The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 28, 2023

It’s Thursday, September 28, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Strange Divide in Mainline Protestantism: PRRI Survey Shows Liberal Church Members Are Much More Conservative Than Their Clergy

The collapse of mainline liberal Protestantism is now a fact of several decades. It’s irrefutable. That reality has been very clear, basically since the 1960s and the 1970s. We understand as evangelicals that theology has a great deal to do with this, but we also understand that there’s a larger context of secularization that is also playing a part. You look at the surveys and the research indicating church attendance, and you look at it decade by decade, it has been decreasing across the board, even among those who identify in some way as evangelical. But at the same time, there’s a clear theological distinction. That distinction is between the more evangelical churches and denominations, that though also in some cases experiencing decline, have been at least showing real, genuine, lasting strength, and mainline Protestantism, that is on the precipice of a chasm.

And yet at the same time, one of the facts on the ground related to liberal Protestantism is that on political and moral and theological issues, it has become a fascinating thing to watch, as we just observe how liberal liberal Protestantism can actually become. But then there’s another reality, and this has been more rarely discussed, looking at the mainline Protestant denominations. The fact is this, the clergy are far more liberal than the members of many of these churches. Now, if you think about it for a moment, that’s actually understandable. You have a liberal preacher, a liberal pastor in, say, Episcopal churches. You have a liberal priest. Well, there are consequences.

One recent study that just came out from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that liberal churches tend to show, at least on the ground with their membership, their liberalism, by their tolerance of pastors who are far more liberal than the congregation. But first, we need to look at that pattern of clergy liberalism. It’s pretty well documented. Yonat Shimron of Religion News Service reports the story this way: “A new survey of mainline clergy finds those leading the historic denominations that once shaped the American Protestant scene are far more liberal than their congregants on a host of political and social issues.” PRRI, that organization, is cited (by the way, it’s a pretty liberal organization, particularly in the agenda that’s made very clear by its leaders) nonetheless, they do a lot of research, and a lot of that research is fascinating to all of us. They conducted a survey of 3066 mainline clergy, and last week they released the report showing that, “About half identified with the Democratic Party, 28% identify as independent, and only 14% as Republicans. In this sense, they are the inverse of evangelical clergy, whom surveys find to be overwhelmingly conservative and vote Republican.”

Now, here’s something else that’s really interesting. This research indicates that evangelical pastors tend to be fairly well-matched by evangelical congregations on matters of doctrine, belief, politics, understanding the culture. It’s mainline Protestantism that has this very strange divide. In just a moment, I’m going to explain why I think that divide is as it shows up in this research. It’s because, I think, you are looking at the fact that many of the members of these churches were trapped in congregations where they were assigned liberal clergy. And it wasn’t that liberal church members asked for liberal clergy, it’s that liberal elites they sent out liberal clergy into these churches.

Now, it still says something about members of these churches that they are in the churches, and still active in churches where you have very liberal clergy, but this research from PRRI shows that when it comes to mainline Protestantism, the members aren’t nearly as liberal, number one as the clergy, number two, as most people looking at the pattern of church life in the United States often imagine.

Now, once again, let’s just step back for a moment. Here’s something that has perplexed researchers looking at, for example, voting patterns in the United States. You look at the pattern of evangelical voting, overwhelmingly for conservative candidates. You put that in red and blue America terms, overwhelmingly Republican in national elections. And yet, you look at the election numbers, and then you understand this is not just evangelicals. So as it turns out, the vast majority of white liberal protestants also tend to vote more Republican than democratic, or at least they identify in more conservative terms than their clergy, as it turns out.

And you look at some of this other data, and even someone like Robert P. Jones, who’s the often understood head of PRRI, you have argument that you see all kinds of evidence that Protestantism period is actually more conservative on the ground and in the pew than the rest of America. Again, I would simply come back to say theology matters. It always matters, and it’s going to show up in this sense. I think it’s also clear that as we’ve discussed even in recent days on The Briefing, when you add to the entire agenda of the cultural conflict, the T in LGBTQ, all of a sudden it turns out that some of the people who thought they could go along with the revolution discover they can’t. The RNS report summarizes something else of interest, “These mainline clergy are more supportive than their congregants of LGBTQ rights, more likely to have opposed the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and less likely to believe America is in danger of losing its culture and identity.”

