One paradox about Protestant Christianity is that both the mainline and evangelical ends of the theological spectrum bear the seeds of their own decline.
Mainliners — comparatively liberal denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Episcopalians — have been hemorrhaging members and influence for five or six decades.
Conversely, a few years ago, the common wisdom said conservative Protestants—such as the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, independent charismatic churches and so on — would surely ascend to greater and greater prominence.
Now many of them, too, are losing influence and numbers, particularly among younger adults.
For instance, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, has publicly acknowledged its struggle with significant declines in conversions, baptisms and overall membership.
Meanwhile, the numbers of atheists, agnostics and spiritual-but-not-religious folks are increasing. Yes, they're still a minority, but they're a growing minority.
It's not an auspicious time to be in the Protestant religion trade.
The strange thing is, there are substantial differences and a historic rivalry between mainline and evangelical Protestants, yet neither faction is performing very well.
(Disclaimer: I'm about to paint with an exceedingly broad brush. Sorry.)
Mainliners long ago developed a theologically and socially progressive strain of Christianity. They were more willing to adopt the manners and norms of, for want of better terms, moderate-to-liberal, upper-middle-class, educated society.
They embraced looser, even skeptical, interpretations of the Bible.
Over the years, they've defended, or at least tolerated, peace movements, racial and gender equality, divorce, co-habitation and, more recently, gay rights.
Not that such views are bad.
But here's the problem. If you buy into ever-shifting social trends, if you become perceived as biblically squishy, then if you're not careful you also become indistinguishable from any secular do-gooder institution, especially if you downplay teachings about individual piety and eschew moral certainty.
Parishioners find fewer reasons to devote themselves to church work and lives of faith. They don't get mad and quit so much as they just apathetically drift away.
Conservative Christianity carries its own blowback.
It advertises sure-fire answers to complex problems, divine moral absolutes with the consequent blessings or punishments, a God who is intimately involved with each individual churchgoer.
These can be good things, too.
But if my mail is any indicator, this approach ends up alienating many, many people today, perhaps more people than it attracts. A lot of the alienated used to sit in the pews. Instead of nurturing them in the kingdom of God, this worldview ran them off.
A lot of sensitive, innocent people got wounded, ignored or shunned. That's because unquestioning self-assurance, strict rules and simple answers too easily mutate into arrogance, intellectual and moral hypocrisy, intolerance and meanness.
What might work better than either of these two approaches?
Boy, I wish I knew. My own approach to Christianity lies somewhere in the middle — largely Bible-based, partly academic, partly social gospel, partly individual redemption. Some answers, some questions. Lots of grace.
I'd be the first to admit it is, if anything, less successful in attracting the unchurched than the two other approaches. It does help my 80 parishioners and me. But that's not the basis for a broad theological strategy, much less a world-changing one.
In the end, I guess, each of us just has to him or her own self be true, and let the chips fall where they fall. (Pardon the mixed clichés.)
I try to be faithful to God and the gospel as best I can understand them. I try to tell the truth as best I know it, and when I don't have an answer I try to admit that, too.
I find comfort in reminding myself that in the grand scheme, I won't have to answer to the masses anyway. I'll have to answer to the Lord, who'll only be concerned about whether or not I was faithful with the little portion he gave me.
So in return for that portion, I give him my best, to the extent I can discern what my best is.
Ultimately, the results are in his hands.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.