Why “Progressive Christianity” is the New “Liberal Mainline”… (and The Effort Not to Toss the Baby Out With the Bathwater)

There is a massive shift going on in American Christianity, particularly over the last decade, and it is time we owned up to what is going on. For all practical purposes, the death knell of the “liberal mainline Protestant” church is approaching, and it is approaching fast. Unless something remarkable happens to reverse it, the current trend is that traditionally liberal mainline Protestant churches will effectively cease to exist within the next twenty or thirty years.

This would sadly include the Episcopal Church USA, the denomination that I grew up in as a child (and loved dearly). The decline is not unexpected though.

The cultural influence of those big churches, with big steeples, on main street are fading, being replaced by the resurgence of conservative Evangelical churches. Such Evangelical churches, particularly “mega-church” style congregations, with large campuses out in suburbia, or taking over abandoned shopping malls, are becoming the signature identifying characteristic of American Christianity.

Not your standard picture of the church in the 21st century. We have mostly moved past this. But what are we moving towards?

“Mega-church” style churches grew out of the Neo-Evangelical movement of the mid-20th century, most commonly associated with the name of the late-evangelist Billy Graham. While smaller so-called “fundamentalist” churches still proliferate, with the King-James-Only movement being the most pronounced holdouts, the “mega-church” phenomenon dominates the Evangelical landscape today, and they are swiftly overtaking the liberal Protestant mainline.

Granted, there are valiant attempts to try to revive the liberal Protestant mainline. A renewed emphasis on liturgy, an interest in “spirituality,” service to the community, or else latching onto progressive political causes, has sought to try to bring new life into the mainline. But the decline of adherence to historically Christian doctrinal teaching has been working against those efforts to revitalize the church on “main street.”

But we all see the writing on the wall. The mainline is dying. Well-documented research on the “rise of the nones,” tells the story. Children growing up in the liberal Protestant mainline can not tell the difference between what goes on in their church, and what goes on outside of the church. What passes for the liberal Protestant mainline today is often a repackaging of secular America, with religious labels stuck on top.

The liberal Protestant mainline is doing everything it can to try to avoid looking “Christian”, while somehow still trying to be “Christian.” It may convince some people, particularly for those raised in those mainline traditions, who love certain elements of those traditions. But broadly speaking, it just is not working out very well. Newer generations of young people are not buying into it.

And everyone knows it.

The Slow Death of the Protestant Mainline, and the Shift to “Mega-Church” Evangelicalism

In one sense, Protestant Evangelical Christianity has benefitted from this looming implosion of the mainline. More people are gravitating to the world of the Evangelical mega-church. This newer breed of churches are providing the very things that the mainline once did, while largely working to shed the external trappings that felt confining in the mainline.

Less organ and choirs. More guitars and drums. Less ornamentation and a less “church-y” look. More of a sense of being in a plush movie theater, or a big box discount store, or a concert hall, all depending on your tastes. Less ties and more polo shirts.

But the real big differences are less external and more theological. In those Evangelical churches there is a greater sense that these people actually believe what is being taught in the Bible, as opposed to whatever was going on in the Protestant mainline. 

Recent data analysis by sociologist/political-scientist Ryan Burge helps to explain what is going on. Those with a Protestant mainline background, who desire to retain their faith, have grown disillusioned with liberal denominations, and are therefore more drawn to conservative, Evangelical churches. Those with conservative Evangelical backgrounds are more likely to stay within their traditions, as compared to cradle-mainliners. 

Burge puts it this way: “it’s twice as likely for a mainline Protestant to become an evangelical these days than for an evangelical to leave for a mainline tradition. In raw numbers, for every two evangelicals who became a mainline Protestant, about three mainline Protestants became evangelical.”

Here is one way to observe the mainline to “mega-church” shift: Rarely do you ever hear anymore about a distinguished mainline theologian, harkening back to the 20th century days of a Paul Tillich, Richard or Reinhold Niebuhr, or a Hans Kung (Roman Catholic). Now it is mainly popular Protestant evangelical pastors, like a John Piper, David Jeremiah, Rick Warren, or John MacArthur, with a few more Evangelical academic types thrown in every now and then (an academic class that hardly even existed a few generations ago). Protestant Evangelical Christianity is indeed vibrant and growing in certain parts of America, but there is a catch to it.

