A BOOK REPORT ON
THE EMPTY CHURCH:
The Suicide of Liberal Christianity
by Thomas C. Reeves
(Reviewed by Rev. Brett Best, July, 2017.)
THE BIG IDEA
Reeves writes with an uncompromising but reasonable style to explain how Liberalism has plagued the American mainline denominations almost to death. The death of individual churches is beyond dispute and happens daily; the effects on the national groups are indisputably taking their toll. While Christianity isn’t threatened, these denominations certainly are. For the record, he calls these denominations the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” and they are, the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.
In his own words, “This study places liberal Protestantism in a historical context, describes its current plight, and makes recommendations for its revitalization.” (p. 1) As you might guess, it is the first of these three goals that takes up most of the pages of the book, but it’s such a tightly-woven, expertly concise telling of history it makes good and informative reading without bogging the reader down.
THE LITTLE IDEAS
First, a couple words about opinion polls and other statistics: one, I am not a believer in opinion polls. There’s a certain falsehood that’s built into polling. Regardless of how much science there is the data collection, it creates a false impression that we’re accurately gauging what people think/feel/prioritize. Statistics of this sort are a more malleable medium than pollsters care to admit. Have you ever heard a couple diehard sports fans debating whose team is greater? Statistics fly about the room as proof that convinces no one. Numbers are not always objective and they can be selectively used to make a point without ever proving a point. To me, the most genuine numerical evidence is where people are spending their money and their time. Maybe how they vote, although that can be too small a sample to be reliable.
Second, Reeve’s statistics are two decades old. When you rely on statistical data, the other edge of that sword is that it ages. I do not believe the situation has changed enough to repudiate any of Reeve’s points, but you understand my meaning: when you read the statistical parts of the book, you think, “Yeah, but these numbers are so OLD.”
“As is quite well known, the mainline churches have been shrinking dramatically during the last three decades and appear to be confused and helpless at a time when the nation is crying out for inspiration and guidance.” (p. 9) “Confused and helpless” is the title of the first chapter and is an apt summary of the condition of the mainline denominations. Between the youngest adults opting out (it would be another decade or so before we started calling them the “Nones”) and the graying of the oldest members, the mainlines face enough losses of membership. Factor in the distress caused by liberal denominational leaders and policies, you have an explanation for the hemorrhaging of people, churches, and money.
“The obvious question is, Why do liberals dominate? As we have seen, liberals have long been prominent in the mainline. But there is also an important principle of group dynamics involved here: moderate, otherwise busy people are no match of zealous, ideological interest groups eager to attain power.” (p. 15) He goes on to explain something I’ve wondered about for a long time; why denominational leaders tend to be liberals. Liberal clergy disconnect from the local church because people in the pews don’t want to hear their nonsense; they tend to be more conservative. So, when parish ministry isn’t an option, what does a theologically trained person do except go to denominational HQ? To paraphrase a familiar adage, “Those who can, preach. Those who can’t, administrate.”
Here’s a sign of the disconnect between liberal clergy and conservative congregations: “Complaints about the political partisanship, character, and competence of clergy are commonplace in many denominations.” (p. 23)
Liberals blame the folks in the pews for the demise of their congregations and denominations. They cite the anachronistic nature of a faith derived from an ancient book (the Bible) as making them irrelevant to modern audiences. Reeves will spend the remaining chapters explaining how the liberals’ abandonment of history and tradition in favor of trendiness and cultural accommodation is the real cause. At liberal and conservative extremes, people are lost when there is an over-emphasis on politics.
Why should anyone bother renewing the mainlines? If they are dinosaurs, why not let them go extinct? Reeves offers some good motives.
- The people in the pews still revere the church’s traditions, history, and doctrines, which can provide the inspiration and guidance our culture needs and occasionally wants.
- The local church is still important to local people.
- If denominations fall, what is the alternative? DISorganized religion? This kind of chaos invites more drop-outs from the faith.
- The secular culture liberals adore has been clearly proven to be morally poisonous.
With specific statistics and quotes along with sweeping generalizations, Reeves paints an unflattering portrait of the Church in America. He notes the causes of liberalism (i.e., an uncritical accommodation to culture) and its effects (killing churches). He explains how the “Seven Sisters” have declined and contrasted how liberals and conservatives explain a decline that is obvious to both. The situation has not changed much in the 20 years since the publication of The Empty Church, with the possible exception being that liberals are becoming bolder and more inclined to use their media and education system advantages without being limited by nagging details like truth. Reeve’s analysis is logically more applicable to Boomers than their Millennial grandchildren. The first chapter is one of the most quotable in a book that fairly blossoms with good quotes.
Popular culture is the bane of true faith in the sense that it has created what Reeves calls “consumer Christianity,” the title of his second chapter. When Modernism moved the center of the faith to the individual (from its Pre-modern focus on the Church), self-centered manifestations of doctrine and practice began to be codified in how we understand and do church. The tension between culture and Christianity is a frequent topic in this book. Liberals accommodate themselves to, and even celebrate secular culture while conservatives resist, even vilify it.
