Hard Times for the Mainline

The-Third-Law-of-Mainline-ProtestantismWither the Mainline church?

It’s a question those of us who are part of a mainline/progressive denomination have been wondering for years.  Or, it is a question we continually hear about.  Our numbers continue to shrink, as does our monetary reserves.

Everyone has their reasons as to why mainline churches seem to be in sort of the death spiral.  I want to use this blog post to share some of those responses and what they offer to our churches.

The most common response to shrinking numbers in our churches is one of mild annoyance.  Fellow Disciples Pastor Derek Penwell, shares this view.  In a recent blog post he is upset at how some believe that the liberal churches are losing members is because of their socially liberal stances on issues like gay marriage.  Penwell sets up strawmen (one that is partially based on truth) that tells the mainline churches they are losing members because of their liberal views.  He writes:

If mainline Protestant denominations would just shut up about all that liberal stuff — the soft stuff that gives liberals a reputation for bleeding hearts (like caring about the poor and the oppressed), and start focusing on the real moral problems confronting American life — like gay marriage, or the loss of traditional family values, or “the war on Christmas” — then they wouldn’t have to worry about bleeding members at such distressing rates.


He concludes by dismissing the “we are too liberal” argument as one focused on survival and not faithfulness to Christ:

But distilled to its essence, the contention that liberal denominations are losing members because of their liberalness or because they don’t make one’s stance on gay marriage a test of fellowship can’t but appear to be an appeal to utility dressed up in ecclesiastic garb. That is to say, if you begin from the premise that the church’s primary function is to survive, then anything that threatens that survival is bad, while anything that promises to aid in keeping the doors open is good. If the primary question centers on figuring out what works, then whether liberal theology is a faithful reading of the vocation of following Jesus or that insisting on doing away with high-handed legalism better reflects the message of the gospel is largely beside the point. The primary consideration is whether a belief or practice succeeds in helping keep the doors open — or, if you’re the more ambitious type, allowing you to add to your church the qualifier “mega.”

Now, I agree with Penwell that I don’t think mainline churches are declining because we are too liberal. I also don’t think the answer is to not be open to LGBT folk or the ordination of women.  But Penwell never really answers the question about decline.  This is really happening.  Why is that?  And if the “we’re too liberal” is bunk, what is the explaination?  Why do mainline churches matter?  Can we be concerned about the health of an institution like the church without it being dismissed as only being concerned about survival? Instead he just trades in slamming evangelicals and talking about following Jesus means dying (another good idea on the surface, but what does it mean in this context).  Penwell’s response might appease liberal culture warriors, but it doesn’t help those in declining churches and seminaries figure out what’s next.

Penwell reflects a trend among some in mainline churches to ignore the serious injury that is causing blood to spout forth all the while proclaiming “it’s just a flesh wound!” We try to minimize the problems taking place either by saying we aren’t interested in survival or by looking for any chink in evangelicalism’s armor.  When attendance starts to slip in evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention, some mainline leaders latch on to this as proof that we aren’t the only ones declining.  That’s all true; but mainline churches are still declining more rapidly than those other churches.  Why?  Answering that means having to take a look inside and it might mean that we don’t do somethings so well.

Penwell’s view also reflects something else that I feel is going on within the mainline church: apathy for the tradition.  Over the years, I’ve heard how God doesn’t need (insert name of religious denomination/institution).  Or that we shouldn’t be so concerned about the survival of (insert name of religious denomination/institution).  I’ve noticed at times a disdain for any formal structure and no appreciation of where they have been.

Putting too much faith in institutions can bring about death, just ask the Catholic church in the light of clergy sex abuse scandals.  But as Allan Bevere notes, even the early church was formally organized.  What I get from Penwell and others at times is that this tradition doesn’t matter.  Of course tradition isn’t God.  But tradition matters.  It shapes us.  Tradition reaches back into the past to connect us to the present and the future.

Dwight Welch is concerned about the decline of the mainline.  In his recent blog post
, he shares how progressive congregations shaped him in the faith to become the man (and pastor) he is today.

