During my recent hunt for a new church home, I missed a couple of major characteristics about liberal denominations: Even the more conservative churches within their respective liberal denominations maintain form over substance, and they didn’t turn “liberal” overnight. Not even in the past 2 or 3 decades. They are liberal because they started liberal. They started liberal by their initial disagreement with the main body they broke away from. These comments are based on recent experiences in mainline Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. Using the Episcopal church as an example, the Church of England (Anglican Church) broke from the orthodox Catholic Church. The Episcopal’s roots were in rebellion from the rules of the Catholic Church. Their roadside signs today say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” And that is much more than a catch phrase. That is the present day manifestation of the sincere invitation offered to those who were thrown out of or threatened with execution by the Catholic Church at the churches beginnings.
The Episcopal Church for decades has been a place where those who have been shunned in other denominations feel more welcomed. This is all well and good and very Christian sounding. The problem comes about when so many “outcasts” are attracted to a particular liberal church that it becomes dominated by them. The doubters and rebels against orthodox doctrine and Bible teaching not only begin occupying most of the pews, but they begin occupying leadership and teaching positions. They become first tolerated, then respected, and later dominant in denominational seminaries. Soon the church becomes all form and little substance. And they continue to attract like minded people.
At the same time, the orthodox folks in those churches are leaving in droves, either forming new more conservative spin-off denominations of a similar form, but with substance, or becoming involved in a different denomination altogether. The liberal churches are the ones whose membership is declining most rapidly.
The churches that are growing most rapidly, oddly to some, are the ones that are considered “cults” by the mainline churches: Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. Neither of these churches can be labeled as liberal or conservative in the sense of conservative meaning “orthodox.” Both are unorthodox as all heck, but they are conservative insofar as a literal interpretation of their versions of Scripture and demands made of their followers. They both also have aggressive evangelizing programs at the core of their doctrine. Jehovah’s Witnesses, even more than Mormons, have deliberatively separated themselves from our culture in a number of ways. Members of both of these denominations are known, perhaps more than those of any other denomination, for their high regard for moral principles associated with traditional Bible teaching.
The charismatic Assembly of God Churches are also among the fastest growing. They, too, maintain a more literal (fundamental) interpretation of Scripture, and in their own way also have greater expectation of their members.
Many churches change to adapt to changing culture and reap the consequences. But Christianity does not change. It values a constant morality that transcends culture. As church growth and decline data testify, those churches that maintain the truth and spirit of Scripture will prevail while those that don’t will change and die along with the decadent culture that they chose to follow. Until the last 50 years or so the church has seen its mission as leading and transforming the culture. More recently most churches have relinquished that mission and have settled for being led and transformed by the culture.