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The Liberal Church: Part of the Decline?

February 25, 1997

Nearly a quarter of Americans call one of the seven mainline Protestant denominations their spiritual home. Now you may find your denomination listed among these seven churches:

American Baptist Churches, Disciples of Christ Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church USA), United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

You may also be surprised to hear the liberal views espoused by some of the leaders within these churches. Their membership has plummeted, and many say these churches are in crisis. CBN News reporter Chris Mitchell examines the spiritual trends affecting millions of Americans.

Chris Mitchell, reporter

A battle rages today for the soul of the mainline churches in America, and nothing less than our national destiny is at stake, so warn many concerned church members. Mainline Protestant churches claim to be spiritual home to almost one-quarter of Americans, but many of these churches are dying. During the past 30 years these churches have lost millions of members. For example, the United Methodist Church has lost 1,000 members a week for the last 30 years, and the Presbyterian Church USA has lost 1 1/2 million members since 1965.

To many, this decline is the story of an American tragedy.

"I think the liberal Protestant churches have become, in general, part of the problem rather than the solution," said Thomas Reeves.

Reeves is the author of a new book examining this American crisis, "The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity." The book documents the decline and possible extinction of these historic churches.

"Churches today are all too often, very predictable, very liberal, very permissive, and without any sort of demands being made on the people. And for millions of Americans there seems to be, simply, no reason to go," Reeves said.

Reeves and other analysts say the seeds of the crisis in mainline Protestant churches in the 1990s were planted in the 1960s. During that period when everything was questioned, many in the leadership of the denominations and many of the seminaries questioned or abandoned the authority of Scripture. Thirty years later this liberal view that questions the authority of the Bible has created a spiritual vacuum, a vacuum some church watchers say currently is being filled by a liberal political agenda or even paganism.

"We're seeing, of course, in a lot of mainline denominations a lot of very occult and pagan philosophies taking root," said George Otis, Jr of the Sentinel Group.

Perhaps the most public and publicized pagan practice in mainline churches occurred a few years ago at the RE-imagining God conference in Minneapolis. The God they reimagined bore little resemblance to the God of the Bible. When asked for a theory of atonement, one of the conference speakers said none was needed.

"I don't think we need a theory of atonement at all,"said Delores S. Williams of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. "I don't think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff."

These essentials of the Christian faith for 2,000 years are being questioned.

"Even very basic things to the Christian faith, like the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement of Christ, the idea that Jesus Christ died for our sins those bedrock theological views are up for grabs in some circles," said Diane Knippers of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

Today homosexuality is the issue many say represents the crossroads facing these churches. Last year, for example, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA adopted an amendment that would have barred practicing homosexuals from ordination. The vote provoked many delegates supporting homosexual ordination to walk out.

"I'm saddened. I'm in tears. It's a sad day for the Presbyterian Church USA," one delegate said.

The issue remains a contentious one, since Presbyterian USA congregations nationwide are still voting on the amendment. One hopeful sign many see within these mainline churches is the dozens of reform movements attempting to return these historic churches back to their biblical roots.

The confessing movement in the United Methodist Church is one example. It issued an invitation to the church and declared, `We intend to form a confessing movement within the United Methodist Church. By this we mean people and congregations who exalt the Lordship of Jesus Christ alone and adhere to the doctrinal standards of our church.

These reform movements expose a gulf between the often conservative people in the pews and an often uniformly liberal leadership in the denomination bureaucracies. Reeves, a lifelong Episcopalian, outlines some steps in his book that he believes can help renew these churches. He looks in large part to the laity.

"The laity is going to have to rise up," Reeves said. "They can do that by electing good people to their national church meetings and by withholding their money from the national church, and by making sure that in their local parishes the gospel is--is followed."

The mainline churches of America seem to be at a crossroads, with two distinct roads set before them. One goes back to their ancient biblical teachings. The other goes deeper into modern culture. Which way the churches turn, Diane Knippers believes, will make all the difference to America.

"I don't believe that we're going to see the spiritual and moral renewal that this nation needs to survive without seeing the renewal of these churches," Knippers said. "It simply won't happen. What we need to be doing is praying that God will send a revival that will spread like wildfire across these churches, because we simply won't see national renewal without it."

Diane Knippers of the Institute for Religion & Democracy tells CBN News that leaders from reform movements throughout these churches formed a new group last fall. It is called the Association for Church Renewal, and provides a biblical alternative to the liberal views often coming from some church leaders.

Originally appeared on CBN website at

Copyright 1997 by The Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc. of this page and all contents. All Rights Reserved.

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