Now, let me point to something else that many in the political-cultural media elites either don’t recognize, or don’t deal with. If you do look at the map of America in terms of red and blue, you look at the states that repeatedly vote for the Republican national ticket. You look at those, on the other hand, that repeatedly vote for the Democratic national ticket. The Republican states are red, the Democratic states are blue. You look at the midsection of the United States, overwhelmingly red. Now, here’s the thing. That doesn’t mean that those middle states are overwhelmingly evangelical. You look at the pattern of church planting, denominational growth. You look at churches all across the plains and Midwestern states. Many of them are mainline Protestant churches, but when it comes to the members of those churches, they are decidedly not liberal. As this study, this research indicates, they’re far less likely than the leadership of their denominations to be pro-abortion. They’re far less likely than the leadership of their denominations to be pro-LGBTQ, and on theological issues, again, there is a far more conservative pattern in the pew than in the pulpit.

But theologically, we also need to step back and say, “This really does raise an issue.” How long can any church or denomination last if it keeps sending out clergy who are so remarkably more liberal and progressive than the church members? Something’s got to give here, but then that points to another reality, and you don’t see this reported even as you look at this research. That reality is this. If you have a liberal pastor and a more conservative church membership, those conservative church members have basically two options. Those options are join the liberalism of the pastor, or say, “Just wait him out.” Amazingly enough, that seems to be what we’re looking at here.

The research in this study from PRRI also indicates that most liberal pastors in these denominations say that they have good relationships with their church members. They smile at them, you could say, they have positive relationships with them, but you have this disconnect between the views, very liberal, held by the clergy, and the more conservative convictions held by the members of the congregation. But we also need to recognize there’s something else going on here, and that is that you’re going to be looking at these churches inevitably collapsing in terms of membership. And especially as you look at that red and blue America, the fact is that they’re simply not enough blue Americans in many of those red states to keep these very blue churches alive, at least when it comes to clergy. This points to something else we just need to keep in mind, and that is the fact that the liberalism in so many of these denominations, it never emerged from the grassroots.

It wasn’t that the people in the pew were crying out for more liberal understandings of scripture, more liberal understandings of doctrine. The people in the pew found themselves receiving pastors, and in many of these denominations, that’s just how it happens. They receive pastors, or they have to choose from denominationally licensed, or approved and ordained and recognized pastors. There’s a lot going on here, but at the very least, it just points to the fact that when you look at a map, you are looking at more than just politics. You’re also looking at doctrine. You’re also looking at judgments on biblical and moral issues. It’s not an accident that the two issues cited in the introductory coverage of this report are abortion and the sexual and gender issues of the modern revolution.

Part II

Gone by 2030? 2040? — Pulling Back the Curtain on the Fastest Declining Churches in the UK

So we’re going to leave that as it is, but on this same issue in a very related story, The Spectator in London has released an article by Dan Hitchens entitled A Tale of Two Churches.

Here’s the subhead. This is so important. “While most congregations shrink, a few are growing fast.” Hitchens begins by speaking of a Pentecostal preacher in a London church. He goes on to say, “It’s Sunday morning at Elim Pentecostal church in London and the place feels alive. Fittingly, perhaps, for the fastest growing Christian community in the UK. Over the past 25 years, Elim’s membership has risen from 50,000 to 75,000, according to the statistician Peter Brierley.” Now, end quote right there. I just want to say I’m not sure how to talk about a church of 50,000 or 75,000 members, and as a Baptist and a congregationalist, I just want to say I am not speaking for, in this case, either Pentecostal theology or the membership numbers of this church. Here’s the point, however. What Dan Hitchens is looking at in The Spectator is the fact that liberal theology is killing churches, and more conservative theology is drawing people.

