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A new exodus? Americans are exiting liberal churches
July 05, 2005
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary

"We have figured out your problem. You're the only one here who believes in God." That statement, addressed to a young seminarian, introduces Dave Shiflett's new book, Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity. The book is an important contribution, and Shiflett offers compelling evidence that liberal Christianity is fast imploding upon itself.

Shiflett, an established reporter and author, has written for The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, National Review and The Wall Street Journal. His instincts as a reporter led him to see a big story behind the membership decline in liberal denominations. At the same time, Shiflett detected the bigger picture the decline of liberal churches as compared to growth among the conservatives. Like any good reporter, he knew he was onto a big story.

"Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity," Shiflett asserts. This author is not subtle, and he gets right to the point: "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 the earthly reward for abandoning heaven, traditionally understood."

Taken alone, the statistics tell much of the story. Shiflett takes his reader through some of the most salient statistical trends and wonders aloud why liberal churches and denominations seem steadfastly determined to follow a path that will lead to their own destruction. Shiflett also has a unique eye for comparative statistics, indicating, for example, "there may now be twice as many lesbians in the United States as Episcopalians."

Citing a study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center, Shiflett reports that the Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6 percent over the previous decade, while the United Methodist Church lost "only" 6.7 percent and the Episcopal Church lost 5.3 percent. The United Church of Christ was abandoned by 14.8 percent of its members, while the American Baptist Churches USA were reduced by 5.7 percent.

On the other side of the theological divide, most conservative denominations are growing. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] grew 42.4 percent in the same decade that the more liberal Presbyterian denomination lost 11.6 percent of its members. Other conservative denominations experiencing significant growth included the Christian Missionary Alliance (21.8 percent), the Evangelical Free Church (57.2 percent), the Assemblies of God (18.5 percent) and the Southern Baptist Convention (five percent).

What makes Shiflett's book unique is the personal narratives he has collected and analyzed. Exodus is not a book of mere statistics and research. To the contrary, Shiflett crossed America, interviewing both conservatives and liberals in order to understand what is happening within American Christianity.

Shiflett also surveys the growing list of "celebrity heretics" whose accepted presence in liberal denominations serves as proof positive of the fact that these groups will tolerate virtually anything in terms of belief. Shiflett discusses the infamous (and now retired) Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., John Shelby Spong. "When placed in a wider context, Spong is simply another character from what might be called America's religious freak show." Yet, the most important insight to draw from Spong's heresies is the fact that he has been accepted without censure by his church.

As Shiflett explains, Spong's views, "while harshly criticized in some quarters as being far beyond the pale, are present not only throughout the mainline but throughout Protestantism, even in churches that are assumed to maintain traditional theological rigor."

In Shiflett's turn of a phrase, these liberal theologians believe in a "Wee deity," a vapid and ineffectual god who is not much of a threat and is largely up for individual interpretation.

On the other side of the divide, Shiflett spent time with conservative Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Southern Baptists and the larger evangelical community. In considering Southern Baptists, Shiflett largely drew upon interviews he conducted with me and with Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Shiflett understands recent Southern Baptist history, and he takes his readers through the denomination's "conservative resurgence" that defied the conventional wisdom that denominations can never be pulled back in a more conservative direction.

More importantly, Shiflett understands that doctrinal beliefs are the crucial variable determining whether churches and denominations grow or decline.

Exodus is a book that is simultaneously brave and honest. Refreshingly, he eschews mere sociological analysis and points to the more foundational issue - truth. No doubt, this book will be appreciated in some quarters and hated in others, but it is not likely to be ignored.

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