Unrecognized Internal Threats to Liberal Churches

by Harvey Seifert

Dr. Seifert is professor emeritus at the School of Theology at Claremont, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 31, 1979, p. 1057. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our distinctive liberal contribution is denied when we become simply custodial liberals, caretakers doing minor janitorial maintenance or cosmetic repairs on what we have inherited.

So-called “mainline” or “liberal” denominations have recently been taking a public-relations beating for lack of growth and for neglect of mission. Many possible causes have been suggested, among them a general conservative trend of our times, greater faithfulness by liberals to the radical demands of the gospel, and greater expression by conservatives of warmth, zeal or certainty. Some of these explanations have merit; others are misleading. One cause of weakness, however, has been much neglected. This unrecognized threat is the widespread blindness of liberal churches to the nature and needs of their unique constituency. So long as this malady continues, there is little likelihood of either long-run statistical recovery or resurgence of faithfulness to God-given mission.

Projecting an Unambiguous Image

I would define liberal denominations as those whose theological positions are comparatively receptive to the conclusions of the physical and human sciences, and whose social witness is relatively thoroughgoing and comprehensive and includes some basic criticism of major social systems. In both theological position and social witness a gradual continuum of differences exists between and within denominations, making it difficult to draw precise lines. Yet there is evidence for including among liberal churches the United Methodist, United Church of Christ, United Presbyterian and a few others. These bodies differ significantly from more conservative denominations. At the same time liberal churches are appreciative of major elements in tradition as still valid, and they stress the importance of emotionally vital, personal religious experience. They aim to join the warm heart to the clear head and busy hands. In their comparative emphasis on Christian tradition and religious experience, liberal churches tend to differ from more radical religious groups (e.g., the Unitarian Universalists).

Liberal churches are threatened by a debilitating misunderstanding of their mission. Particularly dangerous are the actions of two groups within liberal denominations: (1) militant conservatives who are trying to win entire denominations to their own to compromise with such protest movements to the extent of blunting the distinctive emphasis of the denomination.

Basic to an understanding of the seriousness of these threats is a recognition of the wide-ranging pluralism of modern American society. To be sure, all humanity shares some common, basic regularities and needs. But there are also important sub-publics in any free society -- differing in background, personality and immediate interests. To meet their basic needs, varying approaches become necessary. For the most effective communication with the total population we need a variety of conservative and liberal churches, showing appreciation of each other at the same time that each group assumes responsibility for reaching its own unique constituency.

It becomes the mission of the liberal church to present the claims of the Christian faith to those who have been most impressed by the empirical approach of the sciences or by those critical social needs which call for rapid and thoroughgoing change. This constituency includes persons now repelled by organized religion because they cannot accept certain positions (such as opposition to evolutionary theory or to birth-control practice) which they have been exposed to in some churches and which they assume characterize all churches. Research also shows that those who are alienated include many humanitarians seriously hoping for basic improvement in our social situation and convinced that churches in general are either benighted or inactive concerning such matters.

To be seriously listened to by these subgroups, any denomination must prominently exhibit sufficient integrity to promise a  continuously helpful message and consistent opportunities for action. The liberal church must project an unambiguous and highly visible image of this sort. There must be enough consistency in both the local congregation and the national denomination to stimulate the growth of membership and to allow effective expression in compatible action projects.

Large numbers of those alienated from the churches of their youth (or offended by the TV presentations of conservative evangelists will not be attracted by the prospect of continuously compromised national curricula or social witness. They are understandably reluctant to invest in intra-church conflict the time and energy that should go into mission to the world. In a time of desperate individual need and social crisis, authentic stewardship suggests more urgent uses for resources than battling internally for denominational control, or formulating inadequate positions moderated to appease reactionary groups, or resurrecting past debates which contribute nothing to the future.

Any healthy church (or society) requires the stimulus of disagreement; the emergence of new ideas to contend with the old is a prerequisite for improvement. A considerable range of pluralism is indeed desirable within both a denomination and a political unit, but when that range becomes too broad, common purposes are often obstructed. As governments can be torn apart by extremist polarization, so churches can be immobilized by indecision. If any denomination tries to serve everyone equally well, it will serve no one sufficiently. Unity which incorporates a broader range of pluralism depends not on individual denominations but on the wider ecumenical movement.

