Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between

'Church Steeple' photo (c) 2011, ank2798 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

“Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be 

the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?” 
– Diana Butler Bass

“Give people a common enemy, and you will give them a common identity. 
Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.” 
– James Alison

As you may have noticed, a flurry of articles and blog posts have materialized in the wake of the Episcopal Church USA General Convention, many asserting that the Episcopal Church’s declining numbers, and those of other Mainline Protestant churches, are direct result of their progressive policies. The most notable of these responses came from Ross Douthat of the New York Times who asked, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

“Instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes,” Douthat wrote, “the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace... Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves."

Diana Butler Bass responded with an article entitled “Can Christianity be Saved?”  in which she reminds Douthat that conservative churches are also in decline. “In the last decade,” she writes, “as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic "blips," waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.  The real question is not 'Can liberal Christianity be saved?' The real question is:'Can Christianity be saved?' 

Both were thoughtful, relatively charitable articles, but I was disheartened to see my Facebook and Twitter feeds light up with gleeful jeers from conservative evangelicals essentially saying,“let the liberals die!” followed by defensive responses from more progressive Mainliners reminding them, “we may be dying but we’re taking you with us!

 Missing from the whole dialog was any sense that we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low.

Meanwhile, I feel totally caught in between. 

For one thing, I don’t "fit" in the conservative evangelical church: 

I believe in evolution. 

I vote for democrats. 

I doubt. 

I enjoy interfaith dialog and cooperation. 

I like smells, bells, liturgy, and ritual—particularly when it comes to the Eucharist. 

I’m passionate about gender equality in marriage and church leadership. 

I’m tired of the culture wars. 

I want to become a better advocate for social justice. 

I want my LGBT friends to feel welcome and accepted in their own churches. 

I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than “getting saved” from hell.

But I don’t "fit" in the progressive, Mainline church either.

I love a good Bible study. 

I think doctrine and theology are important enough to teach and debate. 

I think it’s vital that we talk about, and address, sin. 

I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus.

I want to participate in interfaith dialog and cooperation while still maintaining a strong Christian identity. 

I want to engage in passionate worship, passionate justice, and passionate biblical study and application, passionate community. 

I’m totally down with a bit of spontaneous, group “popcorn” prayer, complete with hand-holding and references to the Holy Spirit “moving in this place.”  

I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than being a good person. 

These objections represent generalizations, of course (and, it should be stated, this whole conversation is unique to Western—particularly American—Christianity). I know plenty of evangelicals who embrace the science of evolution, and I know plenty of mainliners who are passionate about both social justice and theology.  But the reason I struggle to go to church on Sunday mornings is because I generally feel like I have to choose between two non-negotiable “packages.” There are things I really love about evangelicalism and there are things I really love about progressive Protestantism, but because these two groups tend to forge their identities in reaction to one another— by the degree to which they are not like those “other Christians”—Sunday morning can feel an awful lot like an exercise in picking sides.  And often, when I find myself actually sitting in the pew, the pastor  or priest will at some point in the service, either subtly or overtly, speak of the “other side” as an enemy. 

Apparently I’m not alone. I asked on my Facebook page if you ever feel caught between “liberal” and “conservative” Christianity, and here’s what some of you said: 

  • "I feel caught in the middle. I've always been unsure how much to trust all the theological conclusions of ‘liberal Christianity’ (but that's not to say that I doubt this demographic's sincere commitment to Christ). The thing that disappoints me about conservative Christianity is that you are often expected to accept your beliefs as a ‘package deal’ and you are seen as weird if you think differently on certain points. Also, the expectations of how women are supposed to conduct their lives within conservative Christianity is borderline stifling, even though I know many women who enjoy that lifestyle......I am just a fish out of water there, and so is my husband." – Reh
  • "What disappoints me is the sense that either/both sides are close-minded. Even among the liberal ones who speak of openness and respect and listening to each other, there is palpable disdain for the conservative and evangelical opinions. (And I can say that since I am a member of probably the most liberal Christian denomination right now and have heard some of these comments.)" – Susan
  • “I'm definitely in the middle, but wouldn't say I feel ‘caught’ there -- we've got a lot of company these days! Disappointed on the conservative side when I run into judgmentalism, legalism, and a fear of engaging with Scripture (and reality) in its full messy ambiguity. Disappointed on the liberal side when I run into smugness, reductionism, and embarrassment at the supernatural.”  -  Joel 
  • “The disappointment, for me, lies within the existence of partisanship within these two ideologies. I believe it is the allowance of the ‘us vs. them’ mentality within these two factions that creates a continuum of animosity and a refusal to collaborate and compromise. Having a difference of opinion is one thing. But treating those differences as two opposing sports teams attempting to win the ‘game’ (sometimes at all costs) is detrimental to both sides.” – Josh 
  • "I take the teachings of Jesus too seriously to be welcome among conservatives and take the rest of the Bible too seriously to be welcome among liberals. So rather than feeling caught between them, I feel like I'm alienated by both." - Mike
  • “What disappoints me on both ends of the spectrum is the misplacement of importance on things other than Jesus. Jesus is what all of this is about, and whenever we make it about anything else, we are losing sight of the goal and the point.” – Amy 
  • “YES! My understanding of the two may not be accurate, but from my understanding of what that means, I often feel in the middle. By my liberal friends I'm accused of being too conservative and by my conservative friends I'm painted a flaming liberal. I'm disappointed with conservative evangelicalism because they seem legalistic and fearful. So many opinions seem driven by fear. I'm disappointed with liberal Protestantism because of a tendency to reject the institution completely just because it's an institution and to "buck" tradition and authority...For me, I need to combine the best aspects of where Christianity is going with the best aspects of where it has been to find a faith that feels authentic to me and what I believe about God and His bride. Right now, it feels like a fight to prove who is right, with both sides going more extreme than finding a middle where we take the best of both and find a faith that will actually change the world.” – Carrie 
  • "Neither have room for the idea that having all the answers might not be possible." – Corinne

Some of you confessed that, rather than accepting one Christian “package” or the other, you’ve simply bowed out of church altogether—unable to fit into either group. (I can certainly relate to this dilemma.) Multiple studies suggest that this is exactly what’s happening, as young adults in particular leave the Church in droves. I suspect that the liberal/conservative divide itself is a factor in these declining numbers, and yet the divide grows with every new disconcerting study as liberals and conservatives point at one another and yell, “It’s your fault!” 