There are a couple of astounding revelations in this article. By the way, The Spectator is a longstanding major conservative intellectual and political journal in the United Kingdom, and it’s been associated with many of the most well-known conservative thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. As you’re looking at the name Hitchens here, Dan Hitchens is the author that has an echo of other Hitchens, very famous in British thought, including Christopher Hitchens, one of the world’s most famous atheists at the time. But nonetheless, this is Dan Hitchens writing about the fact that liberal churches are simply collapsing, and he documents that pretty clearly.

Peter Brierley, who is the researcher mentioned here, is someone I mentioned on The Briefing before. And then Hitchens goes on to write, “The figure is striking, when you consider the overall picture of Christianity in the UK. The census revealed for the first time less than half of the country identified as Christian, a fall of seven million people over a decade.”

That’s just identify as, it doesn’t mean that that many people stopped going to church. They probably stopped going to church decades ago, or they’re young and they never attended church, but now they no longer identify even as Christian. But Hitchens goes on to say, “Yet while certain kinds of Christian practice are fading, it seems, others are very much not. In recent decades, thousands of new churches of all varieties have sprung up across the country. London Sunday attendance is 10% higher than 40 years ago.” That’s astounding. Even as you look at the pattern of secularization, something is happening in London, and even as I’m speaking from London, you can see a lot of this on the ground. As Hitchens makes very clear, one of the realities that is shaping the new religious scene in London is immigration, vast immigration from around the world. And many of those immigrants are, number one, more identified as Christians, more self-identified as Christian, and number two, they’re being reached with the gospel in ways that just point to a city like London as a major center for world evangelization.

Mission agencies have been noting for decades that one of the ways to reach people from all over the world is to come to a city like London, because people from all over the world are coming to this kind of world city. There’s another very fascinating section here in Hitchens’ report, and that is about what’s going to happen to the rest of the denominations, but remember, he said he visited two churches. The first was Elim Pentecostal Church. What would be the second one? Hitchens writes, “A week after my visit to the Pentecostals, I attend a service at a United Reformed Church, which is the fastest declining of any UK-wide church.” I continue, “The service is led by the moderator of the denomination of the URC, the Reverend Dr. Tessa Henry Robinson. Described by her church as a ‘womanist, practical theologian,’ who has a particular focus on ‘uplifting ethically minoritized women and communities.’ The URC itself, according to the website, is not rigid in its expression of its beliefs, and embraces a wide variety of opinions.”

He continues, “‘The gospel reading is about forgiveness,’ a contentious subject Dr. Henry Robinson concedes in her sermon, but, ‘We can begin almost immediately by asking forgiveness for how we buy into containing and using God.’ Hitchens asked, ‘Such as?’ He answers, ‘Pronouns, apparently.’ The preacher said, ‘I am not asking people to be on the same journey, but I am trying to be intentional about not using he or she or it or they to identify God, not limiting our language in identifying a God that is limitless.'” Hitchens responds, “The trade-off is that so limitless a God may also be too fuzzy to see clearly. At the back of the Elim Church is a cross, a reminder of Jesus’ saving death. At the back of the URC church is a stained-glass depiction of a tree with tongues of fire in it, a general image of life and renewal.”

Well, speaking of the death of these denominations, Hitchens has told us that this particular denomination, the United Reform Church, is the fastest declining of any UK wide church. We just need to note that fastest declining in this case is really saying something. He tells us about Briarley’s research, and also about John Hayward, a former math lecturer, who has produced a model in order to reflect and predict which denominations and churches are growing and which are shrinking. According to this research, the Church of Wales is described as, “Declining at such a rate that on the assumption that nothing changes, it will be extinct at some time in the 2030s, just after the Welsh Presbyterians. In the 2040s, it will be the turn of the Scottish Episcopalians, Methodists, and the Church of Scotland. The last rites for Anglicans and Catholics will be read in the 2060s.”