The Dynamic Factor in Culture

It is these realities that make militant conservative groups within liberal churches so dangerous to evangelism and mission. These groups unwittingly weaken the impact of the Christian message either as they try to alter the distinctive character of entire denominations, attempting to turn liberal churches into conservative churches, or as they undermine the consistency of image projected by liberal churches in areas important to their particular constituency. There are only a few liberal denominations with the potential to communicate persuasively with the growing subgroups at the liberal end of the social spectrum, and liberal churches which turn in a more conservative direction become disqualified for their indispensable and unique task. A similar thesis applies, of course, to conservative churches. On comparatively incidental matters they should not become so radical as to lose touch with the more conservative constituency in society for which they have a particular responsibility.

Both conservative and liberal churches need to be continually reminded of the thoroughgoing demands of the gospel, lest they settle too easily for some version of psychologism or culture religion. Within liberal churches we need movements stressing a more vital personal religious experience -- so long as that experience is enriched by all the knowledge about nature, persons and society which God has more recently revealed through responsible science. We need also to call attention to that reinforced by the continuing experience of the race. This kind of forward-looking conservatism is an essential ingredient of any authentic liberalism.

The danger of liberals becoming faithless and ineffectual witnesses becomes even more evident when we consider the dynamic factor in culture. Since technological and ecological changes are always taking place, any society in order to stay afloat must adopt novel ways of dealing with new circumstances. Major progressive modifications may then become long-term trends. While there still are important differences between subgroups in any society, all these groups share in varying degree these common continuing trends. In a dynamic society conservatives tend to adopt part of the liberalism of the past, while liberals accept some formerly radical positions. For example, social security programs once advocated only by radical groups have become the conservatism of subsequent generations. Similarly, severe racial discrimination was once the position of the conservative majority, but today it is coming to be seen as a reactionary stance. Because the nature and needs of their constituencies change, both conservative and liberal churches now require programs different from those they presented in the past.

Reality-Based Religion

In relation to theological and social emphases on which conservative and liberal churches differ, research indicates long-run social trends toward (1) wider acceptance of the conclusions of valid empirical research, and (2) greater reluctance to accept the imperfections of existing social structures. With respect to the first of these, our population increasingly demands that all truth claims be based on the best available data. There have been important recent criticisms of the excesses of scientism, but even these grow out of an acceptance of the general scientific method of drawing coherent conclusions from observation and experience. For increasing numbers of persons, acceptable religion must be reality-based. A growing section of the population considers historical emphases on unsupported revelation or the mere word of traditional authorities as insufficient evidence for religious belief.

In a society that has moved from horse and buggy to space flight in a single life-span, more and more people regard as archaic any church which seems to locate the golden age or complete revelation somewhere in the past. More nearly adequate is a view of the Holy Spirit which emphasizes continuing discovery of larger truth and a recognition of the transcendent quality of God, calling us forward to degrees of perfection never before imagined.

The trend toward more serious desire for social change may seem to be contradicted by the highly publicized conservative political expression of the past few years. The long-term trend, however, has not been significantly altered. Election returns and public-opinion studies indicate discontent with some serious imperfections in recent liberal political policies and programs; studies also show that the general population does not want to give up the values of such programs and still wants additional selected government services. There is much current disillusionment over the ineffectuality of existing social institutions, but also great readiness to follow leadership that seems capable of helping realize more extensive human hopes.

Liberation movements of some sort now seem imperative to more national, economic and ethnic groups. Activists in liberation have tended to become less involved in churches. Any church that does not increase the scope of its demand for social justice can in the long run expect to attract fewer adherents. All subgroups in American society have to some extent been affected by the trend toward greater attention to personal fulfillment. Their expectations have been enhanced by unprecedented medical, psychological and social resources. Those nourished in such a climate can be expected increasingly to cease participation in any churches that seem to degrade human potentialities, neglect personal needs or stifle human vitalities.

When personal and humanitarian hopes collide with the complex and confining social crises of our time, the prevailing mood is increasingly one of perplexity, anxiety, frustration and resentment. Recognizing the inadequacy of the church’s traditional emphasis on simplistic comfort, we are troubled not only by the same ultimate questions and existential anxieties which plagued previous generations. We also chafe under a convergence of unprecedented military and ecological threats to the continued existence of life on this globe. Such dilemma-ridden persons are less likely to support any church that remains silent on such matters, speaks only in generalities or does little to implement its convictions.

