Mainline Spirituality

The facts show that “mainline” is no longer the mainline. It’s in the minority now, and Joseph Driskill in his study of “Mainline Protestant Spirituality” in Four Views on Christian Spirituality says mainline only represents 9% of the religious marketplace.  For Driskill, spirituality is about “the lived experience of faith, the communities that shape the experience, the practices that sustain it, and the moral life that embodies it” (115). If Orthodox spirituality is shaped by liturgy and sacrament, and Catholic spirituality more ecclesially (familial, etc), mainline spirituality reshapes the whole — and it is important to understand this reframing in order to understand what each of us sees as central to spirituality.

How do you see mainline/progressive spirituality? How does it differ from Orthodoxy, Catholicsm, etc?

So, Driskill takes us on an adventure:

1. Mainline spirituality is about a commitment to a shared witness and mission through ecumenical cooperation. Thus, the ecumenical movement toward unity, even if it has not happened theologically, inspires mainline spirituality.

2. Mainline spirituality follows the path of the American intellectual life of university education because of its value of scholarship. Driskill points to science and faith, psychology and faith, as well as to historical studies and science, including a critical approach to the Bible. If it has been shaped by a variety of critical approaches, mainliners believe God still speaks through Scripture.

3. Karl Barth and Paul Tillich led mainline spirituality to a God “out there” to a God of relationship, to an immanent God within reality. Hence, a more panentheistic view of God.

4. Who then is Jesus? Miracles receded among mainliners and Jesus is more connected to compassion and justice. Love, forgiveness. An inspired leader. His “divinity” is about his faithfulness to God. “The resurrection is treasured as God’s vindication of Jesus’ earthly life and the powerful capacity of love to overcome death” (124). Thus, many progressives see the resurrection for its symbolic power, not its historicity. He appeals to Marc Borg on Spirit — and sees Jesus as one mediator of the divine. Jesus becomes a way to God but not the only way.

5. Social justice. Rauschenbusch. Sheldon. Thus, Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 25:31-46 are prominent. And a much greater advocacy for women in ministry.

6. Religious authority. There’s a deep mistrust of authority structures and prefer the priesthood of all believers. Personal sin is not valued as much as systemic sins.

7. There has been a return to spiritual disciplines among the mainline. Habits that generate character transformation.

8. He sees hope in spiritual disciplines, compassion and justice actions, dialogue and aesthetics.

The responses to Driskill by Nassif and Howard are too kind; the response by Scott Hahn is closer to what I would have said. There is a reason why the mainline/progressive/liberal churches are declining, and Driskill begins his essay on that note, and what we find in this essay is one reason why. There’s no gospel here.

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  • “Miracles receded among mainliners and Jesus is more connected to compassion and justice.”

    I have little or no experience in churches like these. I have been in churches that belong to denominations considered mainline and I never detected quite this extreme. I wonder if this is really the message from the pulpit in such churches or if you have to be in the in-group to know this is what the leadership believes. Maybe the few times I have attended such churches they were either the exception or I was naive. I guess I am asking: is this blatant reduction of Jesus really widespread and out in the open?

  • scotmcknight

    Derek, I’ve heard this quite boldly, but that’s not the point: instead, with the word “mainline” Driskill means “progressive mainline.”

  • There’s plenty of gospel in the little Methodist church I began attending a year and a half ago. Also love and grace and servants’ hearts and mercy and joy and shared sorrows.

    I don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Bob, it seems Scot has answered this. It’s not a universal belief in mainline denominations. So, many local churches may not buy into this reductionist Jesus. But apparently some segment in mainline does. I am not informed about trends in mainline denominations, so I would not know.

  • Scott Gay

    On mainliners and the blue social model:
    “to mistake an ideology or social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry. It is to worship the work of our own hands. What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought. Instead of proclaiming a gospel…..we issue statements….we have professional development workshops”. Walter Russell Mead

  • Tracy

    Mainliner here– and I want to say that while there is truth here, some of us who call ourselves “liberal Christians” put the package together in different ways. As do evangelicals. An evangelical who has read C.S. Lewis might be a universalist. Or, like Shane Clairborne and Tony Campolo, stress social justice. A liberal mainliner might be open to LGBT persons and women in leadership, but still believe in the resurrection and believe that God’s activity is more important than our own. Maybe the most important thing is humility, a recognition that we must all be missing something, and so we need each other.

