Part 2 of the series “The Dis-Integration of the Church”
click here for part 1
In my last posting, “Religious Homophily: A Theory of Conservative Church Fragmentation,” I presented sociological and psychological support for the notion that “conservative” Christian churches (principally, those whose congregations adhere to exclusive theological beliefs) fragment and divide because of hermeneutical tensions. In other words, conservative congregations break apart because factions within the congregation eventually disagree and split over biblical interpretations. The research into conservative fragmentation was in response to Ken Howard’s recent article, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” which demonstrates that church splitting is on a significant rise, even to the point of outpacing the growth of Christianity itself. But what about mainline-liberal churches? Are they fragmenting just like conservatives or are they suffering from something else? Is the overall decline in liberal membership a result of fragmentation or a completely different problem?
Surprisingly, exactly how we address this question relates to how we understand and define liberal Christianity. According to a 2008 Pew Forum panel discussion with leading experts on religion and politics, “liberal” Christians are those who adhere to “less traditional views of the divine, spirituality and religious authority.” As a generalization, liberal theology adheres to an “experiential-expressive” concept of religious truth, which relegates religion to its non-cognitive experiences, thereby making the propositional nature of church dogma relative to its historical, cultural, philosophical, and psychological context. Sydney Ahlstrom writes, “Liberalism was, first of all, a point of view which, like the adjective ‘liberal’ as we commonly use it, denotes both a certain generosity or charitableness toward divergent opinions and a desire for intellectual ‘liberty.’ Liberal theologians also wished to ‘liberate’ religion from obscurantism and creedal bondage so as to give man’s moral and rational powers larger scope.” In other words, liberalism was a movement designed to reformulate traditional Christian doctrine into contemporary concepts with the use of modern reason and science, which highlighted human autonomy, experiential knowledge, human virtue, and human progress.
According to Ken Howard, the “conservative” wing of Christianity is merely the descendant of John Locke’s belief in the ability to discern universal truths from external sources and inductive reasoning. The “liberal” wing of Christianity, on the other hand, is merely the descendant of René Descartes’s belief in the ability to discern universal truths from internal sources and deductive reasoning. Ironically, while both sides present inaccurate caricatures of the other, they both fail to recognize that they are simply two different branches from the same foundationalist family tree. Both desire the total elimination of doubt, but their quest for certainty sought out either objective universal truths (conservatives) or subjective universal truths (liberals).
What these descriptions encapsulate is the connection between theological liberalism and modernity where the two terms are oftentimes synonymous. As an historical movement, liberalism was designed to save Protestantism from challenges to Christianity made from higher criticism’s use of historical, sociological, and psychological methods to investigate religion. These higher critical methodologies led to an increase in secularization within society, which now required the Christian faithful to respond to modernity’s challenges. Unlike Christian fundamentalists, who emerged alongside liberalism and responded with outright rejection of higher criticism, liberal Christians modified their beliefs to conform to the standards and criteria of modernism. It was their way of trying to keep Christianity respectable while adhering to the advances of modern science. It stressed freedom from dogmatic Christian traditions, which meant freedom to adapt traditional doctrines with the appropriation of modern concepts, as well as emphasized religious experience and the pursuit of social action to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth. Social ethics became central while dogma and sacraments were minimized. The liberal movement had its greatest influential between 1865‒1917 where it became the most successful and growing branch of Christianity in the early twentieth century.
So, what is the status of mainline-liberal churches today? According to Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR), liberalism is in such decline that its continued existence is in serious doubt. Between the years 1960‒2000, membership in liberal churches dropped by 49%, whereas conservative churches increased by 158% during that same period. From the latest Pew Forum “Religious Landscape” survey, the number of mainline Protestants in the United States has decreased by 3.4% between 2007 and 2014, resulting in a decrease of as many as 3‒7.3 million liberal Christians. While Catholics have experienced the largest net loss of adherents, nearly 55% of those who were raised in mainline churches no longer identify with mainline Protestantism. For every one convert, liberal Christians lose 1.7 members. The statistics indicate that mainline-liberal Christianity has a serious issue of dissipation. But do they have the same problem with church fragmentation?
