Does the Mainline have a Future?

I got involved in a little dialog/debate on the blog of Emergent leader Tony Jones about Mainline Protestantism. I was commenting on a report of a session at the recent AAR meeting in nearby San Diego (I couldn’t go) that featured Tony, Diana Butler Bass, and Scot McKnight. Apparently the exchange between Diana and Tony got a bit heated as to the future of the mainline churches.

I jumped into the conversation and suggested maybe things aren’t so bad for us, maybe we’re on the road forward. Now, at least one commenter seemed to disagree with my assessment.

I get the impression that Mainliners keep waiting for their left of center, open-ended stance to attract the surrounding culture. And yet, the opposite continues to happen.

I would argue that it is the lack of a strong theology of the Holy Spirit that has led, and is continuing to lead a decline in mainline numbers and vitality.

Now, I disagree with this apparently young evangelical pastor who believes that Mainliners have been waiting around for decades waiting for the culture to notice us -- all the while declining -- and that things are no different now than then.
I sense a great change happening – an emergent movement of sorts within Mainline Protestantism. Indeed, it is a new openness to the Holy Spirit. Books such as Diana’s Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006), Eric Elnes’ Asphalt Jesus, and Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel not only suggest that there is a hunger for something different, but that at least some progressive churches are reaching out and doing new things. The popularity of Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity (Harper, 2003) is another sign of this trend.

The reason I jumped into this discussion was to suggest that perhaps Progressives are ahead of the curve on at least some cutting edge issues. One particular issue is homosexuality in the church. We all know it’s a big issue. It seems to be tearing at the fabric of the churches, or so it seems. But the reality is – in the broader culture there is not only a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, but that at least among the younger generations see the church as particularly anti-gay. Although Progressive Churches haven’t done well among baby boomers, the children of baby boomers – if they’re going to go to church might find progressive churches more appealing.

The question is – how do we get the message out? Martha Grace Reese has shown us that by and large mainline churches have bought into the idea that faith is private and should not be shared. But by keeping the light under the bushel, to quote Jesus, we have kept a message of grace, welcome, and compassion under wraps as well.

So, my question is, does the Mainline have a future?

Cross-published at Faithfully Liberal


Fr Chris said…
So, my question is, does the Mainline have a future?

Speaking as someone outside the mainline, who in fact left the mainline after a number of years — I hope so! There are resources there that are not as readily available to other church families — especially to evangelical and Emergent ones.

Like you, I think the "gay card" especially is completely wrong. The recognition in some mainline churches that there is no question of whether or not to "include" LGBTs — that in fact they are already an important group within the Christian faithful — may be driving some homophobic baby boomers away, but it is not driving young moderates away. In fact, I encounter people on a daily basis for whom Christianity is barely even plausible because the perception is that we as a religion are homophobes.

The two big problems as I see it is that many mainline churches lost track of their identities in the 60s and 70s, shooting for a kind of ecumenical, universal Christianity and they are not serving young people.

The reality is, the mainline churches have historical spiritualities that they do well. I am accompanying a good friend to a Disciples church sometime in the next few weeks because the historical DoC focus on reclaiming practices of the early church and the Disciples approach to Scripture are a beautiful match to his own developing spirituality. (I would say the Disciples have done a decent job of safeguarding this store, unlike many Presby and Methodist congregations.) When someone asks, "So what is distinctive about your church" and the answer is, "Well, we're Protestant. We're nice to gay people now. Um...we love Jesus," that is not attractive. When you can offer a specific spirituality and a specific experience of the love of God and the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ — that's attractive!

And the second thing — campus ministry is being slashed to death and a lot of parishes are catering to boomers instead of running Sunday schools. It's not everywhere, but it's in enough places that the mainline is hurting really bad.

That's my far-more-than-2¢. But I'm passionate about this, and I'm glad to see mainline pastors starting to reclaim the tradition and fight for its place in the Christian world. Our faith will be tremendously impoverished if the mainline doesn't survive and flourish.
Mike L. said…
I disagree with the comments over on Tony's site. I don't think the reason for the decline in mainline church is because of any sort of doctrine shift or loss of focus on the holy spirit. It isn't that complicated. That is giving the people too much intellectual credit. It is simply about music, glitz and glam. Evangelical churches are growing because they decided to adapt their cultural trappings and mainliners have not. That is the bottom line.

I am passionate about theology (maybe to a fault) but I have to admit that better theology will NOT help churches grow one bit. Church growth is all about music and clothes. That is it, bottom line. Evangelical churches are more fun (if you can tune out the crappy theology). 95% of Christians are not listening to what is said so theology doesn't matter. It is all about music! If you want a big church, then dress cool and play rock and roll. If you want a small church, keep playing our grandparents music. That is all that matters to 95% of the people. All the other statistics are simply symptoms from the culture shift.

There are only a handful of churches who combine progressive worship with progressive theology and they are growing but not spreading because it is still taboo within christianity. The real analysis to the mainline/evangelical divide is that they both have 50% of the solution . The best path forward would be to share the progressive elements of each with the other and let go of the old in both.


We should just be happy with small authentic mainline churches and huge shallow mega churches.
Mystical Seeker said…
In the "Living the Questions" DVD, the subject of church growth came up. The point that was made was that religious attendance is not a contest. If some churches get more people because they appeal to people's superficial needs for entertainment and glitz (as Mike points out), or for some other reason, then so be it. Progressive churches need to stay with their vision and treat church attendance as if it were a horse race.

I think the glitz thing does come into play. Look at Joel Osteen. Do mainline churches really want to be like that? Do they want to hold services in converted basketball arenas? Is that the definition of success?

There's a Presbyterian church in my city that I've never attended, but it proclaims itself as some sort of hipster haven for Gen X/Gen Y. As far as I can tell, its theology is pretty mainstream, not all that liberal, but it is all about being hip in its style of worship. But I have to wonder why I, a 47-year-old male, would want to go to a church that aims itself at young hipsters? Then again, some churches go for niche markets, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. (Another church in my city is a Lutheran congregation with a focus on God/dess as a female deity. I've never been there, but I can't imagine that it gets very many male members. Again, I'm not sure that's a bad thing.)

Obviously, if churches keep losing members all the time, eventually they will dry up. But I also think that growth per se, and lowering the common denominator to attract more people, is necessarily a goal that churches should be aiming at.
SB said…
This is an interesting topic. What do you consider a "mainline church"? I attend a non-denominational church in Texas. More and more people are trying to get in the doors each week. We hear excellent expository preaching from the Word every week, sing from our hymnals, and do not feel entertained each week. So, I am wondering what the definition of "mainline" is in this was hard to tell.

I am not in favor of the emergent church movement or stagnant church worship you see in other churches either that are based on ritual and tradition only.


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