  • Scott Gay

    #3 should read…….from a God “out there” to a God of relationship….hence a more panentheistic view of God.

    It must be noted that the panentheistic view is not understood to a great extent, and the mainline of this view is not with neo-orthodoxy or existential views, but rather Whitehead and Hartshorne. Hartshorne’s idea of God as both “being” and “becoming” is the traditional insight of God as both trancendent and immanent. Process thought “may” offer possibility for a Christian ethic which steers between legalism and situationism. It shouldn’t be handed to liberal theolgies as their domain. We have returned to the insight of Heraclitus, we cannot step into the same river twice. Sanctification is not merely a crisis(neo-orthodox), or a series of crises unrelated to one another(existential), not merely a process(process theology), but both a crisis and a process held in conjunction(orthodoxy). It is this both that Chesterton speaks to in his Chapter on the Paradoxes of Christianity in “Orthodoxy”. I could give examples, having learned the one on courage in war before becoming Christian, but its learning helped in my conversion. I love Chesterton’s examples of true virtue and modesty and charity.

  • JohnM

    “The facts show that “mainline” is no longer the mainline.” This is news? Only to progressives afflicted with Everyone-I-Know syndrome. Which is to say, a good many of them. Most of us were aware of it thirty or forty years ago.

    How do I see mainline/progressive spirituality? 2 Timothy 3:5 comes to mind. I wonder if progressive mainliners even particularly want to be thought of as spiritual.

  • EricG

    Many evangelicals scratch their heads when they see caricatures of themselves in popular press – often the description strIkes them as more like fundamentalism. Many mainliners would have a similar reaction to this post. To say there is “no gospel here” is unfair when you are talking about a diverse group like this (many of whom read this blog, and are brothers and sisters).

  • phil_style

    @JohnM, do you also think that mainline spirituality is akin to ” worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires”? Or does you concordance with Timothy stop as just the half-of-a-verse that you like.

    Considering that the writer here also requires you to have “nothing to do with them”, why might I ask are you interacting with mainliners on this blog? Or, in reality, are you perhaps a bit more charitable to your brothers and sisters that your verse quoting belies?

    Scott, I apologise if this thread is too strong. Feel free to delete this if you think it is inappropriate.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tracy, you are right, and Driskill’s chp made it clear that there is variety in the mainline, and he is with the progressives.

    EricG, in light of the post itself — which said “progressive mainline” and in the thread below the post — and in light of my previous comment to Tracy, it is not unfair for me to say “no gospel here” when I read someone say there is not a need for a historical, embodied resurrection. That is at the heart of the gospel; no resurrection, no gospel.

    And I hope many mainliners speak up about how well this summary of Driskill’s chp represents the mainliners.

  • Gloria

    I attended our local Episcopalian church for several months last year. I really wanted to like it. However, on Easter Sunday the priest denied the resurrection!!!! Said it didn’t really happen. No Gospel there as you have to believe in the resurrection for there to be a Gospel. That was the last Sunday for me at the church.
    I still scratch my head about this experience of attending an Episcopalian church. They read passages of the Bible every Sunday, but why read the liturgy if you don’t believe it?

  • KM Wallace

    I think it is a bit inaccurate to classify women in leadership as “liberal” considering the fact that women were in leadership in the New Testament and that it has been a part of many Christian traditions for centuries. Just because complementarianism has had a surge of popularity in the United States in the last 50 years, doesn’t mean that support of female leadership is anything new in many Christian traditions.

  • Tim

    “mainline spirituality” (ELCA)

    Jesus is the embodiment of God’s revelation, love, and identity. Therefore, we are both Christo-centric and Trinitarian.

    Yes, we value education. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Therefore, when we study, for example, science, we are unafraid. The more “truth” we learn, the closer we grow to the Truth. We reject any fearful anti-intellectualism.

