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Vanishing Christianity — A Lesson from the Presbyterians

“Liberal Protestantism, in its determined policy of accommodation with the secular world, has succeeded in making itself dispensable.” That was the judgment of Thomas C. Reeves in The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Protestantism, published in 1996. Fast-forward another fourteen years and it becomes increasingly clear that liberal Protestantism continues its suicide — with even greater theological accommodations to the secular worldview.

The latest evidence for this pattern is found in a report just released by The Presbyterian Panel, a research group that serves the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA]. The panel's report is presented as a “Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians, 2008.” The report contains relatively few surprises, but it is filled with data about the beliefs of Presbyterian laypersons and clergy.

A majority of church members, pastors, elders, and specialized clergy describe themselves as moderate, liberal, or very liberal in theological outlook. Less than half of church members (44%) and elders (48%) report a conversion experience. Interestingly, ministers were not asked that question.

In general terms, elders were slightly more conservative in belief than other church members. Female pastors were significantly more likely (51%) than male pastors (23%) to identify themselves as liberal or very liberal. Among other ministers (identified as “specialized clergy”), 62% of females identified themselves as liberal or very liberal, compared to 45% of males.

Majorities of all groups indicated agreement with the statement, “There is life beyond death.” But the most significant theological question concerned the exclusivity of the Gospel and the necessity of belief in Jesus Christ for salvation. On that question there was great division, with over a third (36%) of PCUSA church members indicating that they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

Among ministers, the division is even more apparent, with 45% of pastors disagreeing with that statement and fully 60% of specialized clergy disagreeing. Roughly 20% of both pastors and specialized clergy reported themselves “neutral or unsure” about the question.

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