Frankly, I find the whole conversation a bit depressing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want either group to “meet its demise” because I love elements of both! In fact, I think there are a lot of progressive, mainline churches that could benefit from a shot of evangelicalism, and a lot of evangelical churches who could benefit from a shot of progressivism.  We have so much to learn from one another, but instead we’re like a pair of toddlers fighting over space in the sandbox

But if the early church could survive—and in fact, thrive  amidst persecution—when it included both Jews and Gentiles, zealots and tax collectors, slaves and owners, men and women, those in support of circumcision and those against it, those staunchly opposed to eating food that had been sacrificed to idols and those who felt it necessary, then I think modern American Christianity can survive when it includes democrats and republicans, biblical literalists and biblical non-literalists, Calvinists and Arminians...so long as we’re not rooting for one another’s demise.   

With this in mind, maybe being  “in between” isn’t so bad. Maybe being “in between” puts those of us who find ourselves torn between conservative Christianity and liberal Christianity in a position to act as peacemakers and bridge-builders between the two groups.  Maybe it enables us to help break down these binaries altogether, as we are living proof that you don’t have to choose one or the other. 

I’m not exactly sure what this peacemaking process will look like, but I have a few ideas of how we can get started: 

Let’s be ourselves. 

This may surprise you, seeing as how I’m a blogger with an outspoken opinion on everything, but when I’m a part of a conservative Christian community, I tend to keep my more progressive views quiet, and when I’m a part of  a more liberal Christian community, I tend to keep my more liberal views quiet. I don’t want to cause division. I don’t want to be shamed. I don’t want to make Sunday mornings any more difficult than they already are. 

And so I essentially fake it through worship and community activities, accepting whatever “package” that particular church has to offer, then feeling distant and removed as I go through the motions before eventually quitting. 

But what if I stopped faking it? What if I brought myself—my gifts, my questions, my opinions—to church? What if, instead of conforming to the mold, I refused to accept it? 

 When I think of someone doing this well, I think of my friend Alise Wright. Alise, whose best friend is gay, is openly gay-affirming, and yet she continues to attend and serve a more conservative church where few of her fellow worshipers would agree with her position on homosexuality. In fact, she helps lead worship every Sunday! What I love about Alise is that she’ll straight-up tell you what she thinks about something, but never demand that you agree. She doesn’t make a big stink about it; she just participates in her faith community as herself, refusing to accept the “package deal.” 

Perhaps church leaders will lay off some of the “us vs. them” language from the pulpit when they realize that characteristics they typically associate with “them” exist in some of “us.” This begins with all of us being more honest with one another. 

Let’s create and nurture diverse communities of faith. 

As you know, we tried to start a church that was a blend of evangelicalism and progressivism here in Dayton and it didn’t exactly pan out. For a while, this made me skeptical that such a community could survive anywhere, but then I started to travel.

I was invited to speak to faith communities that displayed a crazy blend of evangelical fervor and progressive inclusivism, that included a diverse group of people politically, theologically, and socially, and that loved one another like I’ve never seen before. More and more of these communities  are popping up around the country. I think of RISE Church in Harrisonburg (United Methodist), Missiongathering in San Diego (Disciples of Christ), The Refuge (non-denominational) and The House for All Sinners and Saints(Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Denver, and many more.  

None of these communities look exactly the same—(some are more conservative/progressive than others and worship styles vary)—but that’s exactly why they are thriving.   They’re not buying into the “package deal.” The existence of these communities should encourage us. They speak to the fact that there is a grassroots movement afoot that transcends old labels and that may very well give us a glimpse of the future of Christianity in America. 

Let’s learn to argue better.

I have no problem with Christians arguing with one another. Really. We’re brothers and sisters, for goodness sake!  Of course we’re going to argue!  We just need to learn to do it better. 

Obviously, because some disagreements have practical implications that affect worship and organization, denominations will continue to exist.  I think that’s a good thing.  The notion of a homogeneous Church that looks exactly the same in doctrine and practice from congregation to congregation, culture to culture, community to community, is unrealistic and unhelpful.  But surely we can allow these differences to exist without questioning one another’s commitment to the faith and without rooting for one another’s demise!

 For example, I will continue to speak out passionately against the patriarchy advocated by folks like John Piper because I feel strongly that the Church is better served when men and women are treated as functional equals. But if John and I had the chance to share communion together—to partake together of the body and blood of Christ—I would do it in heartbeat. I disagree with him, but he is my brother. We have more commonalities than differences.  I think we just forget sometimes that we argue because of what we have in common.

 Conservative, liberal, or in-between, we should continue to debate the doctrines and practices closest to our hearts. Unity is not the same as uniformity.  But when we debate, we should do it assuming the best about one another, taking our thumbs off the scale, honoring our shared commitment to Christ. We don’t have to be on the same page on every issue in order to love one another and work for peace.  

These suggestions are just a few that come to mind. I’m guessing you all may have some more. How can we move beyond the liberal/conservative divide in Christianity? What can those of us who feel caught “in between” do to become peacemakers and bridge builders? Please share your thoughts!

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