    Karl Barth stressed God as the Other. God needs to be revealed to us from the outside, through revelation. Paul Tillich stressed correlation. We have questions and concerns. God responds to our questions and concerns as they move through time. Barth stressed transcendence. Tillich stressed immanence. In the Mainline, we see dialectic– it is both/and in tension.

    Jesus is the Word of God, the Word made flesh, the Light of the world, the Son of God, the Son of God, the Christ, the suffering Servant, and more. Most of all, he is the Crucified and Risen One. When we consider miracles or signs, the most important thing is what God is communicating through the event.

    Yes, absolutely we stress “social justice.” It might be better stated “manna for all” and “mercy for all.” We pray for “daily bread for everyone.” We pray that we might “forgive instead of repeat the cycle of violence and revenge.” We ask that as we resist evil that we avoid the “temptation to become evil ourselves.” We pray for “regime change,” for the Kingdom of God.

    Weekly we confess that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Sin is personal, systemic, and global. I cannot understand how one might focus on only one aspect, personal or systemic. Sin our lives, in our families, in our businesses, in our schools, in our governments. We are to worry about the “plank in our own eye rather than the speck in our neighbor’s eye.”

    Thanks be to God for a return to spiritual practices in the Mainline. For so long we we focused on the head/intellect. That is good! Yet, we also need to pay attention to the heart/practice of faith.

    The Gospel. Again, I might reference the Lord’s prayer

    We are freed FROM “God as Father of a few” TO “God as Abba of all”

    We are freed FROM “the kingdoms of this world” TO “the Kingdom of God”

    We are freed FROM “false, selfish, sinful, demonic, serve us” wills TO “God’s will, loving the other, serving the other, blessing the other”

    We are freed FROM “manna for the privileged” TO “manna for all”

    We are freed FROM “revenge, salvation through violence” TO “mercy for all, forgiveness for all, and the multiplication of healing”

    We are freed FROM “the temptation to fight evil with evil, crucifying others” TO “fighting evil with Christ, taking up the cross, absorbing evil”. Again, there is the deadly danger that in fighting the Enemy we become the twin of the Enemy, becoming evil ourselves.

    We are freed FROM “hopelessness” TO “hope that God’s Kingdom is a reality now and will become the complete, ultimate reality soon”

    As a Lutheran, I know that Scot critiques the soterian Gospel. Yet I must confess that we do need to be saved FROM “bondage to sin and death” TO “bondage to Christ which is downwardly mobile love”.

    Here I stand. We do have Gospel in the mainline. Yes… we do “see in a mirror dimly.” The Gospel often seems fuzzy, unclear. But we do not doubt “one day we will see face to Face, and know fully, even as God fully knows us right now.”

    The gift ELCA mainline offers is that God finds us, accepts us, receives us, decides for us… We do not believe by our own power or strength, but by the power of the Spirit.

  • Charlie Clauss

    *The Living Church* (an Anglican magazine) had a recent article on the proposed Episcopal calendar for remembering “the Saints.” In the Living Church article (, Derek Olsen gets to the root of what “progressive theology” is all about: the “saints” provide merely a good example. Indeed they do provide an example, but if that is all they do, then we are ultimately left to our own resources.

    ” Thus, many progressives see the resurrection for its symbolic power, not its historicity.” Ironically then, it is the historic reality of the Resurrection that gives it it _real_ power – power that transcends human ability.

    Progressive theology collapses giving us the trinity of anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

  • Amos Paul

    Even progressive mainline is too broad, I think. There are plenty in the UMC who claim to be ‘progressives’ (look at all the rhetoric beyind the UMC General Conference 2012 homosexuality vote that just took place yesterday). But among those ‘progressives’ and the UMC in general, I have seen constant affirmation and animation of the story of Jesus. They almost constantly use Gospel stories (of Jesus) to exemplify and discuss their points of view. They pretty much all affirm the historicity of the resurrection and immediate need of the Holy Spirit actively pouring into the lives of all present. It all seems pretty Gospel focused to me… and if I’m not mistaken, UMC is the biggest or nearly the biggest mainline denom?

  • scotmcknight

    Amos (and Tim?), do you think this chp by Driskill is too narrowly conceived?

