Progressivism and Church Decline
*Editor’s Note: Recently, Dr. Carol Swain interviewed Dr. Bobby Harrington on her podcast Be the People. They talked about the post-Christian trajectory we are experiencing in the US, as well as the need for Renew.org in these confusing times. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
Carol: There’s something that is affecting American churches that is probably much more serious than the coronavirus. Maybe even the survival of the church in America is at stake. We know that in Europe, many churches have died. Will that be the fate of churches in America? Bobby, what in the world is going on with American churches?
Bobby: What’s happening in American churches happened before in Canada and before that it happened in Europe. It’s this massive apostasy where people are turning away from active involvement with churches. Here’s the path that it usually takes: people stop attending church, but they’ll still claim to be Christian in a generic sense. If you ask them in a survey, are you a Buddhist? Are you Muslim? Or are you an atheist? They’ll say, “No, I’m Christian,” but they’re not practicing it. Then their children will grow up and they won’t even claim it.
I grew up in Canada and Canada’s a very interesting story to compare with the US story because Canada’s probably about 25 years ahead of the US.
In the 1960s, 65% of Canadians attended church regularly. Now it’s around 20% who go to church regularly in Canada. So what you’re seeing there is happening here as well.
The Barna Group has surveyed people who consider themselves practicing Christians versus non-practicing Christians or just not Christian at all. In 2000, they found that 45% of Americans described themselves as practicing Christians. Just before COVID-19, they did the survey again, and it had dropped to 25% by 2019. The coronavirus hasn’t helped things.
Again, there’s a careful nuance we need to keep here. When people stopped going to church, they still claimed to be Christian. It typically takes a decade or two before they or their children no longer claim Christianity. But with the decline in regular church attendance comes a decline in substantive beliefs and practices, even for those who claim to be Christians.
Carol: If you are a professing Christian, you need to be aware of what’s taking place in this country and you need to understand your faith principles and what they’re based on. And if you have a church that has a gospel other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, well, then it’s a false gospel. Are there any denominations in particular that have traded the true gospel for a false gospel?
Bobby: I’ll first mention that progressive Christianity is a rapidly expanding movement. This is when people reinterpret the teachings of the Bible so that it fits the culture. In the nineties, I attended Princeton Seminary for a while. Just as an example, one of the very popular professors talked to us about how the apostle Paul did not write parts of the Bible that Christians had believed for centuries were written by him. Yet the professor did get upset with the chapel that morning, because gender neutral terminology was not used to refer to God.
Progressivism is a mindset where the culture tells the believers what they should think, and that’s the lens through which they reinterpret the Bible.
There are denominations in Canada and the US which have championed progressivism. In Canada, the biggest perpetrator was the United Church of Canada. In the United States, it varies. The United Methodist Church tends to have many people who do not hold to orthodox beliefs or an orthodox gospel. Same with the Presbyterian Church USA. We could also talk about certain Lutheran churches which follow that tendency (such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Certainly, the Episcopal Church in the US follows that path very strongly.
It seems that every day another well-known seminary which used to hold a biblical worldview is going progressive. It’s a big temptation, for example, to give up on God’s view of sexuality. Or to give up on the gospel message that Jesus is the only way to heaven, because if that’s true, then it means that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions are not true.
Pastors are struggling with this shift. Some pastors and churches are responding by digging into an ineffective traditionalism.
They keep holding to old structures and practices, thinking that that’s the way to keep from going progressive. But often, there’s no life there. Other pastors and churches let the cultural winds blow them into progressivism.
At Renew.org, we advocate a path of disciple making which is both faithful to Scripture and effective to the culture. We uphold and teach the teachings of Jesus, with an intentional focus on discipling people, one at a time through relationships. This is the way Jesus discipled people: loving and teaching people through relationships.