Can Christianity Survive?

A day or so ago, Ross Douthat had an op-ed piece published in the New York Times with the inquisitive title Can Liberal Christianity Survive?“. The article looks at the continued decline of the Episcopal Church that seems to be a result of their ever progressing embrace of the social liberal agenda.

In response, church historian and author Diana Butler-Bass wrote a piece titled “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Reponse to Ross Douthat” in the Huffington Post. Butler-Bass’ point is that the question to ask is not whether liberal Christianity can be saved but whether Christianity itself can be saved in the US.

For the most part, I really enjoy this response because the reality is that both liberal and conservative/evangelical Christianity is on the decline in America. Yet Butler Bass points to a grass root movement taking place among liberal Christianity in which churches are “…growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”

Such renewal as Butler-Bass describes is certainly a turn in the right direction. But I wonder if this is enough. The article is just vague enough that I wonder, is this a return to the witnessing life that characterized the church that emerged as a revolutionary proclamation of God’s reign in the first century or is this just more or the same that flat-lined faith couched in different language. Of course, time will answer this question which Butler-Bass also recognizes too at the end of the article.

But I raise this question not just to question the liberal traditions within Christianity, for I believe liberal and conservative/evangelical Christianity is suffering from fundamentally the same problem. From where I sit, liberal Christianity has aligned itself with the progressive social agenda of Western democracy but her younger sibling, conservative/evangelical Christianity, has aligned itself with the traditional and nationalistic values of America. Though these may appear to be two different problems, they are actually only two different sides of the same coin because both sides have allowed (in varying degrees) the Christian faith to be co-opted by the modern culture of Western society.

If I am right in my assessment, what sort of renewal is needed among American Christianity as a whole. To answer this question, I believe there is a key biblical passage that needs to be heard again.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

– Acts 1:8

This passage describes what these apostles and disciples went out and did by the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe renewal will come as Christianity returns to living as “witnesses” of Jesus Christ.

To live as witnesses of Jesus Christ requires to three fundamental. First, renewal is not a task that can be accomplished apart from the Holy Spirit. So it demands a return to prayer and other spiritual disciplines that allow the Spirit to form our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of God. Second, living as a witness of Jesus involves participating in the very way of life Jesus teaches us to live. We are, after all, followers or disciple of Jesus. So to live as a witness of Jesus, we must embrace a life that embraces the same beliefs and values Jesus lived his life by. Lastly, living as a witness of Jesus involves the proclamation of the gospel or good news. This is not the worn-out, you’re-a-sinner-and-you-need-to-trust-in-Jesus-as-your-personal-Savior preaching that has characterized evangelicalism. This is the proclamation that the Jesus was crucified but was raised by God and exalted to the right hand of God and now reigns as Lord and Messiah (the same apostolic preaching in Acts).

When Christianity embraces this call to live as witnesses of Jesus it becomes that church that rejects power of this world, choosing instead to love God, neighbor, one another, and even enemy. It does so by practicing hospitality, communion, justice and mercy, caring for the sick along with the “orphans and widows” and so on. But it also is the church that has the courage to tell the world that there is no other name by which we must be saved (cf. Acts 4:12).

This is not a church that is concerned with the progressive social agenda or the traditional-nationalistic agenda of America. It is a church that is concerned with the good news of the kingdom of God, just like Jesus. That is the church that reaches up, in, and out. I have confidence that Christianity embracing this call to witness can revive and survive because it has in the past.

8 responses to “Can Christianity Survive?

  1. its easier than that; come back to the Church that gave you the Bible- if you do church from your heart, you will have the real thing.

    • As an outside observer, I know the least about the Eastern Orthodox Church but from what I have observed, their traditionalism just might stand in the way of the renewal I am speaking of.

  2. Amen. I’m not worried about the church in fact I think it might be good if AmericanChristianity died. Then the kingdom might get somewhere.

  3. Rex,

    Douthat laid the bait and everyone took it.

    My fundamental problem with his article is this: He never establishes the fact that Episcopal Churches are declining BECAUSE of left-leaning politics. He takes 2 things that are true (1) Episcopal Churches are declining and (2) Last week they authorized same-sex liturgy and combines them into cause and effect. He literally couldn’t have written the same article a week before, and Episcopal churches were declining then too. That, my friend, in no intellectual, philosophical, or scientific system equals causation.

