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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Trying to Become More Relevant Makes Liberal Churches Less Relevant

There has been a lot of noise about the rise of the Nones in the U.S. As the 2014 Religious Landscape Study reported, more people are not identifying with any organized religious. That doesn't mean they are all atheists, though. According to the Pew organization that published the study, "the majority of Americans without a religious affiliation say they believe in God. As a group, however, the 'nones' are far less religiously observant than Americans who identify with a specific faith."1 The rise of the Nones mirror the decline in mainline Protestant denominations, while religious groups such as Evangelicals are holding steady or even growing slightly. Millennials are increasingly identifying as Nones.

None of this is surprising. Millennials take an increasingly subjective view of faith claims, just as the more mainline denominations had held and taught. I believe the problem stems from the shift that occurred in the theology of mainline seminaries and churches. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainline denominations became increasingly more theologically liberal, spiritualizing what had previously been understood as objective morality and a record of historic events. This was their fatal move, as Francis Schaeffer pointed out in How Should We Then Live:
The new liberal theology, because it says that the Bible does not touch the cosmos or history, has no real basis for applying the Bible's values in a historic situation, in either morals or law. Everything religious is in the area of non-reason, and since reason has no place there, there is no room for discussion; there are only arbitrary pronouncements. Immanuel Kant could not bring together the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds, and the new theologian has no way logically to bring his personal arbitrary values into a historic situation. Or to say it another way: Sartre said that in an absurd world we can authenticate ourselves by an act of the will; but, as we saw, because reason has no place in this we can help people or hurt them. Similarly, because the pronouncements of these theologians about morals or law are arbitrary, in a different mood they, too, can be totally reversed.

The new theologians also have no way to explain why evil exists, and thus they are left with the same problem the Hindu philosophers have; that is, they must say that finally everything that is is equally in God. In Hindu thought one of the manifestations of God is Kali, a feminine representation of God with fangs and skulls hanging about her neck. Why do Hindus picture God this way? Because to them everything that exists now is a part of what has always been, a part of that which the Hindus would call "God"—and therefore cruelty is equal to non-cruelty. Modern humanistic man in both his secular and his religious forms has come to the same awful place. Both have no final way to say what is right and what is wrong, and no final way to say why one should choose non-cruelty instead of cruelty.2
Because mainline denominations abdicated an objective standard of scripture for subjective one, they lost their claim to any real knowledge about the world. The Millennials have recognized this. If there is nothing liberal theology can provide and concrete and objective, then why bother with it at all? If one teaches an olly-olly-oxen-free approach to faith, then why would anyone need to bother with the inconvenience of waling up early to drive to some church building and sit in a pew so someone else can tell them what their understanding of spirituality is? The congregant has his or her own view, which is equally true, so why not skip the whole enterprise? And that's what they've been doing.

Ironically, many mainline churches have tried to recapture the interest of the Millennial generation by showing just how progressive and accepting of all viewpoints they rare. I see banners all the time hanging from Methodist or ELCA churches proclaiming their diversity and acceptance of views that have historically been anathema in Christianity. They don't seem to realize their stance makes their church less relevant in the mind of Millennials, not more so.


1. "U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.
2 Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2005. Print.177-178.
Image by Colin Babb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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