Now, let’s just note something. That means in the lifetime of many people listening right now to The Briefing. John Hayward, the lecturer who is making the arguments about which churches are declining, and which churches are the fastest declining, which churches are thriving and surviving. Hayward says that thriving churches, “Are very intentional about what they do. They are very clear in their beliefs, particularly about the urgency of accepting Christ, since one’s eternal destiny is at stake.” That’s contrasted with the message of the liberal churches, which is, “Well, everybody here believes something, and we’re not really sure what, but we can always put on an event and maybe somebody will come along.”

You look at this, and you recognize this is a portrait of the contrast between liberal and conservative denominations in the United States as well as in the UK. There’s another argument in this, and this is one that I’ve written a great deal about, others have discussed, and that’s the argument that if you just look at this issue sociologically, you have the argument for liberalism being that you need to lower the cognitive demand made upon church members in order to, as is often said, “Meet them where they are.”

We’re living in a liberal secular age, you’re going to have to have a more liberal secular doctrine. But it turns out that nobody tends to join a church, certainly not in any numbers, that doesn’t stand for particularly anything. So even sociologists who have no theological agenda at all, they tend to point out that it is the high demand churches, and by high demand, that does mean cognitive demand. That means specific beliefs. It means concrete doctrines, but it also means a very clear set of biblical sexual and ethical teachings. It also means an expectation about service and involvement. But you notice, that comes after the cognitive demands, in terms of belief and theology and doctrine. It comes after the moral demands.

In liberal Protestantism, you have a great deal of emphasis, at least in theory, on service, but here’s the big lesson, and even the sociologists can see it. If you give away the doctrine, and you give away the moral teachings and the commandments, in order simply to gather people together for a little bit of spirituality, and maybe a little bit of service, what you end up with is shrinking and declining churches, and eventually collapsing denominations. And theologically, we can just say they deserve to shrink, and they deserve to collapse. No great loss to the Christian gospel there, because there’s very little gospel, if any, in some of those churches. Indeed, many of them are, according to the New Testament, preaching a gospel other than the gospel, or contrary to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, you look at this, there’s another angle as well. When you look at these statistics, you simply have to ask yourself the question, if you were to put, say, a liberal denominational leader and a conservative denominational leader, and, say, trap them in a room for a few hours with this data, how would they come to any common conclusions?

When you look at this, you recognize that the liberal denominations don’t seem ever to learn from the sociological data. They love sociology, they seem like they love the data. After all, they’re supposedly all about rationality, but when you look at this rationally, they are basically adopting a suicide plan for their own denominations. Take theology out of the picture for just a moment. This is not a survival plan for these churches. It is, as Os Guinness, a British sociologist, said years ago, “It is the dust of death.” The question is, why would a denomination set itself on a course for death? And the answer is, because so many of the leaders of those denominations love the ethos and the worldview of the modern age, even more than they love their own churches. They are leading their churches into extinction. Now, let’s be honest, the challenges for evangelicals are great. Holding to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, holding to a biblical understanding of sexuality and marriage will get you into a lot of trouble these days.

But at least conservative evangelical Christians need to look each other in the eye and say, “We are in a predicament. We are going to face a lot of trouble, but this is exactly the kind of trouble we have been called to, and we’re going to hold to the faith.”

Very interesting report coming from The Spectator. Very interesting report coming from PRRI. In one sense, there’s nothing new here, but in another sense, there’s a lot of new material for thinking here, and we can only hope that conservative evangelical church leaders will look at this and say, “We need to take a look at this, and recognize when you look at the liberal option, it is indeed the dust of death.”

Part III

Democrats Are Getting Over Senator Menendez: A Salacious Scandal with a Losing Argument

But now we have to come back to the United States and look at a major news story that’s in one sense almost dominating some of the media, because it is just one of those stories you can’t turn your eyes from.