He also shows that decline has consequences.  Smaller numbers means smaller budgets and that can rebverberate in ways people don’t realize.  Welch is concerned that the institutions that formed him are slowly disappearing:

We may be heartened by the rise of religious progressives among the young, but without institutional ways of relating, it’s hard to see how they will be organized. The loss of numbers means seminaries close, campus ministries shut down, the chance for a progressive church to be near by continues to diminish.

For example, In Indiana there were a dozen progressive and mainline campus ministries 20 years ago. Now there are 2, Butler and ISU. Notice that the largest universities in the state, including IU have no such presence. In Kansas we had a dozen ministries and in the same period we’ve been reduced to 2. Compare that to what evangelical para church groups and secular student organizations are doing.

I know from my own story that the reason I found a way to stay in the church was because there were religious progressive campus ministries where I found a way connect my values and faith. But given the expense of the old model, they required denominational funds that simply are not there, given the membership declines.

Many of the theologians I read, that opened up faith to me, taught at progressive seminaries, which are endangered. When I was first diving into progressive Christianity I read Christianity and Crisis, the Other Side, and other journals that don’t exist now. Mainline publishing houses face an uncertain future, a source of progressive ideas for the wider society.

While Dwight and I tend to have somewhat different political and theological views, I resonate with his view of the mainline. As much as I appreciate how evangelicalism shaped me, it was the mainline church that was able to intergrate my faith and my sexuality. It was the tradition that challenged my assumptions. But many of the institutions from publishing houses to denominations and seminaries are threatened due to the decline of the mainline.

I get that nothing lasts forever. I get that institutions can become gods to us. I get that we should trust God and be faithful even as our churches dwindle. But I am reminded of something Presbyterian pastor John Vest once noted: what is at stake for mainline/progressive Christianity? What makes mainline Christianity worth preserving for future generations? Can or should our seminaries and congregations help form tomorrow’s leaders? Do we believe this is a tradition that should be cared for? Or do we just dissolve and leave the defining of the faith solely to evangelicals?

I think one can work to preserve a tradition without it becoming their master. But we can’t do that until we understand why this tradition of the mainline matters. This tradition matters to me. It should matter to others as well- because Christianity will the poorer should this tradition wither.

Repost: “Progressive Christians” and Yours Truly

progressivexianityI wrote this post in the summer of 2011.  The trend has continued in the succeeding years.  I will write something more current on the issue, but this old posts still stands.

I’ve been noticing lately within Mainline Protestant  circles, the rising use of the word “progressive” as a way to describe Christians who might have once used the term “mainline Protestant.”  The biggest change to note is over at the religion megasite Patheos, which changed the name of one of their religion portals.  What was once called “Mainline Protestant” is now called “Progressive Christian.”  That change has brought about a discussion of the term and there have been some fairly good posts about name change.

That said, I’m also a tad bit wary of the term.
Continue reading

The New Orthodoxy and Me

rainbowcrossFor the last few years, I’ve been impressed with a growing number of writers and bloggers, mostly from Methodist circles, but from some other traditions as well who seem to be carrying the Neo-Orthodox/Post-Liberal banner that had seem somewhat dormant for a while. I’ve been attracted to this stream of Protestantism after finding both evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism wanting in different ways.  Writers like Allan Bevere, David Watson, the boys over at Via United Methodists and others echo some of the same feelings I’ve been thinking about God, Jesus and the church.  They show a different way of being within mainline Protestantism.  It is more focused on the importance of salvation, atonement, sin and grace which sadly has become a counter-movement against the spiritually relative ethos in the mainline (at least among the elite).

But while I am thankful for this small movement, I am also left with some wariness about this movement when it comes to the issue of sexuality.  Is there room for LGBT people in this movement?

I’m probably an odd duck: a gay Christian that has an orthodox theology. That’s not how it usually goes: most churches that tend to be gay-friendly, also tend to be quite progressive in their theology.  Many gays would tend to have a more liberal theology.  (Small-o orthodox doesn’t mean conservative.) But I’ve never felt comfortable with the standard liberal theology.  Post-liberal theology is a far better fit for me. ( I know that I’m not the only gay person that doesn’t fit the usual profile.)

