What if there is something church leaders can do about mainline decline? And what if it’s something for which we might actually have some training?
The “reasons for mainline decline” arguments seem to fall into two main camps — theological and sociological. Most recently Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass went toe-to-toe in an extremely interesting exchange. Douthat struck first in his column, arguing that while some of his best friends were liberal Prots, our theology, or lack thereof, is to blame. In Douthat’s mind there just isn’t enough “there” there in our liberal theology to attract new adherents. Recover our theology, believes Douthat, and we will regain not only our souls but our standing in the world.
In contrast to Douthat, Diana Butler Bass relies on sociological data pointing out that mainline denominations are not the only churches in decline. And since evangelical and white Roman Catholic numbers are waning, too, she argues, liberal theology can’t be the culprit. Bass goes so far as to defend a burgeoning liberal renaissance, cleverly reversing Douthat’s question to muse on “whether liberal churches can save Christianity.”
To sociologists like Duke’s Mark Chaves, Bass’ argument appears to be the stronger at first. The mainline declined, according to Chaves, mainly because the birthrates in these churches declined. As more theologically conservative traditions have experienced birthrate declines in recent years, Chaves notes, their numbers have leveled off as well. So, forget theology, implies Chaves, and bring on Barry White, Viagra and the vasectomy reversal to revive the mainline slump.
While I tend to side with Bass and Chaves, all of these views leave mainline Protestant leaders like myself without much to do. I can’t abandon my beliefs to attract new members as Douthat suggests. Nor do I really want to consider what mental images I would have to live with in a crusade to increase mainline birth rates. (There are just some things you can’t unsee, you know?) But what if there’s something else at play?
In “The Righteous Mind,” moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues persuasively that the reason liberalism has been politically unsuccessful in America since the 1960s is that the American left appeals to only three of six moral languages he identifies, while conservatives have spoken to all six. Haidt’s argument goes like this:
WEIRD people (an acronym standing for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) think in narrow moral terms. WEIRD people care about minimizing harm and maximizing equality. In theological terms we are great at speaking about God’s love and talking about social justice. But we stumble when it comes to speaking in the other moral languages: proportional fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.
Our academic seminaries are the epitome of WEIRD and our pastors, me included, are as WEIRD as they come. Haidt offers data to back this up. Haidt’s graduate assistant Jesse Graham compared the language in sermons from liberal Unitarians with conservative Southern Baptists. Comparing the language with their powerful MFQ (Moral Foundations Questionnaire), Haidt’s and Graham’s suspicions were confirmed: “Unitarian preachers made greater use of Care and Fairness words, while Baptist preachers made greater use of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity words.”
Bass and Chaves are correct: Mainline birthrate decline, along with other factors like the erosion of trust in ecclesial leaders, and the mainline’s inability to retain youth are major factors in how we got here. But Douthat and Haidt have a point: Our theology matters, and the language we use to preach it matters too. Our music and message have to change. We have to learn how to reclaim concepts like loyalty, authority and sanctity in our own voice. We’ve been singing for too long in too narrow a range, and the ears of our people tingle for new octaves of moral depth.
KEN EVERS-HOOD is pastor of Tualatin Presbyterian Church in Portland, Ore.