On a parallel track, American Church history is a cautionary tale about how culture (and its fossilized form, government) has related to Christianity. I don’t think people who argue for a “return” to a “Christian America” or propagate a “secular America, like the Founding Fathers envisioned” really understand history. Once again, the bias of the extremes fouls the well of truth. Reeves devotes a lot of pages and statistical evidence to back up a more moderate and realistic view that America has always been a culture of individualism, with individuals who backed or opposed Christianity, as their inclinations lead them. “Religious individualism, to repeat, is at the core of American Christianity.” (pp. 61-62)
In chapter two, Reeves characterizes American Christianity with these broad strokes.
- “First, our faith is not tied to our churches.” (p. 61) Think of Billy Joe who insists he can worship God just as well in the woods or in a boat (usually with a six-pack) as readily as in a church.
- “Second, Christianity in modern America tends to be superficial.” (p. 63) Biblical illiteracy, the statistically insignificant difference between the behaviors of churched and unchurched people, and the gap between claims of faith and acts of faith are examples of this superficiality.
Individualism is something Christian and non-Christian Americans share with each other. What divides us is the Left’s stranglehold on media and education, which they manipulate to justify their actions and the philosophy that supposedly gives rise to them.
Historically, Reeves blames the Enlightenment for birthing Modernism and Post-modernism, philosophies that establish the individual as the center of all things, relativising morality and nullifying the true authorities of the Church and Scripture. “The point is, to repeat, that this secular religion tended to focus on the self and its desires.” (p. 74)
Intellectuals are fond of social engineering and, to use Rousseau’s classic phrase, they have little difficulty countenancing schemes that ‘force people to be free.’” (p. 79) The third chapter is about the three “secular religions” Reeves identifies as the Enlightenment, Marxism, and science. These three historical movements have been perpetrators of grave persecution of individual Christians as well as Christianity as a whole. None of their attacks have succeeded in gravely injuring Christianity, but is from their toxic cesspool that Liberalism has spawned. It has done from within the Church what these secular religions have failed to accomplish by working against us from outside. What’s especially subtle is how the individualism of these secular religions has been blended into American Christianity, making it the consumer-oriented organization it is today.
Chapter three covers American church history up to 1920, chapter four from 1920 to 1960, and chapter five sees us from the 60s through 1996, when the book was published. The final chapter sets forth some suggestions on how the mainlines could be reformed. The Empty Church is well-researched and written, presenting these historical periods with just enough detail to substantiate the author’s generalizations. Space in this humble review does not permit even a bald listing of the movements and persons of these eras. Such a summary is not necessary as Reeves has done such a commendable job cataloguing and commenting on them in The Empty Church.
Liberalism in the American Church started the mainlines on their decline in the 1920s, with a brief respite in the fifteen years following World War II. Remember, one way to scale Liberalism is the degree to which liberals condone the culture of the time, whatever it may be. “Without a Bible or a church tradition to provide, in their [liberals’] judgment, dependable spiritual or ethical authority, most liberal Protestants went along with the flow of events in the secular world.” (pp. 145-146) Proving once again it is easier to let the river push you than to row against the river.
Clergy were not immune to the siren call of “relevance” achieved by cultural conformity. Reeves quotes historian Edwin S. Gaustad who captured the feelings of clergy of the day and into our own time; “In the struggle over image, the clergyman unsure of his role as a prophet or moral leader as citizen or therapist, found little reassurance in observing the swift deterioration of his economic and professional standing.” (p. 106)
One trait common to all extreme positions is the tendency to go overboard if left unchecked by anyone with common sense or an actual alternative point of view. In his chapter “Stuck in the Sixties” Reeves shares a few anecdotes of the excesses to which liberals have gone when they are unfettered by sensible folk. The “ReImagining 1993” conference held by liberal feminists is one example of the silliness that has been offered in place of orthodox theology and behavior.
In his chapter on renewing the mainlines, Reeves offers several observations and suggestions for ways in which the mainlines might be moved back from extinction.
- Urbanization is both a bane and a boon to the mainlines. Urban culture seems to favor secularization and liberalism, but statistics show it also increases the opportunities for church involvement. Urban ministry needs to cease being the domain of the left and moved more toward the center.
- Educational centers have long been nesting grounds for liberals. But statistics show that more education tends to increase church participation. Reeves advocates bypassing existing liberal seminaries and other institutions of higher education to create new, more orthodox educational institutions.
- Liberals and church growth experts have sought to convince us that “outmoded” worship styles and worse, biblical literacy, are offensive to moderns. Again, statistical data tells the opposite story. Mainlines need to ditch the 50 year-old notion that “relevance” is achieved by simple-minded, uncritical incorporation of popular culture into worship forms.
