ShiExod 06-1-1


Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity


Dave Shiflett

Sentinel, 2005, 196 pp., ISBN 1-59523-007-6

Shiflett, who describes himself as an “itinerant Presbyterian,” is a member of the White House Writers Group.  He has written for a number of national publications.  His writing is very readable, in part because it is funny.  As he said of someone else, he seems to write with a razor blade. 


Through two or three interviews representing each, he peeks at Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic, Orthodox, Southern Baptist, and evangelical church traditions.  The book is not an in-depth study but includes miscellaneous insights from a variety of authorities.  I felt I learned least most about Episcopalians and least about evangelicals.


“Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity.”  “There may now be twice as many lesbians in the United States as Episcopalians.”  (Introduction)


Some 2000 statistics from the Glenmary Research Center study:

Decline (in a decade):

·        Presbyterian Church USA (11,106 churches) declined 11.6% in a decade.

·        United Methodist Church (35,721 churches) declined 6.7%

·        The Episcopal Church (7,314 churches) lost 5.3%.

·        United Churches of Christ (5,863 churches) down 14.8%

·        American Baptist Churches USA down 5.7%   (Introduction)

Growth (in a decade):

·        Southern Baptist Convention (41,514 churches), up 5%

·        Presbyterian Church in America, up 42.4%

·        Christian and Missionary Alliance up 21.8%

·        Evangelical Free Church, up 57.2%

·        Assemblies of God (11,880 churches), up 18.5%


A primary reason progressive churches continue to lose members is that they increasingly resemble social service agencies and cannot compete with the abundance of causes and activities.  Successful churches ‘are not ‘reasonable,’ they are not ‘tolerant,’ they are not ecumenical, they are not ‘relevant.’  (according to Thomas Reeve, The Empty Church, 1996)  Commitment to creed is central to conservative churches.  (Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, 1986.)


He remarks on the Episcopal Church’s “veneration for trends,” and calls mainline Christianity a “religious freak show.” (Introduction)


“If our minds are truly open...we should admit the possibility of a True Way that is illuminated accurately in Holy Writ, and therefore editing Scripture to the point of turning it on its head will have serious consequences.” (Introduction)


“The modern Episcopal Church USA is all but unrivaled in its willingness to accommodate itself to cultural change.” (3)


Shiflett particularly investigates “how the winners justified jettisoning twenty centuries of Christian morality.  Indeed, I wondered exactly how they did so: what exactly is the mechanism for convincing the believing rank and file to ignore not only their own church traditions but Scripture they have been taught was written by the very hand of God?” (6)


 “The contemporary virtues of openness, inclusion, hospitality, and tolerance have won out over biblical admonition, especially regarding sexual sin.  The rout has been total.” (15) 


“They have a higher agenda to advance, one that promises to improve upon a failed understanding of God’s will, or in some instances to improve upon the will of a failed God.  This allows them to turn Holy Writ on its head: what was once forbidden becomes acceptable, if not celebrated; admonitions toward holy living suddenly become hate speech.” (24-5)


“Yet they are not giving the world anything it cannot get from television chat shows, movies, op-ed pieces, and the other soapboxes where contemporary sages gather.” (25)


Why were the traditionalists unable to thwart the progressive advance?  He concludes it was because church authorities were tolerant of heretics.  It is not clear that the “winners” will be as tolerant of those who believe, teach, and require adherence to the traditional creeds.


Bishop James Pike was only censured for his heresy and was considered a hero by some.  “The denomination had become an engine of ‘enlightened culture and progressive cultural trends whose bishops could advance prophetic causes without fear of significant disciplinary action.” (40) 


“If within us we have nothing above us we soon succumb to what is around us.” (40, quoting P. T. Forsythe)


“Churches that abandon traditional faith and take up worldly causes, however laudable they may seem, are likely to embrace sever decline, if not extinction.  (41 quoting Dean Kelley)


From a sermon by Rev. Martyn Minns, Truro Church, Fairfax, VA

“God will not be mocked if we declare what God calls sin to be not sin.