The Necessity for Swifter Change

Continuing cultural trends toward demanding more satisfactory evidence for belief and greater help on human problems have consequences for both conservative and liberal churches. The necessity for swifter change is underscored in several recent studies. Andrew Greeley, in a survey of Roman Catholic parochial education, has raised the question of the relationship between Vatican II and the decline in support for the Catholic Church in the United States. His data show that this decline was due not to changes made by Vatican II but to the fact that these changes did not go far enough, especially in the area of sexual ethics (Catholic Schools in a Declining Church [Sheed & Ward, 1976], pp. 110 ff.) And Dean Hoge has observed that “in general, the number of people who have left because of changes in the church is not as large as the number who have left because of lack of changes.”

The problem which conservative churches face is obvious. At the moment, there is in our population a sizable enough conservative subgroup, theologically and sociologically, to provide the basis for considerable growth by these churches. This is also the group least alienated from organized religion, the one that habitually tends to support churches. At the same time, general cultural trends are moving away from the conservative religion of the immediate past; eventually, conservative churches will face slowly diminishing constituencies. Such churches are simply postponing the crisis of support which has already been felt by liberal churches -- unless conservatives modify their traditional emphases. Fortunately they are beginning to make such changes, finding them to be an inherent part of a more adequate biblical understanding. Modern evangelicals are no longer the fundamentalists of the past, and increasing numbers among them are arguing for the addition of a “social gospel” to their previous individualistic emphasis. Should there be greater movement toward such neoevangelicalism, conservative churches can continue to grow by serving those near the conservative end of a moving cultural spectrum.

Liberal churches, on the other hand, may be in a more precarious position. Their constituency is moving in the direction of even more rigorous reality-based tests for truth, and of more extensive expressions of social discontent. Since there is solid biblical and theological grounding for these same general interests, liberal religion should be able to relate to such constituencies as it has done in the past. But there is little evidence that liberal churches are looking forward or offering specific programs appropriate for present and future generations. It is questionable whether liberal churches can change rapidly enough to continue to serve the subgroups in the cultural spectrum for which they have primary evangelistic responsibility. If they do not do so, large sections of the population will be left without any acceptable organized expression for their religious interest. Greater change within conservative churches than within liberal churches could also mean increased competition for much the same constituency, with catastrophic results for the strength of the total church and for the character of society.

A Crisis of Plausibility

At the moment liberal churches seem substantially to be yielding to the temptation to do what is easiest in the short run, even though this will finally prove disastrous. The strongest support in attendance and financial contributions now comes from those with a more traditional orientation, and it is easier to continue old habits and to sustain religious organizations by appealing to this group. On the other hand, empirical activists outside the church are not attracted .by the ambiguity and compromise which such pseudo-liberalism represents. Thus liberal churches are counting on the subgroups in society that are declining in numbers and social influence, while they neglect the subgroups that in the end will grow in numbers and influence. As Wade Clark Roof points out in a recent study, this neglect will lead to “a crisis of plausibility” resulting in alienation of growing numbers of persons and finally in the church’s representing a very small minority (Community and Commitment: Religious Plausibility in a Liberal Protestant Church [Elsevier, 1978], pp. 6-9).

This analysis of cultural trends further underscores the seriousness of the threat inherent in organized groups within liberal churches which aim to transform their denominations into more conservative churches, or at least to blunt their liberal witness. But this analysis also points to a second internal threat: the undermining of the function of such churches which is unwittingly perpetrated by those friendly, mildly liberal folk who are hesitant or apathetic about truly thoroughgoing changes. We show little interest in stemming the exodus from our churches when, in the language of our creeds, the topics of our sermons, and the content of our programs, we remain ambiguous about relating theology to well-researched world views now widely held by thoughtful persons. We deny the evangelistic mission of our churches when we perpetuate reluctance to become more actively and comprehensively involved in personal growth and social improvement. When it is not only a question of the direction in which we move but also the speed of our movement, we can no longer defend our tardiness in more drastic renovations of worship, education, caring and outreach ministries. Our distinctive liberal contribution is denied when we become simply custodial liberals, caretakers doing minor janitorial maintenance or cosmetic repairs on what we have inherited.