According to Ryan Burge again, much of that growth in Evangelicalism comes not from the unchurched, but rather from defections from the Protestant mainline. Essentially, the continued church growth associated with “mega-church” Christianity comes primarily from those disillusioned with the Protestant mainline. The influx of new faces in “mega-church” Evangelical churches is offset by more defections from Evangelicalism itself, where many cradle-Evangelicals are walking away from Christianity altogether …. just as you find in the Protestant mainline.

Trouble is brewing inside Evangelicalism. The decline of the mainline has meant that the problems that once plagued the liberal mainline are now making their way into the sanctuaries of Evangelical churches.

For decades, conservative Evangelical churches could be counted on as “holding the line” when it comes to fending off attacks to the Christian faith, whether they be “in your face” efforts to discredit the Bible, made by skeptical non-believers, or more subtle efforts to weaken Scriptural authority, advocated by Christians who have had a “cafeteria” approach to the faith, picking and choosing those things in the Bible that seemed acceptable to them, and discarding or simply downplaying the rest. If you wanted to find out where someone might be holding onto such a weakened view of the Bible, you would need to look at liberal mainline Christianity for that.

But with the decline of the liberal mainline, that population has begun to shift towards those Evangelical circles, that were once the bastion against theological compromise. For example, it would have been unheard of in Evangelical churches thirty years ago, to hear talk of sanctioning same-sex marriage, as a viable Christian option.

Not so today.

To put it another way, today’s Evangelical movement is becoming the new mainline…. and thus inheriting all of the problems that have come with it.

A 2018 study by political scientist Ryan Burge suggests the percentage of both Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals will continue on a slight decline, for the next ten years, with Roman Catholics holding on a little better. But the most dramatic shift is the rapid decline of the liberal Protestant mainline and the rapid increase of the “Nones” or “Dones,” that is those who profess to hold to “No Religion.” Unless a spiritual revival happens, the “Nones” and the “Dones” will eventually quadruple the number of “Mainline” Christians.

Protestant Mainline Stragglers, and Wounded Evangelicals Deconstructing Their Faith

What makes the shift more complicated is the growing presence of wounded Christians, emerging from the more conservative end of Evangelicalism. In generations past, these fallouts from “fundamentalism” eventually found their way into the mainline churches. But with fewer and fewer mainline options available to them these days, these people still remain in historically conservative Evangelical circles, though perhaps they find places to hide out, and stay off the radar… (but sometimes not). Well-intentioned movements that have energized previous generations of conservative Evangelicals (and that still have staying power today), such as Purity Culture, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Young-Earth Creationism, and culturally-white, right wing political causes have left scars felt by many Christians, having grown up buoyed by such movements.

Unlike their mainline counterparts, these wounded products of Evangelicalism are chafing against certain rigid elements of their upbringing. Processing those wounds and seeking a move towards healing is really what “deconstruction” is all about today.

…. side note…. If you do not know what “deconstruction” is regarding faith, the easiest way to explain it is when someone considers that they are at first strong in their Christian faith, but then begins to have a doubt about some particular aspect of that faith. As that person explores that doubt, other doubts are exposed. Then more doubts start to pile up. The prime analogy used by someone undergoing spiritual “deconstruction” is the sensation of pulling on a loose thread on a sweater, but when you keep pulling on it, the whole sweater begins to fall apart. …. That, in a nutshell, is a decent way of describing “deconstruction”end of side note

More and more wounded Evangelicals are trying to rebuild their faith, seeking to scrap those pieces of their upbringing that have become barriers to their Christian faith. In some cases, such wounded Evangelicals do find a restoration of faith, with a healthy measure of sobriety and moderation. In others cases, this process of “deconstruction” has sadly led to an all-out deconversion from the faith (see this video interview by Sean McDowell with John Marriott for a 3-minute explanation as to how bad the problem is). In other ways, someone might still call themself a “Christian,” and yet core components of Christian faith may or may not remain after such deconstruction, with certain edgy features poking out every now and then.

In the process of providing a haven for wounded Evangelicals, this leaves Evangelical churches in a precarious state. Reaction to certain excesses in the more conservative wings of the Evangelical movement can lead to overreactions that dismiss too much of the good along with the bad. It is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

We see this a lot in the world of online, Internet social media. As I have argued elsewhere, the Internet has made it possible to have easy access, at a click of a mouse, or a TikTok video, to information that was once locked up in libraries and university classrooms. Questions that were once only entertained in religion department seminars, and occasional PBS televised documentaries, are now topics that pop up in coffeehouses and while waiting around in a car repair shop to get your oil changed. Christian parents find it increasingly difficult to keep negative influences away from their children. It is almost impossible to keep this bombardment of information from encouraging doubt and skepticism, even in the most conservative of churches.