  • Tim

    Scot, I’m only going by what you have written here about the chapter.

    I’m bearing witness as a “mainline progressive” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I would say that what I have written represents the broad thinking of my local pastor friends.

    I note that what represents my thinking/spirituality/education does not necessarily reflect the congregation’s. They are very influenced by “Christian media”- radio, TV, and now social media.

    I also note that the decline that led to “pot shots” at the mainline or liberal or progressives has now infected churches across the theological spectrum. Now, more than ever, people need to see real Christ like love, to become intrigued by that, so that they will ask, “Wuz up? Where does your hope come from?” And then may we offer our best “apologies”.

    Finally, the influences cut in all kinds of ways. For example, I am a “mainliner” who faithfully reads the “Jesus Creed” blog. There is a lot of cross pollinization going on.

  • The mainline church has given us Tom Wright, assuming that Anglicans would accept being included in that category, and my regard for him has to go all the way back to Origen to find a match. I have tried picturing Wright coming out of any other tradition and come up with zero, not that the Anglican church doesn’t need to take Wright into account as much as anyone else.

    I can imagine Bishop Tom having a profitable dialogue with Catholics, Orthodox, most mainliners, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, just about anybody other than the neo-Reformed and fundamentalists of any religion including science and philosophy.

    I believe that the character of any local church devolves from its pastor. That is why Jesus addressed his seven letters to the MESSENGERS of the congregations and the job evaluations were specifically for the pastor. That’s something you don’t often see acknowledged by professionals within the industry.

  • Tanya

    Tom Long has a piece that may be of interest in the Easter issue of Journal for Preachers. Its called “Preaching Easter at Old First Gnostic” which, while arguing for the resurrection, recognizes that some progressive mainliners are drinking from the same well as Joel Osteen, and absorbing some of the same philosophical trends as evangelicals.

    And what I appreciate about his piece is the tone — clear, pointed, and gracious.

  • EricG

    Scot — the majority of mainliners don’t deny the resurrection. That is akin to saying evangelicals are off the rails because they use Chick tracks. Some do, but the post implies that it is more widespread than it is.

  • Amos Paul

    Like Tim, I suppose I must emphasize that I’m only commenting upon the summary here! I guess I can see some of the tendencies. But I don’t think, at least in regards to the UMC which I am most familiar with, that the non-historical and non-Gospel (story of Jesus focused) tendencies are dominant within the UMC progressive segment. In that sense I would certainly call it too narrow. The rest may be appropriate, though, from my point of view.

    And I also have my own opinions about why the American/Progressive segment of the UMC is shrinking. But I don’t think it’s predominantly because of an abandoment of an historical Jesus and or of the Gospel story.

  • Tom Trevethan

    My membership in a PCUS congregation, a tall steeple, historic congregation in a university town, convinced me that the “suspicion of authority of all kinds” has left these churches totally unable to form people in any way. “Whatever” with respect to authority in doctrine and practice produces “whatever” with respect to spiritual life. Or more commonly, it produces a “slouching” into the dictat of the NT Times editorial page.

  • Amos Paul

    Oh, a second note. This piece notes that “mainline” is no longer. But I don’t think that particular statement actually makes sense considering the actual historic definition of the term mainline. And I mean, hey, I only read this information for the first time myself very recently!

    From Wiki:

    The term “Mainline Protestant” was coined during debates between modernists and fundamentalists in the 1920s.[12] Several sources claim that the term is derived from the Philadelphia Main Line, a group of affluent inner suburbs of Philadelphia that were settled along the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, and that most residents of these suburbs belonged to mainline denominations, though this may be a folk etymology.[13] Today, most mainline Protestants remain rooted in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. Lippy (2006) [14] defines the term as follows: “the term “mainline Protestant” is used along with “mainstream Protestant” and “old-line Protestant” to categorize denominations that are affiliated with the National Council of Churches and have deep historic roots in and long-standing influence on American society.”

