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Book examines cons. resurgence, demise of liberal churches

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A new book uses the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as part of a larger argument that Americans are leaving liberal churches for conservative congregations.

In the book, “Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity” (Sentinel), journalist and author Dave Shiflett spends a chapter on Southern Baptists and Southern Seminary in showing how the denomination has benefited from the numbers who have left liberal mainline churches.

Shiflett details the conservative resurgence, showing how it cut across the grain of contemporary wisdom that says once an organization becomes liberal, there is no turning back. Shiflett interviewed Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land.

In analyzing the growth of conservative churches, Mohler warns against polls that show nine in 10 Americans as having some positive relation to Christianity.

“The number of people actually living the Christian life is pretty low,” Mohler said. “Only one in ten Americans are regularly involved in church, so I don’t think the number of committed Christians could be any higher than that.”

While Mohler points out that secularism seeks to rub out every trace of theism from contemporary culture, the president tells Shiflett that he sees encouraging signs on the campus of Southern Seminary.

“The students on this campus are not only more conservative than their parents,” Mohler said, “but they are more conservative than their grandparents. There is no longer any social value in saying you’re a Christian. These students’ parents and grandparents came up in a time when Christianity was a social convention.

“The same was true of marriage. For their grandparents, marriage was culturally and socially acceptable, and divorce and adultery were bad. Homosexuality was off the radar screen. But their parents, the boomers, threw out sexual morality. They grew up and got married, which made them a little more conservative, but they also engaged in serial divorce.

“As so the boomers’ children — students who are now on our campus — were impacted by a lack of stability in their family life. They want their children to have what they didn’t have. They are living the biblical vision. And they are very conservative.”

Both Mohler and Land agree on the fate of liberal Christianity, Shiflett writes.

Liberal Christianity’s rejection of the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the Bible is to blame for its demise, Land said, adding that is the reason the mainline denominations are losing members and conservative churches are drawing them in.

“… Once you embrace liberal Christianity, you cut loose from your anchor,” Land said. “And you keep drifting. Liberal Christianity had totally abandoned biblical authority by the late 1950s. They said they had ‘moved beyond’ Scripture.”

Mohler says the mainline downgrade is perhaps seen most clearly in its views of sexuality.

“[Liberal churches] make no demands, including demands on sexual behavior,” Mohler said. “Why should, for example, a sixteen-year-old boy and girl bother to go to a liberal church? What does this church have to offer that’s any different from what they get from the culture? The church tells them that if they want, they can have sex. They already know that. That’s what society tells them. The church needs to tell them that they can’t have sex, and has to explain why.

“The mainline denominations have decided that the most basic human drive, sex, can be permanently separated from the most basic human institution, marriage. There is no room for Christianity in that equation.”

Land believes the alliance between Protestants and Catholics in opposing abortion will one day topple the core doctrine of Roe v. Wade. He calls the alliance the “liberals’ worst nightmare.”

“We are winning the abortion issue,” Land said, noting that 2002 polling indicated a majority of Americans now believe Roe v. Wade was a bad decision. “The most pro-life group is eighteen-to thirty-one-year-olds. They know that one-third of their generational cohort was killed by abortion. They know that they could have been. Lots of them take that personally.”

While the author of “Exodus” uses statistics and research to make his case, he also employs first-hand reporting to prove his thesis; Shiflett crisscrossed America interviewing both conservatives and liberals to find the reasons behind what is happening within American Christianity.

The Presbyterian Church USA has experienced a decline of 11.6 percent over the past 10 years, the United Methodist Church has lost 6.7 percent of its membership and the Episcopal Church 5.3 percent of its parishioners.

“Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity,” Shiflett asserts.

“Most people go to church to get something they cannot get elsewhere. This consuming public — people who already believe, or who are attempting to believe, who want their children to believe — go to church to learn about the mysterious Truth on which the Christian religion is built. They want the Good News, not the minister’s political views or intellectual coaching. The latter creates sprawling vacancies in the pews. Indeed, those empty pews can be considered earthly reward for abandoning heaven, traditionally understood.”

    About the Author

  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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