God will not be mocked even if we claim that God’s Word is no longer relevant to the complexities of modern life.

God will not be mocked by a church that believes that it can change foundational truth by a majority vote.

God will not be mocked even if we do seem to be getting away with it for a while.

God will have the final word!


“...the Presbyterian Church USA gained yet more pew space, with which it was already well  endowed.” (43)


“Theological heterodoxy, oddity, inconsistency, and outright incoherence are common even in churches that are assumed to be safe havens of orthodoxy....” (44)


“In proportion as a society relaxes its hold upon the eternal, it ensures the corruption of the temporal.” (45, quoting Dr. John Ballie)


“A denomination that allowed even a few priests or bishops to maintain their position after disavowing the Resurrection... had ceded authority and, by allowing the celebrity heretics to keep their jobs, offered an endorsement of sorts.  This not only destroyed a sense of theological coherence.  It suggested that the church could be for and against its core belief, simultaneously.” (47-8)


Eddie Gibbs (In Name Only, 1994) estimated “for 90 percent of church-goers belief is not translated into distinctive Christian values and lifestyle.  Many professing Christians live lives which are indistinguishable from those persons who are not active churchgoers or who profess no Christian commitment.” (56)


One Baptist leader referred to Unitarians as “secularists with steeples.”  “Politics, or at least liberal politics, is the Unitarian passion, but the chief object of worship is the human being.” (59)


The Catholic Church.  “This is the Big House, with more members worldwide than any other branch of the faith and a history that is central to the history of the West.”  “ is in fact one of the most diverse of all human institutions.  It counts among its members the greatest scientific, artistic, and humanitarian minds the world has known, as well as zealots eager to censor and commit torture unto death.”  “It is also the religious destination for many refugees from the mainline train wreck.” (69)


“Catholicism is growing is evangelical Christianity.”  “Southern Hemisphere Catholics, for the most part, are ‘with the program.’” (70)


There is a conservative religious coalition between black and brown Southern Hemisphere Catholics and white American conservatives. (70)


Attending a Christian seminary can be hazardous to one’s faith. (72)  A actual comment from one seminary student to another: “We have figured out your problem.  You’re the only one here who believes in God.” (Introduction)


“When the Devil wants to wreck the church, he gets the clergy to do it for him.”  “A church which tolerates bishops who deny the resurrection has no claim to be a real church at all.” (74, quoting Episcopal Rev. Cahoon)


“The Catholic Church deserves allegiance because it is a bulwark against a lot of the rotten things like euthanasia, abortion, and the devaluation of life.”  “[It] marks one as an enemy of unfettered personal autonomy.  As such, a devoted Catholic is something of an outlaw in his own age, at least in this country.” (76-7)


“Catholicism makes many demands...and the most profound demand is for intellectual submission.  The church believes there is such a thing as right and wrong, that there is such a thing as sin, and there is such a thing as judgment.”  (77)


“Mainline Protestantism will reach a certain point where it will appeal only to Wiccans, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, and people who play the recorder.  No one will feel at home there if they believe in God.” (78)


Catholic Father John McCloskey, who has brought hundreds of people into the church, including a number of conservative intellectuals, believes “that North American Christians, and especially Catholics, can expect to suffer a bloody persecution over the course of the next couple of decades.” (83)


“There are increasingly two United Stateses that have two irreconcilable ways of looking at and living in the world: one, the culture made up of orthodox Christians; the other, the culture of death made up of secular practical atheists.  One or the other, over time, will win.  If the atheists conquer, they will marginalize the Christians to the extent of imprisonment and death.  It can happen here.  The U.S. is the battleground for the survival of the West.  If it goes down, we’ll look for a period of dark ages.”  Practical atheists: “By that I mean people who may believe in God, and who may even go to church, but God makes no difference in what they otherwise believe and how they live their lives.” (88, quoting Father McCloskey)


