The more I ponder the future of the mainline Protestant church, the more confused I get. And the more hopeful.
I was raised in the heyday of the mainline churches. My father was a prominent Methodist minister back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when the monolithic mainline church had a massive influence on culture, politics, and the media. That era is now a distant memory. The radio program I produce and host, “Day1,” was founded at the height of mainline power in 1945 as “The Protestant Hour,” and was carried on hundreds of radio stations. Back then they were required to carry ecumenical programs such as ours. Now we work hard to keep the 200 affiliates that continue to carry “Day1” essentially as a public service or to fill an open time slot.
Through my work with “Day1,” I get to meet and interview a diverse group of mainline church leaders — mostly pastors and seminary professors, but also an occasional seminarian or lay person. Almost always in our discussions, we’ll talk about where the mainline church is headed, what could be done to stanch the declining membership, and how we need to get back to being church and doing mission. Everyone has his or her theories and answers, and they can vary wildly.
Here are some observations I’ve gathered in the process of this ongoing discussion, which I hope will help expand the conversation.
One important issue to think about up front is nomenclature. At “Day1” we are constantly trying to “brand” ourselves accurately so that we can better reach and serve people who might be interested in or helped by our inclusive mainline message. In order to distinguish our radio program from all the other “Christian” radio programs, which are almost totally conservative or evangelical, we claim to be the “voice of the mainline Protestant churches.” But the term “mainline” puts people off — it either sounds terribly dated or is simply not understood. And I’m not sure any of us could define “mainline” with any mutual specificity.
And while most of the sermons we present on “Day1” could be described as “progressive,” that term can come across as political and restrictive. With the wide variety of preachers we present representing the various mainline denominations, our program message is broad enough to displease folks on either side of the spectrum from time to time.
Is there another descriptive term we could be using, other than mainline or progressive, for what is considered to be mainline Protestant thought and practice? We have struggled diligently to come up with something, and are still at it. Lately we’ve been saying that we proclaim “a passionate faith for thinking people.” But that’s a mouthful. It would be helpful to come up with a better “brand” for what we’re talking about here going into the future.
While denominational headquarters are evolving and refocusing their mission, and dramatically cutting budgets and staff, the local church in many cases is more vibrant than ever. Within walking distance of our studio in Midtown Atlanta are half-a-dozen thriving, diverse, mission-oriented mainline congregations. Their membership is strong and stable if not growing.
Clearly, the top-down hierarchical structures are changing — disappearing — and national denominational headquarters are becoming (or perhaps will become) resource centers and mission effectualizers for local churches.
Generally, there is a growing struggle between the orientations of community life and individualism. The inherent individualism most Americans seem to possess in their DNA — prizing independence above collaboration and self-determination over self-sacrifice — does not bode well for community building, and the phenomenon seems to be becoming even more ingrained as our society becomes more dramatically divided. We can practice our faith on our own, by ourselves, we think. So if we make it to church every second or third or fourth week, that’s fine.
I do not believe this is healthy, but I am hopeful: It seems that many members of younger generations are rediscovering the joys — and the necessity — of active and deep involvement in a community of faith.
Young church leaders — seminarians and those just starting out in the pastorate — are among the most enthusiastic proponents of mainline thought and practice today. Is it simply because they haven’t become jaded yet? I don’t think so.
Calling has become an immensely important and much more intentional aspect of ministry, and seminarians and new pastors have access to a variety of resources that haven’t been available before. (Take, for example, the many excellent initiatives of The Fund for Theological Education and The Beatitudes Society.) In my experience with these young leaders, I sense that their calling is strong, they love the church, and they see themselves serving enthusiastically for a long time to come.
In any imagined iteration of the mainline community in the future, it is apparent that the preached word will continue to be essential in regard to worship and formation. I’ve found that younger pastors are especially passionate about preaching, and a number of preaching resources, such as the Festival of Homiletics, Luther Seminary’s Celebration of Biblical Preaching, the Academy of Preachers, and The Text This Week are thriving. While this may seem ironic in this high-tech, socially networked age, it demonstrates the enduring power of the well-proclaimed, prophetic word of God.
Further, there seem to be so many ways to “rethink church” or establish new models for worship and community that it makes my head spin. One church near me offers four services in different flavors — traditional, contemporary, contemplative, and street/outreach. While this is an excellent way to attract different folks to church, this approach tends to verticalize the membership. People get stuck in their own preference ruts and learn nothing about other ways to approach God and interact with each other. If we take this approach, we need to develop ways to integrate the verticals.
With these few observations, it’s clear that the future is uncertain. But I’m convinced there is a future for the essence of mainline Christianity — a healthy, meaningful future that will continue to play a role both in society and in the hearts and minds of individuals, families, and communities. I can’t wait to find out what it is.
Peter Wallace is host and producer of the “Day1” radio program (Day1.org) and author of Living Loved: Knowing Jesus as the Lover of Your Soul (Seabury Books).