Future of Mainline Protestantism
Hope Yet for Mainline Denominations
In mainline denominations, doubt, intellectual questioning, and scholarly research have all led to a healthy respect for the Bible as a revealed story of God's love for us, and of God's call to transformative change, both of ourselves and of the world around us. But these have also led us to understand that this biblical narrative is not our sole means of understanding God's movement in the world. God-given reason, ongoing revelation, and the voices of men and women who have read and interpreted the Bible for and with their communities also matter. After the last Bible-based issue is settled (and it will be -- Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence, suggests the question of gays and lesbians in the Church is the final big eruption in this debate), it'll be obvious that for decades God has been working in the lives of many mainline churches in powerful ways, creating in many a faith that is vital and directed outward in service.
Christians of all sorts may in fact be coming to the recognition that individual salvation is not the be-all and end-all of authentic faith. Coalitions of evangelicals, Catholics, and mainline churches around such issues as the environment, the war in Iraq, torture, and poverty suggest that the longstanding mainline focus on living out God's love through works of peace and justice also may be moving into the mainstream.
The "us and them" mentality found in some forms of contemporary Christianity can make for powerful emotions, and certainly such traditions do a better job of drawing boundaries than many mainline traditions do. But this is both a problem and an opportunity; perhaps boundaries should not be drawn and groups formed around dogma, but around practice. Perhaps the circle should be drawn so that those who seek greater knowledge of God, not those who are convinced they already have it, define themselves as the Church.
If so, then the mainline churches have much to offer: faithful and thoughtful Christianity; beautiful and well-planned worship in some churches, free-floating and intuitive worship in others (and sometimes both in the same churches!); traditions of prayer, meditation, and order going back to the early Church Mothers and Fathers; recognition of the potential spiritual value of art, music, movies, and culture; the realization that Jesus called us to serve the least among us, and that our faith should lead us outward rather than inward.
For people seeking these things, the mainline traditions remain and will become even more vital and necessary in the 21st century, and any predictions of their demise are radically premature.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including the forthcoming The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.