    There are other things you could say: (1) Episcopal churches have deemphasized the pulpit, (2) Their liturgy is old, boring, and out-of-touch with contemporary life, (3) Episcopal churches have not invested in youth and college ministries as deeply as evangelicals and then connect them to decline. None of these are proofs either. Douthat is, for lack of a better word, guessing. He thinks liberal politics is the reason. He never establishes that as the reason.

    Crazily, he might be right. I have no idea why Episcopal churches are declining. Maybe he does.He just doesn’t establish it in this article.

    As for Diana Butler-Bass, well, she lives for stuff like this. Interestingly, few people who have read either article have bothered to require of their authors any proof of their claims.

    • I suppose newspaper articles can only do so much but I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to correlate the left-leaningness of the Episcopal as a reason for their decline. The same goes for the deteriorating that is beginning to take place among conservative/evangelical Christianity. It doesn’t seem to require much of a stretch to see how evangelicalism willingness to lean more to a political right-wing stance is taking its toll. For both, it seems to be a departure from being witnesses of Jesus. Having said that, there are a lot of generalizations made, simplifying a more complex issue.

      Any ways, this morning as I awoke, I immediately thought of some other things I could have said about bringing renewal, so I like your mention of the pulpit, liturgy, and investment in youth. I would also add a renewed interest in holiness and piety, which seems to get a good bit of press in scripture. Nevertheless, whether the claims of Douthat and Bass are as strong as they make them, I stand by the conviction that renewal will happen as Christianity (re)discovers the call to be witnesses of Jesus Christ again.

      Thanks for your engaging comment.

      • There is only so much you can say in an article. You and I know this ad bloggers. But when making such a striking claim, one piece of evidence would be helpful. Douthat offers none! It is wild, blind speculation. That’s what gets me. If his reason is THE reason, there is a survey or something somewhere that says so.

        This was simply a case of his political leanings being one way, there’s being another and because they’re declining, he wants to use that as proof of his rightness.

        I agree with you about politics and the church – both left and right – but when I say that to others, I typically preface it by saying, “I have no proof of this, but my hunch is…” or “Anecdotally, I can say…” but I’m not writing for the NYTimes. If people on the right want to get exorcised about when the Times has no facts or misuses information, then they should be equally upset with them now. That’s all I’m saying.

        He could have just as easily said, “Episcopal churches are in decline because they use the word Narthex instead of lobby.”

  4. Hi Rex,
    I agree that much of American Christianity is focused on its “special” nation, either trying to use God to bless its power and prosperity (God bless America) or trying to use God to change its laws and traditions. When Jesus gave his “commission” in Acts 1:8, it was to disciples that had just asked about restoring the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ commission instead emphasizes a witness focused on Jesus–empowered by the Spirit–and found among all the nations.

    I’m afraid Christianity in America has seen itself more as another kingdom of Israel than as part of Jesus’ international kingdom of God. Instead of focusing on the Jesus of the New Testament, many American Christians have majored on the (whole) bible to the extent that the Old Testament focus on the nation of Israel predominates. So the “liberal” churches see themselves as (O.T.) prophets trying to reform the nation and its leaders, while the “conservative” churches call for leaders who will uphold their national laws and traditions, which will lead to blessing from God (as under the terms of the law of Moses: keep God’s commands and be blessed; disobey God’s commands and be cursed).

    If so, what is needed is not a “restoring” of the kingdom of Israel (America), but a return to Jesus’ international kingdom of God, small groups of disciples in every nation who follow Jesus as exclusive king (Lord). When Peter tells the house of Israel in Acts 2:36 that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ, Peter is contrasting this new king with the most revered king in Israel’s history, king David (2:29-35). And the early churches that resulted from this focus on Jesus were more of a loving, learning fellowship of brothers and sisters meeting in homes, rather than “synagogue-like” churches with “rabbis” (fathers) ruling from the front (pulpits), using rituals (liturgies) and pronouncements based on the law of Moses for the kingdom of Israel.

  5. Pingback: can liberal Christianity be saved?: a collection of responses |

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