Is there vitality in the old mainline?

Evangelical and Arminian Baptist Roger Olson offers his perspective on the vitality in the mainline, including this observation about megachurches.

I have lived in quite a few American cities and have observed growing old-line denomination churches—some of them bursting at the seams. In almost every case they are charismatic or evangelical ethos-wise and exist in some tension with the hierarchy and especially the liberal theologians of their own denominations.

And here is his observation of one of our main ills.

All that is to say, much of the vitality of old-line Protestantism has faded due to the loss of an adequate spiritual-theological center. Old-line Protestant denominations have absorbed one aspect of American culture so completely that it is killing them—tolerance. And here by “tolerance” I mean fear of objecting to anything except intolerance.

I’d be interested in particular to your take on his suggestions at the end of his post.

Ezekiel’s words for me

So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life. (Ezekiel 33:7-9, NRSV)

In days gone by, a pastor would know these words well, and these words would be a prod.

In the United Methodist Church, do we hear these words?

Rachel Held Evans, the hugely influential religion blogger, wrote about why the mainline church is not a good fit for her.

While evangelicals often adopt a narrow, literalist view of Scripture that borders on bibliolatry, I’ve spoken with mainliners who admit that they are embarrassingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible. (One woman told me that the only parts of Scripture she recognizes are those found in her hymnal, that she didn’t know the difference between Psalms and Proverbs, and that she was shocked to learn that some of her favorite liturgy was taken directly from the Bible.)

While evangelicals carry the unfortunate reputation of being married to the Republican party, mainliners are missing a great opportunity to talk about what it means to pledge one’s allegiance first and foremost to the Kingdom of God.

While some evangelicals avoid making justice a centerpiece of their mission for fear of looking too “liberal” (though I think this is improving), many mainliners fail to explain the religious motivation behind their acts of mercy. (One young woman from a mainline church put it this way: “I wasn’t learning anything about justice or creation care in church that I wasn’t learning in school. In fact, when talking about justice, my pastor was more likely to quote Gandhi than Jesus. So why would I bother going to church?”)

While evangelical pastors may care too little about who they offend, mainline pastors may care too much, to the point that they are afraid to say anything of substance.

I don’t think Ezekiel speaks to all of these issues, but he does speak to a key issue. Do we take God seriously enough to speak with passion and live with boldness? Do we feel the weight of what we are doing when we gather as a church?

When the music fades and the words of Scripture have been read, do we United Methodist pastors open our mouths to speak as if something of cosmic significance hangs in the balance?

As you may be able to tell, I ask this question more as a prod to myself than a question for you.

I try every week to preach well, but I have to admit that I too often lack the fire and sense that something of cosmic importance is happening when I preach. I am too often more concerned with being accepted than with heeding the words and warning of Ezekiel.

So, this post is a bit of a confession, a bit of an act of contrition, and a bit of a prayer that God make me a better watchman on his tower.

Why they come

Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding the Gospel reports on her work with the Mainline Evangelism Project to study successful evangelism efforts by predominantly white, mainline Protestant churches outside the South. In the research summary that is found on her web site, Reese reports she and her colleagues struggled to find churches to study.

They gathered data on 30,000 mainline churches. The United Methodist Church was not included in the study because we do not keep data on adult baptisms as distinct from infant baptism. Of those 30,000 churches the researchers looked for churches that had baptized at least 15 adults over a three year period. They further narrowed the list by saying the number of baptisms had to represent at least 1% of worship attendance. This means that a church baptizing five people a year would have to have an average worship attendance of 500 or fewer to be included in the study. After setting these parameters, the researchers found fewer than 150 churches out of the 30,000 from which the data came. (Sorry this paragraph is so convoluted.)

Some of the findings of the study are interesting, although the method of collecting the data calls into question whether it can be generalized. The people who filled out surveys were not a random sample but were selected by the church staff, so we should be cautious in our interpretation of the data.

That understood, one finding that struck me as interesting was the report by new members of what about being a Christian was of great significance to them. The survey listed 12 statements and asked people to rate how significant they were. For those who had not been attending church or shopping for a church before joining the one they joined, the top answers in terms of how many marked them of great significance were:

“It gives me a relationship with Jesus” – 87%

“My sins are forgiven” – 85%

“It gives meaning to my life” – 80%

“I have eternal life” – 80%

“My life is empowered by the Holy Spirit” – 74%

Given how little we talk about sins in the mainline, I was surprised by that issue coming in second. But again these are not typical mainline churches.

One other interesting nugget in the same data is a distinction between new members with a church background — they’d attended other churches before joining the high evangelism church — and those who had not been attending any church before joining. Sixty-nine percent of those with a church background said the fact their worldview was different than non-Christians was of great significance to them. Only 37% of those who had not been attending church before joining said this.

I interpret this as meaning the an awareness of having different values and a different worldview than non-Christians is something that emerges or grows with church exposure. Being a part of church raises the significance of this aspect of Christianity over time.

To me this is interesting because I am quite taken with the whole Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon line of emphasis that says the church is different from the world and that this is an important part of its proclamation. That may be so, but it may not be something that outsiders find significant in their move to become insiders. At least, it is not nearly as significant to them as it is to insiders. (If the data can be trusted.)

As so often happens with me, I am not really certain what to make of any of this information. I need to let it stew longer. But I did find it interesting and thought you might as well.