Faith Matters: Where Did The Mainline Go Wrong?
Published on: April 18, 2010
show comments
  • Neville

    The dynamics are those of so many gentlemens’ clubs in London. As the average age is allowed to climb too high the older members don’t really want unruly younger people around, and younger people clearly no longer want to join anyway. Once past the critical point, none has evaded a terminal decline. All they ever do is merge, merge, re-merge and then close down. Like it or not, these mainline Protestant institutions are doomed.

    The main thing many of the administrators in place strive to find a way to deny is that their primary focus is on extracting a living from their institiutions’ carcasses.

    In all these respects, the Church of England is not in a materially different state.

  • Andreas Samson

    Walter, have you considered the impact of free agency in the great shake-out between the Mainline and Evangelical churches? As one who, in the midst of a personal crisis, made a comprehensive tour of churches in the San Fernando Valley, who, unchurched but soulhungry, walked through a new set of doors each week with fresh eyes, I can testify to the enormous gulf between parish ministry and the mega-churches. There are two elements common to each of the struggling churches I visited: an absence of a blood-soaked cross, and the absence of a man or woman at the pulpit to bring people to it. On the one hand you have a picturesque building, (available to the public for weddings) nice landscaping, stained glass, a red banner out front declaiming against waterboarding or immigration policy or in favor of health care reform and….forty people inside, most of them retirement age. And the minister is speaking in…vague terms…about this thing called spirituality, and he’s awfully nice and he reminds you of a professor you once had. Then he plays Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ on the acoustic guitar. It’s almost as good as Prairie Home Companion, and you remind yourself to return on another Sunday, though you never do. The next week you are making a hurried march across a vast blacktop parking lot to a windowless bunker, where you scramble with two thousand other people for a seat, and Pastor Dudley is deep into Matthew and you are immersed in a world of sin and redemption, consequence and glory, an unbroken covenant going back to the original stones of the old country. And you are part of it. It’s a joyful room and Dudley has The Gift. He came to Los Angeles twenty years ago from Ozark Christian College and he started out in a much smaller house. Therein, Walter, perhaps lies a solution to the Episcopalian dilemma. In a Protestant free-market we have in America, it’s a broad smorgasbord, and believers, like consumers, will go where there needs are met. The Mega-churches are mega not only because they are unembarrassed to declare the eternal verities, but they have the marquee value of the talent of a particular minister. The Episcopalians already have the real estate, would it violate tradition too much to bring in a ringer? A free agent. Manny Ramirez.

  • “Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
    And rivers that ran through ev’ry day
    I must have been mad
    I never knew what I had
    Until I threw it all away”

    — Dylan

  • First Things returns to the death of the mainline again and again. Overall, the death is from several self-inflicted gunshot wounds time and again over the decades. Absent a vast existential event involving the destruction of cities, it is not reversible. Like academia we have now had several generations of weaker and weaker theologians and synods. These weaklings will take on or hire only others weaker than themselves or those infected with the same mind virus.

    After a bit, the host is the virus and then it’s all over.

    A church that is not grounded in Christian exceptionalism and American exceptionalism is no church at all, only a gathering place for quasi-Unitarians in fright wigs. And the drift down continues.

    Those interested in a less-emotional explanation at some length are directed to Joseph Bottoms “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline”

    ” Without the political theory that depended on the existence of the Protestant Mainline, what does it mean to support the nation? What does it mean to criticize it? The American experiment has always needed what Alexis de Tocqueville called the undivided current, and now that current has finally run dry.”

  • As a fellow (and now former) member of the Episcopalian church I conclude that, in this country at the least, the church is dead. But it died feeling good about itself.

  • Reflecting a bit more, it seems to me that the most ironic thing about the Episcopal church in the last decades is that it’s most influential leader, Bishop Pike, did not live to see the cul-de-sac that his influential theology led the church into. Tragically, he died in the desert of thirst and his church seems now destined for the same fate.

  • Luke Lea

    The mainline churches are floundering because they have achieved their purpose, at least here in the United States. We have been delivered from oppression, bondage, and poverty. Wasn’t that the whole idea? I think so. Imagine poor Armstrong after he stepped on the moon: what am I going to do now?

  • peter38a

    I went to church for the first 30 years of my life; protestant denominations of one kind or another and a couple of Catholic thrown in. Looking back I can see that I mostly chose the church I went to according to which had the cutest girls! Because I can tell you true that in all those years come Monday, hell, Sunday night I couldn’t have told you what the sermon was about to, well, save my soul.

    The worse part is that I’m not that hard of a sell, I am and have always been very interested in some “eternal” centering of my life. I’ve read the Bible, books on Jesus, philosophy: Carse, Frankel, etc. But when the storms hit I always find myself in my own small boat in a large sea.

    I’ve had three spiritual epiphanies in my life that lasted seconds but were profound. All occurred when I was driving and boy am I sorry I ever sold that car. LOL So I went to the pastors of several denominations, I wanted to talk about it, what did it mean. I wanted to ask, why I needed Jesus to save me when I had been with God without him—it’s more complex than that but just to make a point. In all cases I was told that it was really the devil or I was brushed out the door as quickly as possible. Any interest, any help, any conversation? Not from a single one.