It appears that liberalism experiences fragmentation on the level of theological types and emphases but not necessarily ecclesiological splits. In other words, the liberal church today is no longer a homogenous group of religious believers with the same philosophy or socio-political agenda. For instance, liberalism dominated all the major Christian denominations by 1930. However, as a result of modernity’s inability to provide positive and assured results, liberalism splintered into neo-liberal and neo-orthodox groupings, which continued its program of trying to couple Christianity with modernity’s higher criticism. Ahlstrom likewise documents five different types of liberal theology. The “moralists” are those who believe religion’s main purpose is to inspire ethical conduct. Liberal experientialists, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of religious feelings, consciousness, and experience. The philosophers are those who are more interested in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion while “evangelical liberals” attempt to maintain orthodox Christian beliefs except for where the advances of modernism require doctrinal or ecclesial adjustment. Finally, “modernistic” liberals apply modern scholarship, empiricism, contemporary philosophy, and the scientific method to their religious beliefs. It is this last type of liberalism that has generally concluded Christianity is merely one among many religions and that the Bible is simply a compilation of ancient human literature.
Stanley Grenz and John Franke further divide theological liberalism into two main camps, concluding that these two divisions now characterize liberal “fragmentation.” The first are “revisionist” liberals, who continue to pursue the liberationist goals of the nineteenth century, which gives preeminence to universal human experience as the foundation for the theological enterprise. This form of liberalism seeks an objective and sustainable approach to religion. The other form is “postliberalism,” which seeks to move beyond the classic liberal program by emphasizing the contextualization of reality with biblical symbols. Whereas revisionists sought to make the Bible conform to modernity, postliberals seek to contextualize the modern world with biblical symbols, stories, and categories (“intratextual theology”). Instead of advocating for universal human experiences, postliberal theology understands each religious community as a self-contained group with a shared language, shared perspective, and shared culture. Nonetheless, postliberalism remains firmly within the liberal tradition because it still appropriates modern methodologies that oftentimes change the nature of orthodox doctrine.
While there are factions within theological liberalism, none appears to precipitate the occurrence of church fragmentation. In other words, theological liberalism is prone to dissipation more than splintering. Proof that mainline Christians are terminating their religious affiliation instead of fragmenting into other congregations appears in the latest Pew Forum “Religious Landscape” survey. As noted, the majority (55%) of Christians raised in the liberal tradition no longer affiliate with mainline Protestantism. However, the majority of those who left did not switch to another religious tradition. Instead, 26% are now religiously unaffiliated while 19% transferred into evangelical churches.
This is not to suggest that some liberal churches never fragment over liturgical, doctrinal, or moral issues the same as conservatives. One of the most pertinent examples of this appears in the separation of certain Presbyterian churches from their mother denomination, the “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” in order to join more conservative factions, such as the “Evangelical Presbyterian Church” (EPC). The difference is that liberal churches tend to lose more congregants to a non-affiliated stance more than to splintering into different congregations. The members who do remain in church simply assimilate into already-established conservative churches or denominations, whereas conservative congregants will actually divide and create new worship centers in opposition to their parent church. This last point is especially evident once readers recognize that mainline Christians comprise only 14.7% of the total US population whereas evangelicals comprise 25.4%, a significant statistical difference that continues to grow wider. Wherever fragmentation is occurring, it is affecting conservatives most because their membership numbers continue to remain stable while their worship centers continue to grow. Liberals, on the other hand, are neither growing nor splintering into new congregations.
In the end, it seems that “liberal” Christianity suffers more from dissipation than fragmentation. Theological liberalism’s biggest problem is dwindling participation and declining memberships. This is not surprising given the nature of liberal theology. Because of the charitable and inclusive beliefs of liberal churches, their congregations do not have a reason to split into separate ecclesial bodies or worship centers. Likewise, the ecclesial structure of mainline churches is less conducive for fragmentation because of their dependence on denominational organizations, unlike many evangelical churches that are autonomous and free to divide on a whim. The members who leave mainline Protestantism either transfer into an unaffiliated status or into evangelical churches. But this is a dissipation of the liberal movement, not fragmentation. The available evidence suggests that more than anything, liberal concepts are either becoming irrelevant or their members are becoming conservative, not splintering into different congregations.
With these statistics in mind, the question becomes, why would liberal Christians transfer into a conservative setting (if they choose to continue church affiliation at all)? What is appealing about evangelical churches that might make a former liberal more inclined to accept conservative beliefs? In my next posting, I will explore the potential theological and psychological causes for why liberal Christians sometimes choose to become evangelicals after leaving the mainline tradition, as opposed to joining less dogmatic or postliberal congregations.
Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Have, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.
Beale, David O. In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850. Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986.
EPC: A Global Movement of Evangelical Presbyterian Churches. “History: In the Beginning.” https://www.epc.org/history (accessed March 2, 2017).
Franke, John R. The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
Grenz, Stanley J., and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Howard, Kenneth W. Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010.
———. “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity.” International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society 7, no. 2 (2017): 77-93.
Hunsinger, George. “Postliberal Theology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. 2003. Pbk. ed, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Reprint, 42-57. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Kauffman, Donald T., ed. Baker’s Concise Dictionary of Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985.
Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
McKim, Donald K., ed. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
O’Keefe, Mark, and John Green. Assessing a More Prominent ’Religious Left’. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008. Accessed January 7, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2008/06/05/assessing-a-more-prominent-religious-left/.
Smith, Gregory. America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015. Accessed January 9, 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/05/RLS-08-26-full-report.pdf.
Stark, Rodney. What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008.
 The term “conservative” is synonymous with the “evangelical tradition” as defined by the Pew Forum, which includes exclusionary views of salvation and oftentimes a separatist mindset against established religious institutions (Gregory Smith, America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow [Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015], 22, accessed January 9, 2016, http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/05/RLS-08-26-full-report.pdf). More generally, religious “conservatism” emphasizes maintaining past traditions, doctrines, and creeds (Donald T. Kauffman, ed., Baker’s Concise Dictionary of Religion [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985], s.v. “Conservatism”), ultimately finding an affinity with classical presentations of theology (Donald K. McKim, ed., Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996], s.v. “Conservative Theology”).
 Kenneth W. Howard, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society 7, no. 2 (2017): 77-93.
 In this posting, the terms “mainline” and “liberal” are interchangeable since the Pew Forum defines mainline Christians as those with inclusivistic beliefs about salvation and an emphasis on social reform, which are common characteristics of liberal Christianity (Smith, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, 22). For a helpful list of the kinds of congregations included within the “mainline” tradition, see “Appendix B: Classification of Protestant Denominations” (pp. 100-11).
 As Ken Howard often remarks, both conservative and liberal churches can be exclusive but in different ways: conservative churches tend to be objectively (or propositionally) exclusive, while liberal churches tend to be subjectively (attitudinally/emotionally) exclusive.
 Mark O’Keefe and John Green, Assessing a More Prominent ‘Religious Left’ (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008), accessed January 7, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2008/06/05/assessing-a-more-prominent-religious-left/. As this panel discussion elaborates, it is important not to equate liberal theology with liberal political beliefs. Those who are theologically liberal are not always politically liberal and vice versa.
 George Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Pbk. ed., ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (2003; repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 44-46.
 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Have, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 779. Kauffman, Baker’s Concise Dictionary, s.v. “Liberalism;” McKim, Westminster Dictionary, s.v. “Liberal Theology/Liberalism.”
 Ken Howard, Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), 30-46.
 George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 32-36. For a detailed historical examination of liberal theology in the United States, see Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People, 763-84.
 Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 21-22.
 Smith, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, 4, 8.
 According to the Pew Forum, 19% of respondents said they were raised as mainline Protestant but 10.4% said they left for a different religious tradition, totaling a loss of 54.74% due to “religious switching” (Smith, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, 13, 39).
 Ibid., 33-34.
 David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 245-49. It is questionable whether neo-orthodoxy should be considered a subset of theological liberalism.
 Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People, 781-83.
 Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 4-7. See also, John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 28-34.
 This appears to be true despite Grenz and Franke’s unfortunate use of the term “fragmentation.”
 Smith, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, 39.
 When discussing their history, the EPC remarks about its founders, “These leaders had become increasingly distressed by theological liberalism and institutional resistance to change in their denominations. They wanted to form a Church that took seriously the Bible, the theology of the historic confessions of the faith, and the evangelical fervor of the founders of American Presbyterianism. They envisioned a denomination that was really evangelical and really Presbyterian” (“History: In the Beginning,” EPC: A Global Movement of Evangelical Presbyterian Churches, https://www.epc.org/history [accessed March 2, 2017]).
 Smith, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, 4, 20-21, 25.