August 1, 2014

Mainline Churches: We’re Having a Moment Here

john-wesley-1.jpgIn Appreciation for Bishop William Willimon.

UPDATE: C’mon people. I am not insulting mainline churches. If I say that, in GENERAL, mainlines are more liberal than many evangelicals are comfortable with, that isn’t discounting all the many, many good things I’ve always praised. If I’m offending you with this proposal, then forget about it and we just won’t bother each other.

Mainline churches….we’re having a moment here.

Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ…do you know what I mean? We’re having a moment, and it’s slipping right by.

What moment?

We’re having a moment when thousands of evangelicals are getting a bellyful of the shallow, traditionless, grown up youth group religion that’s taken over their pastor’s head and is eating up their churches.

It’s a moment when people are asking if they want to hear praise bands when they are 70…or if they will even be allowed in the building when they are 70. It’s a moment when the avalanche of contemporary worship choruses has turned into one long indistinquishable commercial buzz. It’s a moment when K-Love is determining what we sing in church and that’s not a good thing.

It’s a moment when some people are wondering if their children will ever know the hymns they knew or will ever actually hold a Bible in their hand at church again. It’s a moment when a lot of people are pretty certain if they hear the words “new,” “purpose” or “seeker” one more time, they may appear on the evening news for an episode of “church rage.”

It’s a moment when significant numbers of people have heard the same ten sermon series so many times they could fill in for the pastor on short notice. It’s a moment when many people would actually like to see a section of the congregation who are over 50 and not trying to look under 30.

It’s a moment that- believe it or not- some people actually want to go to something that looks like church as they remember it, see a recognizable pastor, hear a recognizable sermon, participate in the Lord’s Supper, experience some reverence and decorum, and leave feeling that, in some ways, it WAS a lot like their mom and dad’s church. It’s a moment when reinventing everything may not be as sweet an idea as we were told it was.

It’s a moment when the baby boomer domination of evangelicalism is showing signs of cracking. Some younger people actually want to hear theology. They aren’t judging everything by how seekers evaluate it or what Rick Warren would say about it.

Yes, my mainline friends, we’re having a moment here. You can see it all around the edges of evangelicalism. It’s there and it’s real. It isn’t easy or automatic, but it’s there. And it is sad to realize that at the very time so many are looking for what you have, you’re mostly squandering the moment entirely.

Your churches could be taking in thousands of evangelicals. That’s right. Those recognizably “churchy” churches of yours, with the Christian year, the Biblically rich liturgy, the choir robes, the still-occasionally used hymnals and the multi-generational, slightly blended worship services, could be taking in thousands of evangelicals.

Of course, you’d have to want them. You’d have to, in many ways, meet them halfway or more. You’d need to talk to them as younger evangelicals, not dangerous fundamentalists. You’d have to reconsider how important it is to you to keep homosexual grievances constantly on the front burner. You’d have to start acting like Biblical morality meant something. You’d have to stop acting as if being mainline is a game where you wait to see how fast the membership dies off.

It’s a moment when you need to speak the language of people who want to hear the Bible; a moment when preachers need to preach mature, Biblical evangelical messages.

Those younger evangelicals are ready for your appreciation of tradition, your more balanced theological method, your commitment to multi-generational churches and your more substantial appreciation of justice issues.

But they aren’t ready for the things that have emptied so many of your churches. They will never come if things remain the same. Much needs to change and should change.

You need to communicate, and you need to go back to your roots. It’s frustratingly ironic to know that when many of us are longing for a church that has the things we cannot find in evangelicalism, you have so many of those very things every Sunday. But what you don’t have is the willingness to come back to the center of evangelicalism where people who love the Bible and take it seriously can find a home with you.

You’ve made it clear that you want those on the left. And evangelicals have made it clear that they are not going to accommodate those who want tradition. We’re having a moment here, if you can stop and see it, who knows what could happen? Will your own churches divide in order to meet evangelicals on the road? Or will the moment go by, a “might have been,” that never was to be?

The moment will come and it will go. Right now, the moment is upon all of us.

Comments

  1. i don’t know…

    we are definately mainline in theology and history, but more contemporary in practise, tho not in a mega-your best life now-kind of way.

    i’m more interested in experiencing community with people who are seeking truth, wherever they may fall within that spectrum than with disgruntled evangelicals who are looking for a certain type of worship etc.

    i don’t really care what worship looks like, as long as it’s honest and the people leading have integrity.

    it’s mighty hard to find capable organists these days, however, and when my son decided he wanted to play we couldn’t find a teacher who would teach outside their congregation. it was wierd.