  • JohnM

    @phil_style – First of all, don’t apologize for saying what you think. Of course, if you believe there is something wrong with saying it then you should consider the possibility that there is something wrong with thinking it in the first place. If you don’t think there is anything wrong with the thought then you should be free to express it. Ironically, if anything stands in the way of your doing that it would be progressive speech codes.

    As for the passage, I don’t think it is always necessary for someone to be all of the things Paul describes before we can lift a particular descriptive from the point he is making and say “it applies here”. That said, when I consider all that has been embraced and promoted by some of those who consider themselves progressive I can see where Paul’s broader description sometimes does apply.

    As for my interacting…Sometimes I ask myself that too. But please note, and this was deliberate, I specified mainline/progressive because that was the way the question was put, and not merely “mainline”. I should probably have written it “progressive mainline” instead. I don’t assume ALL mainline churches are liberal. Just as important, I don’t assume everyone reading or interacting on this blog is either mainline or progressive.
    I myself am technically mainline (PCUSA) though I didn’t start that way. I am not progressive mainline.

  • Alan K

    Lifelong mainliner here. The greatest force acting upon mainline spirituality is our social location vis-a-vis the culture. God forbid we ever be ignorant with regards to politics, education, and social trends. Rodney Clapp identified us correctly in his book “A Peculiar People” when he referred to us as “chaplains to culture” and thus we have always the pride of a Christianity of social importance in America. But somewhere in the 1960s our long-lasting love affair with culture ended as the culture said to mainline Christianity, “Let’s just be friends.” We mainliners still have not come to terms with the fact that we were broke up with and that we have existed for the last generation by pretending the relationship is still going on. Thus we’ve let the culture tell us who we are. After all, if we become what they want, maybe the culture will fall in love with us again. Nearly all of the eight points above can be made sense of when understood in this light. Our spirituality is not mediated by God but by culture.

  • T

    I hope that this chapter, even after narrowing it to progressive mainliners, is representative of a minority in the mainline denoms. From several comments here, it appears it may be a significant portion, but not the general rule. The “spirituality” described in this post saddened me. I’ve learned a great deal from some mainliners whose spirituality is very different from this.

  • Charlie Clauss

    EricG says:

    “Scot — the majority of mainliners don’t deny the resurrection. That is akin to saying evangelicals are off the rails because they use Chick tracks. Some do, but the post implies that it is more widespread than it is.”

    This problem might be intractable, coming down to any individual’s personal experience of “the mainline.” My own experience (LCA -> ELCA -> ECUSA) leads me to say that the main post gets it substantially correct – the mainline has set aside transcendent-based spirituality in favor of human-centered systems of self-help, self-actualization with a heavy dose of conscience-appeasing social activism.

    Alan K’s comment is on the mark – it follows that if all we ultimately have is ourselves, then culture represents the best reservoir of human resources.

  • TJJ

    In general, I think it is very true to say there is no Gospel in Mainline Churches, and the descriptions seem pretty accurate to me. Some (UCC) more are more so than others (UMC). There is significant “no gospel” liberalism in the UMC, but there is also a very strong conservative presence in the UMC too, and it seems now seems to be growing, as least in the flyover states and the south. Most UMC here in KY I would consider conservative, and many I would even call evangelical. Asbury has much to do with that historically, as well as a conservative/evangelical tradition culturally in KY. I would guess that in the northeast, and in the coastal west, they are much more typical mainline liberal. Accordingly, I think the UMC, more than most other Mainliners have, have been able to retain more of their more conservative/evangelical members, rather than lose them to the independent evangelical churches.

  • Anderson

    In general, I think it is very true to say there is no Gospel in Mainline Churches, and the descriptions seem pretty accurate to me.

    In general, I don’t think that’s true at all. I’m speaking only from personal experience (a lifetime in mainline churches, a decade working for a general agency of a mainline denomination, attending a progressive mainline divinity school where many mainline denominations were represented) and obviously can’t speak for every mainliner. What are you basing your assertions on?

  • EricG

    I think it is better to rely on data: this suggests 78% of mainliners believe in the resurrection and 86% believe in miracles. If this is correct, the biggest difference is in whether Jesus is perceived as the “only way” which has also become a flash point for evangelicals.

