Welcome to the Future of Mainline Protestantism!

We’re mid-way through our Future of Religion summer series here at Patheos, and have finally arrived at The Future of Mainline Protestantism!   This week, more than 20 thought-leaders, from pastors to scholars to bloggers, offer provocative perspectives from a variety of angles on the future of the mainline church. We’ll also feature more conversation on the future church here on the blog each day. To get us started, retired Columbia Seminary professor Ben Campbell Johnson shares his dreams for a vibrant mainline Protestantism in the 21st Century…

I have a vision for mainline Protestantism from a perspective colored by the first decade of the twenty-first century. This vision will likely require more than a century to realize.  Though the theme of these essays on trends calls for the identification of major shifts in the Church, I am writing from the perspective of a vision of what the Church could be. This vision stems from a love for the Church and a deep dedication to its mission in the world, no matter how far it seems to fall short of the Divine Intention.

As the reader, you should know the influences that have shaped this vision.  First, I was born in the heart of the Great Depression in Elba, Alabama; I did not attend church as a child; the first time I recall going to church I was around 10 years old. The Methodist congregation that I attended had all the marks of a Constantinian Church. The membership included many of the leading people in that county seat town, plus a half-dozen conservative, evangelical Christians who by word and example were instrumental in my conversion.

Encountering Christ at the age of 17 radically changed the direction of my life.  This early change found reinforcement in my college (Asbury, Wilmore, Kentucky, 1953) and seminary (Asbury, Wilmore, Kentucky, 1955) training.  Further educational experiences included a Masters in New Testament at Southern Baptist Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky, 1957), a D. Min from San Francisco Theological Seminary (San Anselmo, California, 1978), and a Ph.D. in theology from Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia, 1980).  From the day of my radical conversion through all my training, I suffered from a God-hunger.  My educational experiences, my founding The Institute of Church Renewal, my teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary (PCUSA, Decatur, Georgia), and my understanding of the changing context of ministry continue to combine to shape and reshape my vision of the Church of the future.

Direct Experience of God

I envision a Church in the twenty-first century that places a strong emphasis on the basics of what it means to be “Church”.  My vision of the Church consists of a community of persons whose lives are being transformed through an encounter with Christ, with each other and the society . (We may call this Christ, the Holy, the Ultimate in Being and Meaning, the Ground of Being, or a dozen or so other titles, but at the core is the experience of the Transcendent One.)  This community is made alive by constantly living in the presence of the Holy that engulfs it through God’s freedom and love.

Diversity in the Community

This sense of the Holy is mediated to individuals and to the community through the ever-present Spirit.  This mediation occurs through worship, fellowship, working together, living together and prayer.  Because each member has been given different gifts, each will perceive and act differently, but these actions will always be conditioned by a conscious sense of God in their own awareness and that of the community. It is this community that fleshes out the will of God; it is this community in which Christ dwells; and it is the task of this community to discern and affirm the will of God being made manifest in the world. This discernment begins in the community but expands to include the whole world because God’s will is manifest not only in this community but also universally in the whole of creation.

A Community of Discernment

In the Church, members who are called to leadership have the task of discerning God’s will for the community, that is, the direction in which it should move.  Various mission groups called by God and approved by the congregation have the task of specifically discerning how God chooses to manifest Godself in worship, of recognizing what forms and curricula are appropriate for training, the particular mission fitting for the context in which the Church engages the society, the means of healing and nurture, and the manner of spiritual formation. (My book, Imagining A Church in the Spirit, published by Eerdmans, spells out this vision.)

Creative Tension

Old mainline congregations must learn to live in the tension that exists between maintaining practices that are centuries old and the new forms that are being demanded by a younger generation.  A discerning task force will recognize the new cultural influences and the accompanying call to a relevant response.  Take the form of worship as an example.  This is a flash-point in the traditional Church and the Church that is emerging.  The old order of worship, which includes the hymns that are sung and the values that are sustained, becomes sacred to a congregation.  Yet, when new, younger, searching people come to worship, they often do not understand the music, the language or the form; for many of them it is irrelevant.  The questions they are asking go unaddressed and their needs remain unrecognized.  Their presence does not last very long in this unresponsive community. On the other hand, to make changes too rapidly will alienate the older congregation and inevitably affect the loyal support of the Church.

