is who you are. And we’re not going to abandon you.”

Which is comforting though, again, hardly revolutionary. Which should be taken as a compliment. For such sentiments echo Karl Barth’s reminder that:

“…everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have the faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.”

(Dogmatics in Outline, 21)

What Barth alludes too, my colleague articulated, and Rachel Held Evans is postulating, is that the way forward requires that first we to step back. The way forward is to return to the beginnings of a movement begun by a poor Galilean hanging on a cross. It’s to erase divisive lines and just eat at the table together. It’s to immerse ourselves in the water of baptism and let it’s cool drops remind us of his grace upon us all; to embrace the act of confession as personal laments, not legislative dogma. Which is where the sacraments become imperative. Because, the sacraments engage the whole person wherever they’re at.

Young evangelicals are entering an age of Christendom that is going to force us to settle for orthodoxy. In doing so, we are going to find that orthodoxy does not look like the Christianity we grew up with. Orthodoxy looks like a church that’s always dying. Granted, resurrection is in its future, but its dying nonetheless. It looks like a church filled with beautiful people but ugly sins- awkward sins, despicable sins, sexual sins, societal sins, broken hearts and weeping wounds. It looks like a community of lost people who went searching for Sunday, searching for faith, searching for home, and found ourselves dunked in the water, healed in confession, and feasting at a table in the communion of saints. Now we just want to tell the story in a way that everyone can hear. Because the journey is long but the feast is grand and there’s plenty room for all who may wish to join. 

I’m excited because Rachel Held Evans’ is searching for such a faith. And I, for one, want to join her in the journey.