Future of Mainline Protestantism
A Still More Glorious Dawn Awaits
Some were inclined to hang on to the language forms of the past, but a Rabbi named Jesus recast the vision of God's reign. No longer was the Kingdom of God to be understood in nationalistic terms; instead God's reign could be seen in the lives of those who trusted in the God of liberty, developmental possibility, and spiritual union -- the God at work all around them.
After Jesus' death and resurrection, it was left to others to fill out his vision of God's reign and so Christianity was born. New scriptures emerged that spoke in different theological terms but -- and this is key -- they were pointing to the very same God that the Hebrew scriptures so richly reveal. (For more on the resurrection, see my post "He is Risen Indeed?")
Just as the religion of Israel responded to historical circumstances, so did Christianity. For 2000 years it has flourished, offering faithful people a theological framework in which to serve their God. One of those responses is what we call "Mainline Protestantism."
But Christian faith has encountered a challenge -- a one-two punch -- that it has not, and I suspect will not, overcome. Modernism with its demand for verifiable truth has effectively destroyed the veracity of our foundational stories. "Virgin Birth? Don't be ridiculous. Magic blood? Oh, come on."
If that weren't bad enough, the emergence of post-modernism undermines even the possibility of securing the truth. Our theological language is inadequate to inspire the reign of God in the hearts of those formed by such a vastly different worldview. Look around us, wherever a modernist worldview has taken hold, Christianity is dying; it's just a matter of time.
So, is there a future for Mainline Christianity? I don't know. It is clear to me that we are once again on the cross. And at this critical moment we need to do what Jesus did. We need to reach into the depths of our tradition and recast a vision of the reign of God -- recast a vision in terms that can lift the modernist world from spiritual despair, recast a vision enriched by conversation with all people who faithfully seek to respond to the presence of God. But let's be clear, that vision must point to the same God our lineage has known for 4000+ years.
Will Christianity as such survive such an effort? Could be. But whether we do, or whether we don't, a still more glorious dawn awaits the reign of God. For it does not depend upon us; it depends upon the one revealed as the God of Israel, the one revealed as the Triune God of Christianity; it depends upon the one who offers everyone the beauty of each new dawn.
Shall we try to get ourselves off the cross, or shall we commit our last breath to a still more glorious dawn just now beginning to rise over the next iteration of the reign of God? That choice is ours.
The Rev. Sam Alexander is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael, California. Sam has served congregations in Maryland and in the San Francisco Bay area and serves as an Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics (Preaching) at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He can be found on the web at www.gracecomesfirst.net.