    What part of any church would Jesus, if he were to return today, say, “The work you are doing in my name pleases me. Well done.” I recall reading about a brother and sister, black, during the first Watts riot saying to each other, “We are Christians, we have to go out into the street and help wherever we can.”

    My experience has been that great teachers ask questions that stay with you years or a life time, questions that you bring out in quite moments and try to sort out a better answer than last time. It would have had a great deal of listen for me if on any given Sunday a pastor would have asked, “You come here today because you are self proclaimed Christians. What did you do this week that though inconvenient you did anyway because you thought it was your Christian duty?”

    That question won’t work for me any longer, I am not and have not been for a long time a Christian.

  • jp

    the church started teaching secular humanism instead of the Bible, though well masked. The rationalist thinkers took over intellectually, and then took control of Academia and Culture.

    We’ve been on an incremental move away from a Judeo-Christian worldview towards a Secular Humanist worldview for a century now as a nation/culture. This happened in the church as well as everywhere else.

    Once Churches start teaching the Bible again, one thing they must do is seize control of these institutions again. We need to be making MOVIES, the modern day PULPITS of AMERICA.

    Go to church 1 or 2 days a week, is nothing to the worldview we are constantly consuming on TV and Culture at large. I don’t mean Propaganda movies, but real movies, R-Rated movies like some Bible Stories, but with a Christian Worldview and not a Secular Humanist Worldview.

    Forrest Gump was one of the greatest pieces of Art of our Generation, however it is essentially a Sermon on Existentialism.

  • Peter

    The demise of the mainline Protestant churches is what should have been expected once those confessions traded in their once Bible-based faith for modernism. And don’t kid yourself, Mr. Mead, that’s exactly what these churches did.

    Does this biblical passage best sums up the state of the mainline churches in the Western world?

    Matthew 5:13–16: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its flavor be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

    Perhaps what we’re witnessing now is the trampling process. If so, don’t fight it; it’s ordained by Heaven.

  • Chris

    “… the collapse of the 19th century belief that geology, archaeology and written history supported the authority of the Bible;…”

    And that was the first wrong turn.

    The church denominations that stuck with God instead of being lured away by non-God explanations are the ones that are still viable.

    Fortunately, for those who care to look, geology, archeology and written history do still support the authority of the Bible.

  • peter38a

    It was good for me to write the previous post and kind of get things sorted out a little bit. I wasn’t going to post any further but after walking the dog I found a had a few more thoughts.

    I am just unable to see movies as an effective pulpit for changing lives jp. It does however, makes me recall two of recent origin by Mel Gibson. “The Passion of Christ” is one I didn’t want to see in that I couldn’t even image what I would learn or enjoy by watching someone on screen have the hell beat out of them. The second was “Apolcalipco” and if you’ll recall at the very end the Indian saying upon seeing the Spanish land, “Things are going to be different.” The grim look on the Spanish priest’s face holding the cross says it all. “We’re not going to cut your heart out but we will murder you in the mines while pretending to save your soul!” What a delightful choice.

    But jp who shall decide what stories and how they are told? Shall a fundamentalist be the source (?), a liberal (?), a moderate (?). Who shall finance and who shall direct? I can see a great deal of difference in the same story from these three “views”. Can you?

    I’m not so inclined to throw away Humanism and Modernism gentlemen, if I may suggest such a heresy? For the greater part of the first seventeen hundred years of Christianity people were tortured and burned at the stake. Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote to another blog.

    “Anne Askew, twenty-five years old, 1546, England, a heretic. Questioned for five hours (and I dare say that none of us in modern times could even guess at the physicality brought to bear on this young woman by those few words) before being brought to trial; she never the less told the judges that transubstantiation was a myth. She was tortured within a hair of life but she gave up no names of other heretics. She was then burned at the stake. Upon reading about Anne I mused for a while what a lark life would have been to have had such a consort battleship as my life’s partner.“

    Can you imagine for a second Christ returning in disguise in the darkling ages, running up to a group and asking what they are up to and receiving this reply, “We are burning a person at the stake because it is the most hideous death we can conceive of because they don’t in Jesus Christ in just the way we do.” And you think the ‘money-changers’ received rough treatment?

    A recent book, “Remarkable Creatures” tells the story of two actual women living in 19th century England and their work in finding and displaying some of the first fossils to be noticed by science. The biggest hurtle they had to over come is that the ‘remarkable creatures’ found in the rock weren’t mentioned in the Bible. I don’t want to “return” to anything remotely like that and that was not so long ago, my grandfather, who lived to be 97 was born in 1875.

    So then I think maybe there shouldn’t be any organized religions. After all has there ever been a time when the Catholic Church hasn’t been one of the most corrupt institutions on the face of the earth? But wait without a Pope to sort out some ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ thinking you have a ‘flat’ religion like Islam where anyone with a week or a life time of study can set themselves up as ‘religious leaders’.

