"The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused."

- J.R.R. Tolkien
Why bother?

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Derelict Methodist Church, Walsall, England. Source: geograph.org.uk.

The old formula goes, “If a dog bites a man, that’s not news. If a man bites a dog, that’s news!”

So when one of my Facebook friends posted an article about another theologian of the Very Large Church Body Which Shall Remain Nameless denying the virgin birth of Christ, that was hardly surprising. What purposes do mainline churches serve nowadays, if not to be platforms for the proclamation of heresy?

Which led me to a question I’d never thought about before. What purpose, exactly, does a liberal church serve today? What is its mission?

Traditionally, the business of the church has been to follow the two great commandments, as taught by Christ (Matthew 22): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” So the church has understood its business to be a) worship and evangelism, and b) service to those in need.

But for a liberal, those bases are already covered. For liberals, God’s love is unconditional and given equally to all, so there’s no need (besides, it's sometimes offensive) to proclaim the gospel. Worship as an aesthetic experience may be a function of the church, but honestly, who wants to get up on a Sunday morning when God’s happy with you whatever you do?

And as for service to the poor, well, the last election certainly made it clear that liberals don’t think any assistance is worth a thing unless it goes through government. When conservatives argue for private charity, we’re condemned as uncaring.

So why should liberal churches exist at all? Just to provide sources of income for spiritually-minded intellectuals?

The bottom line for liberals, it seems to me, is “Look to Europe.” You see how the churches are dying over there? It’s coming here, and sooner than you think.

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Comments on "Why bother?":
1. Greybeard - 01/24/2013 8:08 pm EST

I recall my church history class brought up this topic. A hundred some odd years ago when liberal theology began making significant inroads into mainline American denominations the question came up as to why they should maintain church buildings and organizational structures that had been built to carry out a mission they no longer believed in. The answer was that even though enlightened minds had discovered that the Bible wasn't true and that God was either nonexistent or irrelevant, they could make use of the church buildings and organizational structures to do good works. Of course nowadays those good works have devolved into rallying the unfaithful to support the governments carrying out of those good works with someone else's money.

2. Ori Pomerantz - 01/24/2013 8:33 pm EST

Just to provide sources of income for spiritually-minded intellectuals?

This is a very high and worthy purpose. All the spiritually-minded intellectuals agree on that.

3. Phil - 01/24/2013 8:46 pm EST

Ha! I like that, Ori.

Did you see the liberal church response to Newtown's horror? In World, an Episcopal is quoted saying, "Try to see just a pinpoint of light, if you can... Jesus will come no matter what. And so will Santa. Amen."

Someone should throw a tomato after a remark like that.

A Catholic said, "If we work together, good things can happen." Deep.

4. Phil - 01/24/2013 8:48 pm EST

As for good news, there's a new Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) church plant in Detroit. Had 150 or so at the first service last Sunday.

5. Loren Eaton - 01/25/2013 8:55 am EST

I remember a professor during my undergrad years recounting his time in a mainline church. He recalled one Sunday how the pastor stood up and preached a fifteen-minute sermon without a single reference to Scripture. Afterward, a professor from a local university got up in the pulpit and said he was collecting stool samples after the service as part of a study and anyone who wanted to donate could.

I'm not even kidding.

6. Greybeard - 01/25/2013 10:42 am EST

In my adolescent years, my family attended a conservative church that was part of a liberal mainline denomination. The pastor at that time considered it part of his job to protect the congregation from the waywardness of the synod. After I moved out on my own my parents moved to a small town and joined the local church belonging to another denomination that later merged with the one represented by the church they had previously attended. Again they found a pastor who thought it his job to protect the congregation from the waywardness of the synod. I remember at the time I thought it very noble of those pastors to do that. Now I look back to recognize their protectionism as a short-sighted, misguided and counter-productive attempt at appeasement. By standing in between their congregations and their denominations, they not only enabled the waywardness of their denominations to become entrenched, but they also left their congregations unprepared to deal with the truth when it would eventually become known.

7. Lars Walker - 01/25/2013 11:06 am EST

That's an excellent point, Graybeard, one I've observed often but never thought about that way.

8. Respectabiggle - 01/25/2013 12:18 pm EST

In Europe, they're preserving the buildings so that they can be turned into mosques in another generation or two.

9. ChestertonianRambler - 01/28/2013 11:01 am EST

What are your thoughts on Justin Welby? He's the new Archbishop of Canterbury, he's an Evangelical, he opposes both same-sex marriage and homophobia (something so few Christians seem to be able to combine), and he's spent some time in the world of finance, meaning that his understanding of the financial world will at the least not be naive.