Regarding American secularization.  “In a usurpation of power that indeed threatens a ‘thinly disguised totalitarianism,’ the courts have frequently suggested that the separation of church and state means the separation of religion and religiously grounded morality from public life, which means the separation of the deepest convictions of the people from politics, which means the end of democracy and, in fact, the end of politics.  Thank God, we are not there yet.” (91-2, quoting Father Richard John Neuhaus)


The Orthodox Church has “a beautiful liturgy that appeared to be beyond political manipulation.  The faithful not only could know where the church stood on theological issues but had every confidence these positions would not be adjusted or abandoned....” (100-01)  About half the clergy are converts.  There are more than 200 million baptized members although a sizable portion may not be regular practitioners. (104)


“Orthodox Christians...have put themselves at odds with many of the central tenets of modern life.  They reject the cult of the autonomous, unencumbered self.  They profess a belief in sin, and especially sexual sin....  (109)


When the Southern Baptist Convention concluded they were being hijacked by liberals, they conducted a purge.  The rallying cry was “biblical inerrancy.”  The SBC is the largest non-Catholic Christian group in the U.S. (112)  There are 16 million Southern Baptists. (113)


It is not true that Baptists are “typically slow of mind, slack of jaw, and animated by prejudice.” (113)


“We can either live by the biblical morality of sex or live in a state of sexual anarchy.” (117, quoting SBC president, R. Albert Mohler) 


There are at least seven schools of inerrancy, “some of which hold the text itself as being inerrant, while others grant that designation to the ‘faith message’ the text conveys.” (119)


“A culture that casually accepts the murder of its newborn children is probably past the point of moral return.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.” “Secularism cannot sit still until every vestige of theism is removed from public life.” (124, Mohler)


While Molher is grim, Dr. Richard Land, professor at Southern Baptist Seminary and head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is much more optimistic.


“True themselves ‘under Scripture.’  That allows ‘different interpretations.  That’s why we have different denominations.  But you cannot differ on what it is....”  “We are not free to pick and choose what parts of Scripture to believe.”  “This type of Christian...not only is adrift but ‘has no inoculation against cultural changes.’” (129, quoting Land)


“The most pro-life group is eighteen- to thirty-one-year-olds.  They know that one-third of their generational cohort was killed by abortion.  They know that they could have been.  Lots of them take that personally.”  Regarding liberals, “I would rather by playing our hand than theirs.” (132-33, quoting Land)


“Today...many churches...are making the same mistake.  This is especially true in some of the large evangelical churches, which Colson said are purveyors of ‘self-centered worship.  You may get people to come to those churches, and you may have church growth.  But you will not have church impact.  The reason is that church becomes increasingly like the culture.  People go in, see a skit, listen to some music, hear a soothing sermon, and think they’ve done their Christian duty.  They are entering the exact precarious position the mainline found itself in in the sixties and seventies.’  What churches should be doing, Colson said, is teaching believers that Christianity offers a sound and rational explanation of life and helping them ‘to see the world through God’s eyes and govern their behavior accordingly.’”  (160, inner quotes are from Charles Colson)


“The traditionalist view of man has it that humans are spiritual beings with sexual impulses that require constant vigilance and restraint.  The progressive view holds that humans are sexual creatures with spiritual impulses that require restraint, especially where they threaten personal freedom.”  (178)


“My own view is that by hollowing out God, liberal theologians crated a spiritual vacuum.”  (179)


Traditionalists “believe themselves to be members of a small, isolated, and increasingly endangered community.” (179)  “Every time they turn on the television they encounter one hideous blasphemy or another.” (180)


According to Philip Jenkins, “Christianity is actually moving toward supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy, and in many ways toward the ancient world view expressed in the New Testament....”  This kind of Christianity is massive and rapidly growing.  (181)


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