The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, has made a conscious decision to remain conservative and resist the liberal drift that many Protestant groups have made in recent years. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest seminaries in the world and the ﬂagship school for the Southern Baptist Convention, has addressed ways liberal denominations are trying to change. Mohler writes:
The largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church, USA [PCUSA] has debated the same issues for years now, even as it has discussed allowing its clergy to replace references to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with metaphors like “Rainbow, Ark and Dove,” “Speaker, Word and Breath,” “Overﬂowing Font, Living Water and Flowing River,” “Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-Giving Womb,” “Sun, Light and Burning Ray,” “Giver, Gift and Giving,” “Lover, Beloved and Love,” “Rock, Cornerstone and Temple,” and “Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides and Storm that Melts Mountains.”
It is diﬃcult for regular church attendees to understand these new metaphors because they are so abstract. Imagine how much more diﬃcult it is for postmodern people, who have no biblical foundation, to grasp these confusing new religious metaphors. These metaphors are but one example of how theological liberalism leaves people confused. When churches cannot clearly communicate their message, it is understandable why fewer people attend. As fewer people attend, liberal churches seek to devise ever-more-complicated metaphors in the vain hope that one of those spiritual metaphors will connect with emerging generations. But the statistics reveal that mainline Protestant denominations continue to shrink rapidly, mostly because they have been unable to retain the church attendance of the next generation. What will be the end result of theological liberalism in these mainline denominations? Mohler concludes, “Short of a major act of God, mainline Protestantism will continue its slide into apostasy and irrelevance.”
While the pain that theological change causes and the confusion that liberal concepts bring are two major factors in why liberal churches continue to decline, the greatest reason lies in the fact that when the values of the church no longer stand in contrast to the culture, the church loses its identity and very purpose for existing.
Paul Vanderklay is the pastor at the Living Stones Christian Reformed Church in Sacramento, California. Vanderklay points out: “Church growth pundits have long noted that groups that grow almost always have clear, speciﬁc, counter-cultural views that motivate their people to action.” He adds: “Part of the fatality of liberalism has to do with individualism. Deep in the heart of liberalism is the belief that ultimately I decide for me. [Since] …churches are arrangements of convenience … as soon as the cost-benefit balance tips out of my favor I’ll seek out another convenience, or lifestyle that seems more ‘life giving’ to me. In other words, once liberal churches lose the perceived value they added to individuals’ sense of self, those individuals no longer see a reason to participate.”
When churches become just like the culture, they are no longer counter-cultural. Consequently, they lose their appeal to younger generations who like to live on the edge. This is why churches want to engage the culture without actually adopting the culture. There is a huge diﬀerence between the two. Ignoring the culture is no longer an option; neither is adopting the culture. It is important for cultural issues to be understood and dealt with in a way that preserves biblical values if the church hopes to reach the next generation without losing itself in the process.
Across the theological spectrum, others are reaching that same conclusion. Tony Robinson, president of the Seattle-based Congregational Leadership Northwest, speaks and writes, nationally and internationally, on religious life and leadership. The author of ten books, Robinson had a lot to write about in August 2010 when Mars Hill Church, which is a rapidly growing conservative church in Seattle, purchased the facility of a dying liberal church across town. While discussing why the conservative church was growing so rapidly while the liberal church had been in a long, slow decline, Robinson concluded:
It may be that relatively comfortable liberals … simply feel little need for religion. Meanwhile, the people Mars Hill is reaching may have experienced more of the rough edges of contemporary society and are receptive to a diﬀerent direction. Robinson’s writings hint at the idea that liberals just do not see the need for church involvement in their daily lives. Even as churches tried to attract postmodern people by becoming more liberal, they were chasing a ﬂeeting fantasy because young people from that worldview were not interested anyway.
Jill Flannel agrees with Robinson. Flannel grew up in a mainline Protestant denomination. Her husband served as a pastor in the denomination for more than twenty years, and she served as the women’s ministry leader for the statewide organization of the denomination for many years. Flannel and her husband ﬁnally had to leave that denomination because of its continual slide toward theological liberalism. When asked why liberal churches in her former denomination were not growing, Jill responded, “If I’m OK and you’re OK, why should we bother to get up on Sunday morning? We can watch Dr. Phil or Oprah and get the same stuﬀ.” Jill has identiﬁed instinctively what Vanderklay and Robinson have concluded through research and observation. Pursuing liberalism as a means of church growth will not work because liberals do not think they need churches, regardless of those churches’ theological beliefs.
Adopting postmodern values will not help to reach postmodern people. This method will not work because of the pain it brings to non-postmodern adults who are already in those churches. They will simply leave in greater numbers than postmodern young people can replace them. This method also will not work because it produces confusing religious symbols and metaphors that, once divorced from a biblical framework, fail to communicate signiﬁcant spiritual truth to those seeking it. Finally, this method will not work because if churches adopt the values of the prevailing culture, then they lose their counter-culture identity and there is no point in being a part of a counter-culture movement that is no longer counter-cultural.
Adapted from Dr. Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.