Interfaith Awareness and Inclusion

In addition to being a community of discernment, the Church of which I dream must be an interfaith congregation.  There are degrees of interfaith awareness and participation, but the twenty-first century will place a great deal of pressure on the Christian community to recognize that there are faithful worshippers of God who do not believe the same things that they as a Christian congregation believe. I spent most of my ministry working to renew the local Church and change the focus of my denomination; interfaith never became part of my vision and passion.  Only after retirement did I realize that I had spent a lifetime ignoring half the world population.  This changed one day when the Voice of God could not be ignored.

Contemplation and Mission

For several years after retirement I had sought to walk the contemplative path.  One day a strange but powerful idea came to me: “The twenty-first century will be a religious century, and the struggle will be between Christians and Muslims; and, you, Ben, don’t know anything about Islam.”  Those few words persisted in my mind and challenged me to learn about Islam.  After a couple of years of reading, I was asked to lead a retreat focusing on Islam for my congregation.  As the retreat ended, the leader said, “We must take this emphasis on Christian/Muslim relations back to our community.”  Because of his insistence I agreed to teach four Sunday evenings on Islam.  We had expected 20 or 30 people, and with little advertising 174 people showed up for the first session.  The numbers grew to more than 200 each week, and the climax came at a Christian/Muslim dinner with more than 250 persons attending.  I took this response as confirmation that we had rightly discerned God’s will, and since that seminar I have immersed myself in interfaith work in our city.  The changing demographics of nearly every city in this country demands that we learn to talk with, live with and work with those of other faiths.  (The longer version of this personal transformation is recorded in

Beyond 9/11: Christians and Muslims Together – An Invitation to Conversation, available from Amazon.com)

Seminaries and Future Church

If this vision for the Church in the twenty-first century has any chance to be fulfilled, there must also be a change in the way that we prepare people for the work of ministry.  Most mainline Protestant seminaries are preparing ministers for congregations that no longer exist.  Not only are the aims questionable, there seems to be very little awareness of the changing context of ministry. A particularly helpful practice in preparing persons for ministry might be congregation-based training — prospective ministers participating in an emerging congregation, attending extension courses or engaging in distant learning through online courses.  This approach would alleviate both family and financial  pressures – the family would not be displaced; the new graduate would not have a huge indebtedness at  graduation. 

My major critique of the curriculum offered by most mainline seminaries is the lack of intentional spiritual formation for prospective ministers.  Most ministers trained in my denomination’s seminaries are good counselors, change agents, theologians and Bible scholars, but know very little about their own soul.  The daily practice of ministry requires that the minister learn to live in God and with God in all that she or he does.  When this center is neglected or ignored, the minister burns out and often drops out.  The one field in which ministers are expected to be experts (the God-human relationship) tends to receive more criticism than affirmation.  The person who honestly seeks the presence and direction of God is often labeled a navel gazer, a spiritual hermit or a self-centered believer.

Expectations of the Future

Given the vision that possesses me, the trends that I expect in mainline congregations will be an awakening to the Presence of the Spirit or a resistance to this Transcendent Center of spiritual life. I hope for a trend that focuses the attention of God’s people upon God’s Presence and purpose for their lives.  This will require spiritually alive and discerning clergy and laity.

The challenge to mainline congregations in this century will be the deepening of the faith of the membership so that they may confidently enter into conversation with those of other faiths and no faith.  Envisioning something like Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community will become essential.  So many different faiths in close proximity to each other will require working together to achieve an inclusive community. Mainline congregations are being challenged by the megachurches that have learned to speak to the present generation.  Many mainline congregations will try to copy the megachurch’s form and agenda, and the kind of conflict that I described above will divide many congregations.  I imagine the megachurches will begin to coalesce in groupings similar to today’s denominations.

As my vision suggests, engaging in principles and practices of faithful living will be at the core of the congregations that survive.  I believe that evidence of this vision can be found, and I hope that this spiritual awakening may spread and become the ground and driving force helping us discover God’s will at work among us.

Visit Ben Campbell Johnson’s website.

Read more articles on The Future of Mainline Protestantism series at Patheos here.

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