In this case, it is the indictment against the senior United States senator from the state of New Jersey, and in this case it is Robert Menendez, that senior senator, who with his wife and several others find themselves indicted, in the case of this senator for a second time, for matters of bribery and fraud. And for that matter, just accepting money for political influence. This is an enormous story, and one of the things that we see here is that when a morality play like this unfolds, and Christians understand this, it never unfolds with beauty. It unfolds with grotesque reality. And as Christians understand, when you’re looking at something like this, you see a reflection of human nature in one sense, human nature at its worst, but you also see a refusal to accept reality, and that’s what’s happening right now with Senator Menendez. This is a multi-count indictment, and the evidence that was found by the federal authorities in this case, it is absolutely bizarre.

Over $500,000 worth of cash found in his house. You would think someone who’s smart enough to be a Democratic senator from the state of New Jersey, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that you would think you’d have the sense, if you’re going to accept bribes, not to keep them in your house, in your closet, in jackets with your name stitched on the front. On the other hand, there was other evidence that was confiscated, including 13 gold bars. This is like old school criminal cases. You’re talking about gold, and you’re talking about 13 gold bars, and that’s a lot of money in gold. One of the things pointed out is that when you look at gold, people would think, “Well, the reason you have that is because you can melt it down and there are no identifying properties.” Gold is gold. It is the ultimate fungible material substance on earth. But the problem is, once again, you look at the deceptiveness of sin, and how we can deceive ourselves in sin.

In this case, in the house of the senator and his wife were found these 13 gold bars, complete with the serial numbers and the inscriptions that the certifiers of the gold had indicated, and with fingerprints and DNA that was successfully traced by federal authorities back to those who were coming to bribe the senator. Now, the senator’s refusing to resign. According to the rules of the Senate, he had to step back as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, but he’s refusing to step down from the Senate. This is one of those morality plays you see where all of a sudden a lot of the people who had been his friends… Now remember, Senator Menendez was indicted before on bribery charges, and enormous evidence was presented against him, but largely, at least on what was understood to be a technicality, the jury acquitted him, and though let’s just say they didn’t convict him, and so he walked away.

You would think that having that kind of brush with a federal indictment and a trial would mean you wouldn’t be found with $550,000 in cash and 13 gold bars in your closet, sometimes stuffed in jackets with your name stitched on them. You might think that, but evidently you would be wrong. It’s very easy to look at this and say, “Here is an evidence of Senator Menendez setting himself up for a colossal fall.” And frankly, just thinking that somehow he and his wife of about four years, who was also very much implicated in this, because it looks like it was her contacts that had brought these particular sources of ill-gotten gain into the senator’s closet, you would think that at some point they might recognize, “This is probably not going to work out. We’re probably going to get caught. Maybe it’s not a smart idea to keep this stuff in our closet.”

But there’s another angle on this, and that is that the Senator went and held a press conference just a couple of days ago to announce that he’s not stepping down from the United States Senate, even though the Democratic governor of the state, his fellow Democratic senator, Senator Corey Booker, they are joining with about at least… Well, over 10 members of the Democratic caucus in the United States Senate, calling for Senator Menendez to resign. This is an enormous political challenge for the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party clearly has had enough with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, but Menendez is digging in and here’s what he said. Basically, I’m paraphrasing what he spent several minutes saying in both English and in Spanish. Here’s what he said. “It’s not what it looks like.”

Well, here’s the fact. If you stand up before the American public, and your best argument is it’s not what it looks like, when the prosecutor’s putting pictures up of cash and gold from your closet, in jackets with your name stitched on it, that’s probably not a winning argument. Morality plays are always interesting. They’re often salacious. Americans are drawn to them, you can sometimes hardly turn your eyes from them, but Christians understand that that morality play is being played out in every playroom. It’s being played out in every classroom. It’s being played out on every playground. It’s being played out in every profession. It’s being played out all throughout society, because in one sense, even as this is made very clear by the Apostle Paul, we are all engaged in a vast conspiracy to rob God of his glory and to be lawbreakers on our own.

It’s not true that all of us have 13 gold bars and half a million dollars in our closet, but the fact is, we are sometimes drawn to, well, say salacious demonstrations of this kind of sinfulness, because sinners find nothing more interesting than someone else’s sin.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you before a live audience in London, England, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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