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.

Marks of the mainline?

The New York Times offers its take on the United Methodist Church’s doctrinal debate over sex.

Of all the article, I found the paper’s description of mainline Protestantism the most interesting:

In recent years, mainline Protestant denominations — which are different from evangelical Christian churches that read the Bible as literal truth and emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus — have one by one changed rules that had prohibited marriage and ordination of gays and lesbians.

Other than not evangelical, what are we in the eyes of the New York Times? Later in the article one of the paper’s sources, a United Methodist, might offer an answer:

“The United Methodist Church is a great bellwether of where opinions are going in the general society on the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion,” said Mr. Miller, who will also lead the Northern California delegation to the conference. “Moving the United Methodist Church step by step, and removing these barriers, is a greater step in making the larger society more inclusive.”

The New York Times appears to say our hallmark as a church is that we are a microcosm of American society. Not to get all evangelical and biblical here, but is that what the Bible says we are supposed to be?

Mainline or evangelical

Methoblogger Morgan Guyton offers a pair of descriptions of mainliners and evangelicals.

There is one type of Christianity that says my faith works for me; it’s what I grew up with; other people have equally valid views based on their cultural contexts; I’m gonna do my thing, other people can do theirs, and I’ll live together with them in peace by not bothering them with my beliefs. That’s how I would tend to describe the “mainline” response to the gospel (correct me if I’ve got it wrong). My denomination (United Methodism) is mostly made up of mainliners, but I can’t say I’m one of them. Another type of Christianity says what Jesus taught, what He did for us on the cross, and how He was brought back from the grave really is the best thing that’s ever happened to the world since it provides the basis for human beings to be reconciled with God and each other in perfect community; therefore we should share this good news with everybody. This second kind is what I would call “evangelical” Christianity, with which I would identify. I would argue that the definitive feature of being evangelical is that your chief desire is to share the euangelion (good news) of Jesus Christ with the world.

The point of Guyton’s post is actually to draw a further distinction between two sub-groups of evangelicals. You can read about that on his blog.

I suspect people who fall in the category Guyton call “mainline” will find his description inaccurate. It does resonate with me on one level. The answer to the questions “Why are you a Christian?” or “Why are you a United Methodist?” does lead many folks to answer by saying things such as “I grew up this way” or “Because I live in such and such a place.” The answers are cultural or sociological.

That may not be a fair description of what it means to be “mainline.”

It does reflect how I fell into the mainline. My answer goes this way: “I started dating this woman who attended a United Methodist Church.”

If being mainline is more than being a part of cultural Christianity, what is it?

What do Emergents have to offer the church?

Roger Olson posts a guest blog post from a self-professed Emergent who came back from Wild Goose disturbed by the cozy relationship between Emergents and the Mainline.

One part of a long and interesting post goes as follows:

… my more fervent concern is to ask if Emergent folks are really going to question the Mainline denominations’ political and theological liberalism in a similar way they criticize evangelicalism’s theological and political conservatism. If not, then its a question whether or not Emergent folks have anything new to offer to American Protestantism. If they do have something to offer, then perhaps it should be a critique on the conflations of liberal freedom (aka pluralistic tolerance) and Christian freedom in the Mainline church, or the attempt to manipulate nation-state policy to fit with the vision of such freedom. Maybe it should be a critique on conflating love with open tolerance to anyone, which eventually leaves everyone affirmed as they are and no one converted. It could be the failed attempt to reduce theological claims to social justice claims, which forces us to ask exactly what the doctrines of the church, the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection accomplish, other than pithy symbols used to advance left-wing forms of American democracy.

Again, read the whole post. The writer roots the connection between Emergents and the Mainline in their mutual dislike for conservative Evangelicalism, and he does not argue for a return to the fold for Emergents.

As a Mainliner, the post gave me some helpful perspective of some of the differences and relationships among these various movements.