It’s funny that I started this blog with the intention of focusing on conservative Christianity, but the hot topics in the blogosphere have led me towards more critiques of liberal Christianity. Recently Ross Douthat, Scott Mcknight, and Tony Jones engaged in an interesting discussion about the future of liberal Christianity. I highly recommend reading each of these articles (including Ross’s initial post, which I did not link to), but I tend to side with Ross’s take more than the others. I admit that I’m a bit of a latecomer to this dialogue, but since it’s an ongoing issue I’ll chime in anyway.
All of them agree that the liberal church is dying – at least its current form. I agree. I live near Penn State, which is a small town with a population that doubles in size when college is in session. The surrounding boroughs have a population of 40,000, and the university currently has approximately 42,000 students. There nothing but farmland and Amish for miles around us – the nearest city is Harrisburg, which is ninety miles away. (This gives you a good idea why the Cult of Paterno has been able to fester unchecked for so long. It’s essentially a giant compound of JoePa indoctrination.)
But enough about Penn State. I’ve spent most of my energy being one of the lone voices willing to recognize the rotten core of Paterno, the university, (and even the community) that I’m burned out on the topic. Maybe another day I’ll tackle it here.
My point of raising demographics here is that, due to the well-educated population (our county almost always the lone county in the middle of the state goes blue in Presidential elections) the town has the potential to be a hotbed of liberal Christianity. The future leaders of the left-wing side of the faith, so to say. It isn’t.
The town’s church population can be summarized as follows: two Catholic Churches (one of which is the “main” Catholic church in town, while the second church is more contemporary.) We have about five main evangelical churches comprising different denominations. The relationship between them is very friendly, and collectively they’re big enough to collaborate and have as big an impact on the community as the Catholic Churches. There’s also a lot of mainline churches of varying sizes, and on the outskirts you’ll find more overly fundamentalistic churches (they even advertise themselves as being fundamentalists!). These churches tend to have much less cultural influence on the community than their Catholic and evangelical counterparts.
Among all these churches, you’ll find only four that recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. I think that the homosexuality question is a good barometer for the theological tone of the community. In my view you have to look where the young people are attending to gauge the future of the faith. They will be the ones raising new families in church and becoming the next generation of pastors and leaders.
Despite all of the talk about evangelicals growing tired of the politicization of Christianity and the rigid stance against environmentalism and homosexuality many churches take, young people aren’t flocking to the liberal churches. They’re flocking to the evangelical churches.
I’ve attended about half of the churches in town at some point over the years. Most recently I’ve begun attending the Episcopal Church. The evangelical churches are young. Everywhere you look you see teenagers, college students, young couples. There are older members of course, but the energy within these churches is in their youth. One of the Baptist churches in town has huge branch campuses attended almost exclusively by teens and college students. The church I recently left had an average age of 40, meaning you had a steady stream of couples having kids and raising them in the church. The next generation of Christians.
The mainline churches, on the other hand, are old. The Episcopal Church is full of friendly elderly people and almost no one under 40 in sight. So you have a strange paradox of gray-haired Christians eagerly embracing both liberal theology and liberal politics, and young, dynamic churches boning up on Creationism and revving up for the culture wars.
If you’re young and a liberal Christian in this town, you’re invisible. You probably don’t attend church, and you probably aren’t inclined to seek one out.
Part of the problem is that the liberal churches generally don’t advertise themselves. They advertise their food drives and soup kitchens, but the conservative churches do their share of that, too. In fact, the right-wing churches are the biggest advertisers for the liberal churches, although the advertising is universally derogatory. I didn’t realize that the local Episcopal Church respected homosexuals and had a environmental committee until I heard evangelicals grumble about the Episcopals’ godless embrace of both causes.
But the bottom line here is that it’s not just a question of attendance numbers. It’s also a question of bringing in and nurturing the next generation of Christians. The liberal churches are depending on their longtime members to keep things going. When they leave this realm, the church may leave it, too. The evangelical churches are growing even as we speak, and given the transient dynamic of a college town, they’re sending of dedicated Christians already conditioned to attend and volunteer to become the future of the church. Liberal Christianity is dying, and one of the reasons it’s dying is that it hasn’t attempted to reach young people. I’ll get into that question in a later post.