Over the past ten years, since devices like the iPhone have taken over the world, just about every cardinal doctrine of historically, orthodox Christian faith has come under fire among so-called “Post Evangelicals,” “Post Conservatives,”  “ExEvangelicals,” … you name it. The grievances associated with distorted presentations of such cardinal doctrines, ranging from substitutionary atonement to the authority/inerrancy of Scripture, have triggered knee-jerk reactions from those wounded by such theological misunderstandings. In some cases, those grievances are justified. Irresponsible teaching from the Bible coming from otherwise sound Evangelical pulpits has confused the intended meaning of the original Scriptural authors, as it was inspired by God. But in other cases, such grievances are not justified…. so out with the baby with the bathwater.

Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater! The danger associated with “Progressive Christianity”

“Progressive Christianity”…. and the Temptation to Toss Out the Baby With the Bathwater

This state of affairs then creates a most fascinating mix. Here you have both theologically liberal products of the dying mainline joining up with wounded Evangelicals, all gathering together in certain corners of the Evangelical subculture, sometimes incognito, and sometimes not. This is perhaps the best way of describing what is now becoming known as “progressive Christianity.”

It is important to realize that this mix is not uniform. Not all “progressive Christians” are alike. This is why it is best to leave “progressive Christianity” in quotes, as the definition of that term will be different from person to person. But the key thing to understand is that something broadly called “progressive Christianity” exists, and you will find it today in places you would never expect.

If you are in an Evangelical church, you might even find it right under your nose…. but you may not notice it right away. Furthermore, because it is so subtle, it may trip you up, if you are not careful.

… And this is why this massive shift towards “progressive Christianity” is not so good for the church. Rather, it creates a huge challenge.

Like the fundamentalist/modernist controversy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the secularizing cultural pressure to dislodge the moorings of historic, orthodox faith is at the heart of such testing. But unlike that controversy, a century ago, when large Protestant mainline denominations split into a large liberal wing, against multiple, smaller more conservative congregations and groups, today’s “progressive Christianity” is happening largely inside already existing Evangelical churches, that in previous generations were leaning more towards the “fundamentalist” side of the theological divide.

Loving Your “Progressive Christian” Friends… While Still Affirming Historically Orthodox Christian Faith

Now, this does not mean that we should become paranoid, and start looking under the pews in our churches, in an effort to sniff out the heretics in our midst. All you need to do is to take a glance in searching YouTube, and you will quickly find self-proclaimed “heresy-hunters” calling out what they think is false teaching, leavening the Evangelical flock, when all they are really doing is embarrassingly displaying their own ignorance.  The problem with “heresy-hunters” is that many times their wounded critics are often correct in certain elements of their criticism, and such critics deserve a fair hearing. In other words, sometimes efforts to supposedly “defend the faith” can become quite misguided and ill-informed.

Therefore, careful and generous listening is in order first and foremost when dealing with folks wrapped up in the orbit of “progressive Christianity.” Taking a “chill pill” might be in order before anyone brings out a pitch fork.

But it does mean that we should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

It also means that we need to be in prayer now more than ever. We need to pray for the “progressive Christians” in our midst, and ask the Lord for wisdom, that we might be able to engage in conversations with others, with love and grace.

The larger challenge, going forward, will be in the evangelization of those who have deconstructed their way out of the Christian faith altogether (but that is a different story).

I have had to learn the hard way that folks who have left the old liberal mainline, as well as those who have come up wounded in Evangelical circles, who are now seeking refuge in Evangelical churches, are both people for whom Jesus died for, and whom God loves much more than I do. We must be patient, long-suffering, and willing to go the distance to try to genuinely learn from those caught up in “progressive Christianity,” to try to understand what led them into “progressive Christianity,” in an effort to win them back over into the Gospel. This is not easy, and I have failed at this many times. Nevertheless, this is something that we must do.

If you not convinced by this argument, take a listen to Alisa Childers, a former singer for the Christian band ZoeGirl, who almost lost her faith while attending what she thought was a solid Evangelical church. Instead, she was drawn into the orbit of “progressive Christianity” in that very church. It took her years to “deconstruct” and then eventually to “reconstruct” her faith, along historically orthodox lines. She offers some great wisdom here for all of us.

A quote by Saint Augustine, an African Christian and the 5th century great father of the early church, is appropriate here: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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