  • EricG

    I should rephrase that last sentence – the question was whether “only followers of Jesus” can be saved. (Some would say no to that, but yes to whether Jesus is the “only way.”. )

  • Jean Dragon

    I’ve been following this blog for a while and have enjoyed many of the discussions. However, on this particular string, I am compelled to weigh in on two issues:

    First, regarding the comment by a previous poster: “How do I see mainline/progressive spirituality? 2 Timothy 3:5 comes to mind”; your comment is painting with a rather broad brush and, worse yet, is very judgmental. It is a disservice to our faith to react to one another with ad hominem attacts.

    Second, I see the problem of the decline of the church in the U.S. as related to, as Richard Foster put it, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.” We have a lot of Sunday morning Christians, whose Christianity is an inch deep. I am a member of a mainline denomination, but I also participate in a men’s group at an independent evangelical “mega” church that meets in a former KMART, with a stadium seating format with no cross and no liturgy or creeds. So I see things from two different perspectives. Granted, the mega church draws a lot of people because the music is contemporary, the service is entertaining, and there is no expectation that anyone will dress up. However, I am not aware that doctrine or theology plays any role at all in the decision making process of people joining churches today. I think many people today are looking for a clear conscience and perhaps a “pick-me-up” once a week.

    There probably are elements of this mega church that my denomination could learn from regarding hospitality to the “unchurched.” On the other hand, churches shouldn’t be compared soley on the basis of numbers. All churches are challenged with building bodies of believers who are disciples of Christ. Discipleship, simply is not consistent with a 1-1/2 hour once a week commitment to the faith.

    Put another way, how many people live their faith outside of church? Are we known (to outsiders) by our love? Is this type of living more or less likely to take place in the lives of Christians who are members of mainline denominations versus other churches?

  • Richard

    When I look at the lifestyles of the majority of Western Christians, I would posit that most of them, mainline or not, don’t actually believe in bodily resurrection – it’s just a password to be accepted in their group, not something that actually makes them any different in terms of sharing their bread with the poor, being with those on the margins, or feasting with sinners. If the Gospel is that Jesus is King and has established his kingdom, then I don’t see much evidence of that Gospel in many churches, regardless of what words they use on Sunday during the Sermon.

    So I guess there’s that…

  • JohnM

    @Jean Dragon – You say “It is a disservice to our faith…”. Bear in mind, it is only “our” faith if “we” have the same faith. The kind of people I have in mind simply do not. It is judgemental, but then you can’t very well respond to it without making a judgement yourself, can you? That’s okay, I just point out the fact.

    You do make a very good point that can’t be repeated to often when you say “On the other hand, churches shouldn’t be compared soley on the basis of numbers. All churches are challenged with building bodies of believers who are disciples of Christ.”

  • TJJ

    ErikG –

    It may be that such a percentage say that in response to some survey. But the real question is what do they mean by that? There is a lot of double speak among mainlinners. They use the traditional words like ressurection, miracles, etc., but often do not mean them in the traditional, historical way. The words mean something else. I have run into this so often I am almost taken aback when it turns out the intent/meaning really is the traditional/historical meaning.

  • EricG

    I understand that different people can mean different things when they say things (Marcus Borg says he can recite the Creeds, for example, which doesn’t make sense to me given his beliefs). But the survey question was very specific – “After his crucifixion, Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.”. This was intentionaly worded this way, and doesn’t leave much room for differences in definitions, etc. Unless you are willing to posit that people are lying – which I believe is an unfair assumption – I don’t think your interpretation is justified.

  • Tim

    If you value comfort over loving others
    If you treasure safety over meeting your neighbor in her dangerous vulnerability
    If you choose to kill in self-defense
    If you think that actually following Christ’s words in the Semon on the Mount is irrational
    If you only think about weapons being melted into farm tools someday
    If you are unwilling to take risks in following Jesus that might lead to early death
    Then you might say that you affirm the resurrection
    But you are not staking your life on it
    Therefore, Mainliners are guilty of denying the resurrection
    And there are many Christ fans, but very few followers
    I wish I knew how the Spirit might change this
    I don’t expect we will live it
    But I hope we live it, I live in hope!