07/17/2012 09:49 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2012

Should 'Liberal Christianity' Be Saved?

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord ...but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began." --2 Timothy 1:7-10 (NKJV)

I suppose there really are some Christians out there who resonate with and build their vocational lives around responding to, fending off or otherwise getting caught up in dealing with the question of the so-called "death of liberal Christianity." I, however, am not one of them. That is not to say that I don't get that the church is in trouble. Of course I do, and of course it is.

What else is the church but "in trouble" when commentators such as Ross Douthat in his recent New York Times piece, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" describe the struggles of those in mainline denominations to build a more inclusive communion as attempting to "adapt itself to contemporary liberal values," for the sake of its own survival, rather than as an expression of the Gospel made real in our own day? What else is the church but "in trouble" when the passé perspective of Bishop John Shelby Spong can be trotted out as an impetus for progressive leaders to fight for LGBTQ equality or the creation of multifaith community, rather than claiming these as prophetic movements of the Spirit within and among the people of God?

Of course Douthat would respond that it is exactly because liberal Christians have dropped the ball on making an essential connection between their justice work and the deeper spiritual and doctrinal mandates of the faith that is the problem. And to a certain extent I believe he has a point. Liberal Christians do need to put aside whatever spirit of fear it is that prevents them from in every and all instance proclaiming that their justice work is nothing less than what the mandates of Christian faith require. Liberal Christians need be unafraid to make the confession of a belief in the saving power and presence of Jesus Christ the foundation for their action in the world. And then liberal Christians need to roll up their sleeves for the harder work of not only mining the resources of Scripture and tradition to support such proclamations, but they need to do so in a way that real folks, struggling in real congregations, in the real world can understand, embrace and act upon.

All of this is true, and yet to frame this mandate in terms of a quest to save liberal Christianity is not just wrong. It is the antithesis of a Gospel message. Teaching and preaching the love and justice seeking and making Gospel of Jesus Christ does not have anything to do with a quest to ensure the survival of institutional bodies and ecclesiastical groupings, be they liberal or conservative, left-wing or right, evangelical or progressive. Living and preaching, teaching and engaging the Gospel of Jesus Christ is only and always about making a wider way for God's beloved creation to be able to live and know itself as exactly that. Whenever the church is able, by God's grace, to succeed in bringing this message to vital and purposeful life then its continuation is worth fighting for and celebrating. But when it does not I have to wonder if its demise is more blessing than curse.