Three Lessons from the Decline of Mainstream Protestantism

What are evangelicals to make of the developments from the mainline denominations?

While the intention may be worthy, the results are likely to be disastrous: a social Gospel that is all social and no Gospel; a church which has nothing to say that secular elites have not already said, and usually said better; a horizontal faith with a penchant for the instantaneous and the disconnected but with no confidence in the overarching storyline of God’s redemptive love from creation to consummation. 

At Christianity Today we often speak of the summer months as the “church report season,” as many denominations hold their annual meeting or conference during this time of the year.  The two words most often used to describe mainline Protestantism in North America are “crisis” and “decline,” both of which seem justified in light of recent trends.

The recent article by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” offers an insightful analysis of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) whose House of Bishops last week approved an official liturgy to bless same-sex unions.  This is the same communion which counts among its great champions of the past the likes of Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, and William Wilberforce, and of which George Washington was a member.  Meanwhile, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) very narrowly turned back a proposal to redefine marriage.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has already adopted what is euphemistically called a “more inclusive” policy in sexual ethics.  This has resulted in denominational fracturing and the emergence of several distinct Lutheran renewal groups.  Similar struggles have long been present in the United Methodist Church.  But this church body which holds one significant advantage over other mainline denominations: the UMC General Conference allows voting members from outside North America.  Largely with the support of African delegates, the UMC defeated the latest effort to “reform” (i.e. abandon) its historic commitment to biblical standards.  There are flashes of light amidst the shadows.

What are evangelicals to make of these developments?  Here are three lessons.

1. There is an intrinsic connection between spiritual vitality and theological integrity.  The debate over homosexual practices within the mainline denominations is not the root cause but only the presenting issue in the devolution Ross Douthat has described so well.

2. The continuing saga and approaching collapse of mainline denominations should prompt us to pray.  Within each of the mainline denominations, there are many faithful believers who have not “bowed the knee to Baal.”

3. Evangelicals have no room to boast or gloat over the “sickness unto death” in the mainlines.

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