  2. Michael Adams says:

    I was baptized, forty years and two weeks ago,in a Southern Baptist church in a small town in East Texas. In my early thirties, I was moving to the left, as my urban SB church was moving right, so I walked down the street, and became a Congregationalist. I raised one and a half kids there, but, about the time the one was half grown, and the half was being born, I realized that my intellectual problems with orthodox belief had gradually been resolved. I hung on, the token Christian, as my wife described me, for nearly ten more years. When son came back from college, he asked, “Why are you still going there?” Unable to give him a good answer, we went church hunting. He and his wife found a very hip Evangelical church, and I was confirmed in the ECUSA. I detest all that praise music, of which my parish has a surfeit. (Some of the words are not even grammatical. The “tunes” are so irregular, few can follow and sing along, so they are reduced to audience.) He dislikes the liturgy in my barely Anglican parish. So did I, at that age. As a recovering Baptist, I sit near the back. All the Baptists understand why, but, to clue in the rest of you, the minister shouted, really loud sometimes. It was easier, especially if you had children with you, who might awaken and cry, to sit at the back. So, there we are, Epistle side, rear or second, every Sunday. I can see all the rest of the people, know their struggles and stories, as they go to the altar for Communion, often in family groups, even extended families, twelve or more. It is so beautiful. We are near the last. I so wish my son and daughter in law were with me, just once in a while. I wish that there were an Episcopal church with something approaching Orthodox preaching, that also sang hymns. Now, my wife is with us, too, albeit reluctantly. When she was an atheist, she was a Presbyterian atheist. There´s a lovely PCA church, who sing hymns, have Communion every Sunday, even have an organ. However, my daughter does not want to be jerked around any more, to attend another church. As for myself, I have formed many of those relationships that make a church feel like church. Sigh. This was not what I expected.

  3. Fr. Mike Creson says:

    mega=good toomega=toomany small=good toosmall=notgoingmega church=forJesus=good worship=forJesus=good jobofchurch=worship=good worthyworship=Godhappy megamegaworship=joyjoyall lovepoor=worshipalso canprovideforeverywant=perfectchurch abortiondivorcesexualitywarimmigrationabuseconflict=messychurch=people=sinners worthyworship+messy people=megaornotgingmega=alltogether=Godlyprayer =church

  4. Here’s to hoping, even as a Catholic, that this moment doesn’t just pass right by! There is much of value in genuine reform theology that we are in danger of losing, like languages of disapprearing peoples.

  5. A few odds and ends:

    Mark Anderson wrote: Seriously, the ECUSA has some serious problems. Much of this is due to their never having really decided if they’re protestant or catholic

    And one needs to choose because….? ;) Seriously, there are worthwhile elements of both traditions, why not combine the best of both? (which pretty much sums up my experience with Episcopalianism locally, keeping in mind our locality is waaaay outside the ECUSA norm)

    Camassia — re: bishops — when bishops are godly men who truly care about being Christlike shepherds to God’s people, it’s not a matter of submission. It’s a pleasure to follow their leadership.

    chrisstiles wrote: I’ve been to All Souls (Stott’s church) many times and don’t know that I would necessarily agree with your statement – in many ways it is just a big evangelical church (albeit an incredibly healthy one).

    I was thinking in shorthand, allow me to elaborate. What I meant was, I believe the best — and most relevant to postmoderns — of the Episcopal/Anglican tradition can be found in the same stream of thought and practice that produced CS Lewis and John Stott. Not that we should do exactly what they did/do. Rather that our future can be built, at least in part, on the foundations they laid.

    Jeremy — Much as I’d like to I won’t quote your entire post (beautifully described!). Just a couple thoughts. If I were to speak as a parishioner I’m exactly where the Falls Church folks are — committed to loyalty to Jesus, and the church as His people, and let the rest of the chips fall where they must.

    The question I’m asking is more from the POV of a future teacher of theology and/or church leader. Blessings to Jody and the folks in TN, but here in PA the ECUSA doesn’t plan to stop till all Bible-believing parishioners are expelled from their churches. The Philadelphia diocese has already been “cleaned up” (my parents lost their church building in that fracas — their people are still a very healthy and growing Anglican church), and now they’re moving on to western PA. Real-estate-wise we’re toast. It’s just a matter of time.

    So the past is fading, and it’s time to start making plans for the future. What we have to offer here in Western PA is a well-educated, Biblically sound yet broad-based clergy; worship practices of amazing variety (from Anglo-Catholic to charismatic and everything in between); and a diocese where about 90% of the parishes love Jesus enough to sacrifice their buildings. Sounds like the makings of something, no?