- Because the mainline leadership has yawed so far to the left, politics is a subject that should largely be banned from Sunday mornings. The mainline leaders are so thoroughly wedded to the Democratic Party which has been completely dominated by liberals, a stern corrective course needs to be taken.
- People are opting out of church because they see it as irrelevant. “Irrelevant” does NOT mean, as liberals suggest, outmoded, archaic, ancient, or traditional. It means – because of the folly of liberals – that it is no different from the world. The emotional/spiritual felt needs of many people of all ages can be more conveniently found in the world, and so people have reinvested their time and resources in other institutions. To win them back, the American Church must hew to the right and reclaim our history and traditions and our orthodoxy. Accommodation to culture is killing us; confrontation of culture will save us.
- “Here we are at the root of things: the submission of liberal Protestantism to a secular gospel rests upon a failure to accept the essentials of the Christian faith.” (p. 175) We can have a lively discussion of what constitutes the “essentials,” but we can come to agreement if we limit our discussion to the things that are truly important to our faith; the distinctives that we share. Historically, we have suffered the splintering into denominations because we have allowed non-essentials to be treated as essentials.
- Reeves calls for “vigorous spiritual formation” on page 178. By this he means rejecting the Pragmatism and Literalism of Science (and all the offspring of the other Secular Religions mentioned earlier), in favor of a return to the miraculous, supernatural, and divine. Otherwise, church is just another club.
- Return to a strict moral code will revitalize the mainlines if such strictures are based on Scripture, the spiritual formation previously mentioned, and a dose of common sense. We don’t need a return to the silly fussiness of Fundamentalist prohibitions; that would be an overcorrection. One thing most people respect is integrity. The American Church has lost respect because liberals have argued for a dumbing down of Christian morality until church folk are no more moral than unchurched folk.
- We need to advocate for “common grace” in our culture, genuine respect for all views, not the shallow “tolerance” the left has as its sole virtue and practices with unblinking hypocrisy. We are not in competition with the Secular Religion of Science, but respond reasonably and graciously to those who disagree. The American Church will earn respect if she sticks to her guns without sticking it to the “other guy.”
- “Rejuvenated mainline churches must also become engaged actively in evangelism.” (p. 188) This simple sentence underscores the main thing that is wrong with mainline churches. Evangelism is one of the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of Christian life and is the most neglected aspect of church life, to our shame. Part of the reason for this is psychological; if there is no real difference between the church and the world, why invite anyone to step across the threshold? If sin is not a problem and the cross is a myth, why put up with the stuff that accompanies church life? It’s easier to stay home and more fun to invest our time elsewhere if none of this makes any real difference. Emptied of the supernatural, we can find better ways to get our coffee on Sunday morning.
- A return to Scripture and an emphasis on biblical literacy in and outside of the church walls will facilitate both evangelism and discipleship. Liberals forsake the authority of Scripture to exalt reason. Fundamentalists exalt the authority of Scripture and forsake reason. We need to find a middle ground between these false extremes and stand firmly on it.
- “Renewed mainline churches should also take immediate steps to stem the flight of their young people.” (p. 192) Conservative churches raise up young people who generally remain true to their faith. The liberal near-monopoly on education makes adolescence a vulnerable time and our culture is doing everything it can to extend adolescence. We need to prepare and undergird young adults by confronting the culture they face and by which they are influenced most of their waking hours. The proliferation of cell phones has heightened their exposure to media and the Church has done little or nothing to help them sift the good from the bad.
- “Renewed mainline churches will also accelerate their social and charitable institutions.” (p. 165) This is another aspect of American society that has been abandoned to the devices of liberals who take advantage of their captive audiences. Charitable institutions in this country began as extensions of the Church, but we abdicated that kind of service to secular and governmental agencies who use them to expand the liberal agenda.
- Reeves takes a hard line on mainline clergy as well. He urges a return to more traditional forms of pastoral ministry, leaving the political activism and moral relativism predominant among the mainlines behind.
“Finally, how difficult will it be to renew the mainline? An abundance of evidence suggests that the task is extremely formidable. For one thing, as we have seen, many liberal Protestants, especially at the leadership levels of the mainline churches, are pleased with the current situation.” (p. 200) “It is extremely unlikely that efforts to renew the mainline churches will start from the top down. Meaningful reform will no doubt have to come, as it has in the past, from the rank and file.” (p. 201)
We need to decide whether or not the mainlines are worth saving. Considering the alternatives, I’d say so. Then we need to decide that the renewal of the mainlines will only happen with God’s Spirit at work in the pews and work its way out from there. It then needs to involve the local clergy and skirt the denominational office as a lost cause, working in regions as a leaven. Person to person, church to church across localities, eventually the tide will turn even the vast rudder of the denominational leaders and the ship may yet avoid the inevitable iceburg. We can either act or let the inevitable demise happen.
MY GRADE: A.