He's also a supporter of women's ordination, but it seems on the whole that he is more alligned with folks like N.T. Wright, who consistently and vividly opposes abortion and who instituted disciplinary action against clergy supporting domestic partnership, pointing out that "justice never means 'treating everybody the same way,' but 'treating people appropriately'" and that there is a "difference between (a) the "human dignity and civil liberty of those with homosexual and similar instincts and (b) their "rights", as practising let alone ordained Christians, to give physical expression to those instincts. As the Pope has pointed out, the language of "human rights" has now been downgraded in public discourse to the special pleading of every interest-group."

Part of the reason I don't panic about us becoming like England (or Canada, the two non-American places I've lived) is that I see many places where Christianity itself, while decreasing in numbers, is regaining aspects of its distinctive voice.

I have never been to a church in America, for instance, that boldly condemns both corporate exploitation of the poor and gay marriage as both a corruption of the right relationship among human beings. (I have never read a post-twelfth-century medieval theologian who doesn't; homosexuality and ursury were constantly seen as a matched set.) I have also never seen a church in America that condemns aggressive military expansion for economic gain at the same time as it condemns abortion. For both of those things, I had to head to "post-Christian" Canada, or read the writings of N.T. Wright. (Or Tim Keller, see below.)

In America, on the other hand, every church I have attended has been divided along right- or left-wing politics. Either they boldly proclaim that abortion is a sin but treat any decision to go to war as morally neutral (if not downright laudable), or they fluently and accurately revive the Old Testament concepts of "exploitation" and "justice," yet the word abortion is implicitly forbidden from being mentioned in the congregation, as is the fact that a few Biblical commandments seem to condemn homosexuality.

In fact, the only American church I know of that even comes close to expressing Christianity without cramming it into American political categories .... is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a place that (as we all know) is practically European already.

So maybe America is headed towards destruction. If so, I only pray that it will finally allow the church to exist in service to God, rather than to conservativism or liberalism.

10. ChestertonianRambler - 01/28/2013 11:33 am EST

Heading off question: in medieval (post-12th-century, though Augustine and some church fathers may have agreed) theology, labor and sexuality are both seen as being about production. One ought to gain money through the creation of something of benefit to humanity, just as one ought to gain sexual pleasure only out of the attempt to create new life. The idea that one could make money without doing anything good for anyone--to wit, by loaning someone money and charging them interest--was seen as an "unnatural" and "unproductive" sin, since it divorced profit from the act of creation. Similarly, a whole list of sexual acts (homosexuality, birth control, masturbation) were cataloged as sins because they divorced sexual pleasure from the act of making a child.

This division is the first time I ever understood why homosexuality might be considered a sin (other than the simple declaration that "the Bible says so," which may be valid but can also be puzzling.) Of course, this is also something antithetical to conservative Christianity--we don't (as the Church consistently has done) honor those who are made eunuchs for God, and we celebrate sex even for the private use of bringing a husband and wife close together. This is why, in my opinion, Christians cannot argue forcefully against homosexuality. Christians want to say to homosexuals "sexuality is for procreation, it ought to be an act of labor producing the good fruit of children," yet at the same time we tell Christian couples "sex is intended for pleasure, to bring two people together under the bonds of holy matrimony." The two arguments are antithetical, which is why Christians so often invent (against all factual evidence) the idea that homosexual desire always results from conscious choice.

From a late-medieval perspective, most Protestant married couples are sodomites, and all investment bankers are. And while I don't think it's a good idea to bring back the medieval ideal, it may be worth noting that the two largest denominations that are consistent in their condemnation of homosexuality--Catholics and Orthodox--both have carried on their traditions of asexual monks and nuns.

Both are also, most notably, international--they don't have the baggage of any one nation's political polarization.

11. Lars Walker - 01/28/2013 11:52 am EST

I'm not talking about those issues here. I'm talking about the denial of such basic credal doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the full divinity of Christ.

12. Ori Pomerantz - 01/28/2013 1:41 pm EST

May I be a bit snide? If they deny the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the Divinity, why don't they turn Jewish? "Synagogue" does not mean "house of worship", but "house of the community". Most of us non-Orthodox Jews don't have much of a concept of communally binding rule either.

13. ChestertonianRambler - 01/28/2013 2:26 pm EST

Lars--

Sorry, I got a bit long-winded and distracted myself. My central point was that the CoE, a rather iconically laughable European compromise in many ways, has at its head a guy who is, well, FAR to the right of those who deny the historic creeds. Things like this have lead me to a larger conclusion that "postchristian" areas are places with fewer, but more orthodox, Christians. My anglophone experience, however, may be unique.

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