    So how can we evangelical Episco-Anglicans best be of service in the 21st century? When the phoenix of orthodoxy rises from the ashes of heresy, what direction should it fly in? What might postmodern, Biblically orthodox Anglicanism look like?

  6. I have been waiting for this moment all my ministry. I am a minister serving the Presbyterian Church (USA). Just recently I heard this spoken…. “Getting new members is not the answer to our problems. We must stop fretting over the lack of numbers and focus on telling God’s story.

    The people I serve know how to tell God’s story, but they stay too busy fretting over low numbers in our children’s Sunday School program. Concentrate on loving the children we have, celebrating their participation, being a community that loves being a community. Who knows people may just join us.

    We have spent too much time reading statistics, listening to evangelicals as to how we are irrelevant and dead. We are focused on the wrong story…our problems rather than God’s story.

    I do have one question. I know the “homosexual” debate has not and is not popular. I hear your call to take it off the headlines of the church. It certainly is not the fight I fight on a daily basis. Yet, if we had dropped racism and ordination of women when those topics were not pleasant where would we be? This remains our struggle.

  7. chrisstiles says:

    I was thinking in shorthand, allow me to elaborate. What I meant was, I believe the best — and most relevant to postmoderns — of the Episcopal/Anglican tradition can be found in the same stream of thought and practice that produced CS Lewis and John Stott. Not that we should do exactly what they did/do. Rather that our future can be built, at least in part, on the foundations they laid.

    I agree – to an extent – which might make what I say below sound contradictory, but let’s have a go at this.

    In CS Lewis and Stott (as well as some of their contemporaries) you see people who very attractively and biblically blend all elements of the 3-legged stool (scripture, reason and tradition). However, it seems to me that they were educated particularly well in all three, which for social and religious reasons is now fairly unusual.

    It’s all very well saying that their work and way of doing things can serve as a foundation from which we can build. However, such a tradition would still need to be able to sustain itself along those lines, and I’m not sure I necessarily see any signs of that being able to happen.

    To be sure there some very vibrant evangelical churches who are reaching postmoderns – but their ‘tradition’ tends to be highly localised. In the UK at least the mass of evangelical Anglican churches tend to look a lot like Holy Trinity Brompton – evangelical but not particularly Anglican.

    Historically, throughout the Communion there has been a lot of suspicion between the various wings of the church, which make some combinations effectively verboten (there aren’t many Charismatic Anglo-Catholic churches, for instance).

    I think the evangelical wing of the Anglican church could make a huge contribution to the church as a whole – but I’m not sure how many of them value their entire tradition anymore, rather than just the evangelical bits of it.

  8. I agree with some of what you say but, overall, I see the problem not as an old vs. new problem but a problem of shallowness.
    I still like the new ideas but they are being used in shallow, predictable ways. It has become a cookie cutter approach to church and that’s bad. But I’m not ready to chuck all that and head back to the type of church I grew up in, where tradition is king and ignorance reigns supreme. I’ll stick to churches trying to find new ways (while still incorporating some of the old) of communicating God’s story. For me, moving backwards is the wrong thing to do.

  9. Chris — You “get it”. Thank you! I’ll seeing what we can do about putting the other two legs back on the stool.

  10. I know the “homosexual” debate has not and is not popular. I hear your call to take it off the headlines of the church. It certainly is not the fight I fight on a daily basis. Yet, if we had dropped racism and ordination of women when those topics were not pleasant where would we be? This remains our struggle.

    I know you weren’t addressing me, but if I may comment, please allow me.

    The debate over homosexuality, if it were merely confined to the deplorable fashion in which most churches have treated those struggling with such feelings in their midst and how we can help them honor God with chaste lives and affirm their courage for doing so, you would be a beacon of light to all evangelicals. However, this isn’t what’s happened, and thus, isn’t why those of us longing for the great aspects of your tradition and liturgy continue to stay away.

    The debate you’re having is over things that have been settled among those who believe Scripture is true for centuries. It matters not that terms like “sexual orientation” weren’t known in Jesus’ day. The Bible is clear on the sinfulness of homosexual acts…yet it is this very thing you’re debating, even to the point of considering ordination and marrying of homosexuals. And this tells us that your churches aren’t the place for us. Not until you take those non-PC parts of the Bible as seriously as you do the calls to social justice.

  11. NW Ohio Anglican says:

    Which is better? Fundamentalist legalism or liberalism?

    “Which is better, smallpox or cholera?”

    Why is taking the Bible as seriously as Richard Hooker did (“in the first place, what Scripture doth plainly deliver”) taken to be exclusive of social justice? Why can we not feed the hungry and clothe the naked unless we violate the principles of 5000 years of Jewish and Christian moral theology?