But a good part of these writers haven’t said much about sexuality.  Some writers, like the late William Placher, were gay friendly.  But what about other bloggers?  I understand there is still disagreement on this issue and I’m not asking that this movement start excluding those who have different views on sexuality.  But I am wondering if there is room for me.  So, how does sexuality fit in this neo-orthodox/ post-liberal milieu?

I’m looking forward to your answers.

Why I Need Church

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

I’ve been reading all the post that have been written in the wake of the recent survey by Pew Research on religion in America.  While all sectors of Christianity have fallen, the mainline churches have again, had a steep decline.

Around the same time, there has been some talk about ecclesiology or the study of the church.  What is our theology of church? Why does church matter?

To put a more blunt question: why do I go to church?

Of course I could be a smartass and say “because I’m the pastor,” but I want to give a real answer.  Why do I go to church?  Why do I need church?

I need church because it has and continues to save my life.

When I was in my tween years (we didn’t call it tween way back in 1981), I remember going to the weekly Awana meeting and memorizing verses.  I also went to a Christian elementary school where we had to memorize passages as well. It was around this time that I remember learning the Romans Road, a number of verses in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that centered around salvation.  There was one particular verse that I tended to cling on to; Romans 5:8.  I can still remember it: “But God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

I don’t think the people who taught me to memorize this verse knew it come in handy a decade later when I came to terms with my sexuality.  While it took a while to accept myself, I never thought God hated me.  I knew I was loved by God no matter what.  I could only learn that in church, not on a mountain.

I need church because I need to hear God speaking in the sermon and in the songs sung.  Yes, I know God can speak in nature and we should be attentive to this.  But it is in church that I hear God.  It might be through the pastor’s sermon.  Or maybe it was the hymn of the day.  At some point, I hear God.  God of course, can be heard anywhere, but it is at this particular place that I expect to hear God.  Maybe they are words of assurance or a word to get up off my behind, but this is the place where I have the clearest reception.

I need church to learn that life isn’t about me.  The danger of 21st century living is that it is centered around one person: Me.  Our daily lives are all about having the best post or tweet- or having the best car or house.  But it is at church, we learn about a man named Jesus that gave up his own life for others.  I learn that I am to go and do likewise, to live for others.  Yes, you don’t need to go to church to feed the poor.  But it is only church where the sacraments and my life intersect.  It’s where I’m called to be like Jesus, who lived for others.

I need to church to remind me that this isn’t all there is.  The big temptation in life is to believe that there is nothing beyond this reality.  No heaven or hell. No God or Jesus. No miracles.  The world tells me this world is all there is.  It tells me to be merry, because this is all we have.  But church reminds me that there are things in creation that we can’t explain.  It tells me that there is something more to this life than making money.  It asks me to believe that some hippie guy from Galilee was really the son of God, the one that gave us all freedom through his life, death and resurrection. It tells me that water, bread and wine mean more than just water, bread and wine.  It reminds me that one day I will be resurrected just like Jesus.  The world says this is all there is.  The church tells me no, there is more, so much more.

I need church to tell me that the church is made up of all kinds of people.  When I was an Associate Pastor, I remember dealing with Ernie, an elderly man that is mentally impaired.  Ernie had no “inside voice” so he will speak up during Sunday worship and he can sometimes bug you to no end.  But he also has a wonderful smile and laugh.  Ernie reminds me that he is a child of God.  He reminds me that the church is made up of all kinds of people, some you like and some not so much.  But in church I can’t self-select and pretend that the kingdom of God isn’t not for them.  No, we end up with people we can’t stand, but God reminds us they are children of God as well. In a society where we can create a world via social media where everyone agrees with me and look like me, church is one of the few places where you have to you are forced to learn that they uptight Republican from the burbs or the granola Democrat from the city are our brothers and sisters.


Finally, I need church because I’m a sinner.  I know that word isn’t very trendy these days.  But the reality is, I am a sinner.  I make mistakes.  Church is like an AA meeting in reminding me that all is not well with me.  I need Jesus. I need my sisters and brothers in Christ to help me become more Christlike.  Church is a place where I can’t pretend everything is okay, because it’s not.  It’s a place where there is love and grace, but it is also a place that pushes me to be a better person, not because that’s what I need to do, but out of love for Christ has done for me.


So there you have it.  I don’t know if it’s be best list, but that’s why I need church.  Church matters.