    I am glad once again to have laid some ideas out for myself but I don’t see where it has gotten me. I have no faith and the only path I have is that which I hew daily. Hell, it isn’t all that bad actually but I have a feeling that it could be better. I am suddenly reminded of the poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” LOL

  • “Imagine poor Armstrong after he stepped on the moon: what am I going to do now?”

    Easy. The stars.

  • “A sustainable religion must convince people that it is necessary to life, health and spiritual coherence.”

    So you want them to lie. That hasn’t worked so far. Bonus question: define “spiritual coherence.”

  • “I cannot think of one mainline theologian whose voice is heard on the national scene today, nor do the pronouncements of any mainline preachers or leaders or groups of leaders seem to have any discernible effect on the national conversation”

    Hallelujah! Praise the gods! Now if we could say the same thing about Christianists, we’d be somewhere.

  • “The business model of a professional, full time leader in local congregations that own and operate purpose-built buildings has been clearly falling into crisis for a generation.”

    You are absolutely right about this. Many mainline congregations will need to merge to survive. However, I’m afraid to say (not afraid myself, but for mainliners) that many members’ most cherished element of their religious practice is coming to the same old building once a week and saying the same old liturgies they have for years and years. In addition, they know all the (white) faces they see.

    Another issue that needs to be addressed is geographic. In metropolises, core city churches are disappearing, while new churches, often of the same denomination, are growing in the suburbs. In rural areas, unless congregations cross the protestant denominational barrier, which isn’t likely, tiny churches will putter along until everybody dies or moves away.

    Any way you slice it, it looks bad for the mainliners. But who cares? Hyperbole is the nicest thing to call this decline “a catastrophe for American life”. What exactly is going to hell as the mainline deteriorates?

  • Becky

    David Well’s “the Courage to be Protestant” is a good read and explains somewhat the seeker sensitive and emergent churches.

    Some of the comments here take the view opposite Mr Well’s (and myself), in that you will never find Christ by therapeutic needs, that is by looking inside yourself. The mega churches are not thriving because they do cater to the culture or view congregant members as customers, in effect replacing God with his creation as determining worship.

    As a LCMS member, I have seen my own church drift away from doctrine, and provide services that appear dumbed down to the membership.

    The classical order of worship is rarely used, and yet I find it much more rich in meaning. I like the pastor in the pulpit up high, the introit, kyrie, offering, benediction, while may seem old fashioned has a deep meaning. I think I’ll go re-listen to archives where the guest explains (with examples) a classical worship service.

  • CACS

    I was part of the postwar baby boom. My parents had rejected religion, and anything to do with it, before it was fashionable. They had some pretty good reasons. Unlike many of the time I was not raised in church, even nominally.

    Over time I came to see that their issues were not actually with Christ or with God, per se, but with the problems that can be created by any manmade institution which exercises power over others. Mankind has done some dreadful things in the name of what they believe to be right, with or without God as an excuse. The twentieth century overflows with examples of man’s inhumanity to man. And, yes, some of these horrors were done in the name of the Christian religion, but most were not.

    I believe that when confronted by the destruction done in the name of God, many good believers were rightfully disturbed and fearful of possibly aiding the same. This contributed to the church’s inability to boldly teach the basic doctrines such as salvation by faith, through grace.

    I agree with the author that the mainline churches need to visit the question: what is the church’s reason for existence? If the main-line (or any) Christian churches do not remember what their distinct purpose is then they will die. If they fail to fulfill their purpose their passing may be sad, but is it bad?

  • Andrew

    “After all has there ever been a time when the Catholic Church hasn’t been one of the most corrupt institutions on the face of the earth?”

    That’s a big call, Peter. As CACS points out, it is the nature of man-made institutions to become corrupt, even Christian ones. However, it’s a long jump to get from there to “always .. most corrupt”.

    Even in the current “crisis”, what’s most notable about the Catholic church is not that it had many festering pockets of sexual abuse throughout the 50’s to 80’s, but that it has spent considerable effort in the last 10 years in an attempt to root it out, with noticeable success. Current data suggests that modern abuse cases within the Catholic church are way down compared to most comparable institutions.

  • Pingback: Faith Matters: Where Did The Mainline Go Wrong? « Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans()

  • Thank you for this message that is so needed today. We need to all be stirred and awakened to the purpose of the church.

    Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” Matt. 16:18

    The church was always meant to be a moving, vibrant, unstoppable force in the world that influences not just neiborhoods, but nations. That power is in the New Testament plan of salvation: Jesus also said in John 3:5 “…Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” The new birth experience consists of water baptism and Spirit baptism. This is the simple message that so many churches are lacking that will make the real lasting difference in lives.

    Jesus taught his disciples to preach faith toward God, repentance, water baptism, and Holy Spirit baptism…. Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:16, Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8 (notice “ye shall receive power”) It’s still the same message that brings the power of God and changes lives. Peter preached it on the day of Pentecost and it still applies today. When the multitude asked “What shall we do?” Peter answered (and this should be our answer to a hurting world today) “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” Acts 2:38

  • I have read some just right stuff here. Definitely value bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how a lot attempt you set to create one of these excellent informative website.

  • Pingback: Panic at the Narthex | The Clockwork Pastor()

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.