    We see that exclusivism on both the right and the left.

    And incidentally, as a former Episcopalian myself, for me the issue was twofold: in first place, the valorization of rank heresies in ECUSA; in the second place, the use of such heresies to declare that what has long been understood to be sin, is no sin.

    Oh wait, did you think I was talking about homosexual practices? I meant serial divorce.

  12. chrisstiles says:

    “Which is better, smallpox or cholera?”

    Both leads to people getting sick in different ways, which is kind of my point.

  13. And K Love, etc has undue influence, taking away the place of leadership in using music as a way of teaching.

    K-Love? Isn’t that the CCM radio chain who’s slogan is “Safe for the Whole Family” and whose target demographic is a Christian version of Harlequin’s “Bored Housewife”?

  14. I agree with you that it is nice to be your own editor! Blessings…

  15. bookdragon says:

    rr,

    You’re right that Spong is an embarassment, but I wish people would quit talking about him as though he were still an acting bishop. He is retired, in fact long retired. An ex-bishop…(que riff on Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch). While a bishop he had not yet moved to the virtually post-Christian position he now seems to espouse. I know he has his fans in the church, but my experience is that the pastors who sound most like him are themselves close to retirement. The younger ones, even the liberals, tend to take the Creed far more seriously and the Incarnation and Resurrection very literally.

    I’ve read a bout the woman in Oregon, and I pray for her. But 2 points: She was ordained before her ever started studying Islam and she is not pastoring a church (in fact, she is currently teaching at Jesuit college). The ECUSA has no office of the Inquisition, and lacking a pastorate there is little reason for anyone to complain about her until the news story, so why would anyone expect the church to start any investigation or proceedings against her?

    Michael Adams: {{hugs}} I’m much where you are. We are in the midst of a search for a new priest and our interim, while a very nice guy, tends to preach sermons that are often pretty uninspiring. But I hang in because this too shall pass and because I see every Sunday this little fellowship of family communing together – and that, not the sermon, is the point where I see God.

    Ragamuffin: I understand your pov, but ask a little charity. I have heard both sides of the debate presented, sometimes well and often poorly. Both base arguments on the bible, tradition and reason. You may well diagree with how the other side is interpreting and balancing all three, but please recognize that they are making their case based the text and context (and esp. the injunction to ‘Do justice’). They, rightly or wrongly, see themselves in the same tradition as those who ‘re-interepreted’ the bible to oppose slavery, racism and sexism. The biggest problem imo is the tendency of both sides to demonize and dismiss the other.

  16. Camassia says:

    Incidentally, last I heard the Christian/Muslim lady had been suspended from ministerial duties for a year.

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2531

  17. Bookdragon,

    There is no such thing as an “ex-Bishop.” He is no longer a Diocesan Bishop, but a Bishop he still is, i.e. he can still function as a Bishop and confer Holy Orders etc if requested by the Diocesan, and even if not requested he can do so in a manner that is “irregular” but not “invalid.”

  18. Ragamuffin: I understand your pov, but ask a little charity. I have heard both sides of the debate presented, sometimes well and often poorly. Both base arguments on the bible, tradition and reason. You may well diagree with how the other side is interpreting and balancing all three, but please recognize that they are making their case based the text and context (and esp. the injunction to ‘Do justice’). They, rightly or wrongly, see themselves in the same tradition as those who ‘re-interepreted’ the bible to oppose slavery, racism and sexism. The biggest problem imo is the tendency of both sides to demonize and dismiss the other.

    I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but having also heard both sides of the debate presented numerous times, I can’t help but believe that the other side has missed the point about loving people and treating them with respect and human dignity while not reclassifying their behavior from sinful to something else. We wouldn’t knowingly ordain a man who is promiscuous or is actively cheating on his wife. We wouldn’t knowlingly marry a man to two different wives. The Bible is clear on such thing as it is also clear about those who engage in homosexual sex. So when those of us longing for tradition and history see the ECUSA and other denominations doing exegetical contortionist routines to make Scripture say something it doesn’t about the subject, it’s only logical to think that they probably do that with a lot of other Scriptures and that it’s simply not the place for us.

  19. Amen Ragamuffin,

    As a UM who has heard everside of this topic and then some, it still boils down to this issue: is homosexual sex sinful or not whether in marriage(?) or out? The options are also clear: depart from the clear sexual ethics of the Holy Scriptures and 5000+ years of tradition and go on a culture ride with a group of people who espouse other unorthodox ideas and run dying churches or humbly accept the word of God and use the conversations and debates about homosexuality to better minister to those struggling with it.

    I’m going with the latter.