Denim, Colored T-shirts, and AAR/SBL

Well, I have to eat my words a bit, friends. I actually had a great time at AAR/SBL. It’s not because of the seminars attended and papers I heard presented — I did neither. But I had an absolutely great time meeting up with friends old and new. I saw several friends from Fuller days, as well as various folks who are interested in things emergent. There was a really good breakfast meeting on Saturday at which several of us began to plan one of the TWO Emergent Theological Conversations that we’re co-hosting next fall. That one will be on recovering Paul for the emergent church (I wanted to call the conference, “Beyond Paulophobia,” but that might be too negative).

The panel discussion later that morning was great fun. Scot McKnight was bedecked in his brand, spanking new jeans (which I exhorted him not to call “denim trousers”). He also wore a colored t-shirt beneath his flannel, which was a good look. His shirt was tucked in, as was mine, since that’s coming back now. Diana Butler Bass was wearing pearls, as usual, and she did make note of that. Before, when I’ve asked her how she can get away with delivering such hard news to mainliners, she’s said, “Tony, with a blue dress, a string of pearls, and a Ph.D. from Duke, you can say just about anything to mainliners.” I think that’s a great line! And Keith Matthews, the moderator, looked like he was ready to hit the links that afternoon. Keith’s greatest fashion accessory: his ever-ready smile.

We led off with some introductory comments. Probably the most helpful were Scot’s — he listed six questions that he hears emerging people asking. Later in the 2.5 hour panel, however, things heated up when Diana and I heartily disagreed when responding to questions from the audience. We will be posting this as an EV podcast down the road, so listeners should know: Diana and I have a great respect and love for one another, and this is an ongoing conversation/debate that we have. Though it can get heated, it’s all done in the context of love and friendship. The bottom line: we have honest disagreements about the future of mainline Protestantism in America.

Other drinks and meals were had with Kelly Hughes (who will be doing publicity on The New Christians), Kenda Dean (my jilted dissertation advisor), Andy Rowell, LeRon Shults, Bruce Benson, Marianne Meye Thompson and John Thompson, Jon Sweeney, and several friends in various publishing companies.

All in all, it was a great time. And I thank Paraclete Press for paying my way.

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  • Tony,

    It was great to see you, and to see you are now tucking in your shirt (in spite of wearing boots), and to hear your little dust-up with Diana.

    When you are ready for it, I’ll buy you a nice pair of trousers, pleated, creased, and cuffed.

    When that happens I’ll know the emerging movement has come of age (of a certain age).


  • My sense from what little said here is that you are fairly pessimistic about our “plight” as mainliners. But as in dire straights as we’re in, is evangelicalism very far behind? I may not wear pearls or a blue dress, or even have a Duke Ph.D. — mine is from Fuller — which makes me a rather odd left of center Mainliner — but I do appreciate her words, which I think suggest that in the midst of our disrepair there is hope. Indeed, if the reports are true, that young adults believe that Christians are overly “anti-gay,” then those of us open on this subject should have a future (as we pastor those aging folks in our churches).

  • reserve7

    Hey, Tony…

    Jon Sweeney rocks! I’ve never met him, but I’m envious that you got to hang out… glad you had a good trip.

    peace, Todd Thomas (Bethesda)

  • Bob wrote:

    “Indeed, if the reports are true, that young adults believe that Christians are overly “anti-gay,” then those of us open on this subject should have a future (as we pastor those aging folks in our churches).”

    It seems to me that a “progressive” perspective on issues such as this is exactly how the mainline movement has postured itself for decades now. And yet it has been in near constant decline throughout.

    I get the impression that Mainliners keep waiting for their left of center, open-ended stance to attract the surrounding culture. And yet, the opposite continues to happen.

    I would argue that it is the lack of a strong theology of the Holy Spirit that has led, and is continuing to lead a decline in mainline numbers and vitality.

  • Darren,

    I’ve been hearing/reading quite a bit lately that evangelicals are fearful about the future. The Religious Right is in disarray and even the Emergent movement is not of one mind. The book Unchristian, expresses both fear and didain for the upcoming generations. They seem not “to get it.”

    Yes, the Mainline has been on the sidelines, but my sense is that the Mainline is on the move and that it may have a better sense of the realities of the time. On issues such as the roles of women and even homosexuality, the Mainline seems ahead of the curve. And as for worship, things are changing.

    But as you say the issue is the theology of the Holy Spirit. In what way do we lack a theology of the Holy Spirit and in what way do the evangelicals have one. Let me say that I can speak to both sides of this issue. I spent 6 years in pentecostal churches, graduated from a leading evangelical seminary (Fuller), but I’ve also read very closely the work of such theologians as Jurgen Moltmann who would be Mainline and has a robust theology of the Holy Spirit.

    So, tell me more about the theology of the Spirit Mainliners lack.

  • Bob,

    Let me clarify: what I mean is that – IMHO – mainline churches lack a sense that God’s spirit is actually still moving and leading believers, both individually and collectively, into the future.

    I think the evidence of the last fifty years suggest that merely aligning oneself with the progressive end of the social spectrum does NOT lead to church growth and vitality. My point is that the mainline movement, in general, has been on the cutting edge in this way for a very long time now, and yet all we’ve seen is decline in mainline influence and numbers.

    I guess what it comes down to is that mainline churches seem to be very beholden to the precepts of modernism. And my comment about the lack of a strong theology of the Holy Spirit comes in here. Such a theology is often offensive to a modern mindset.

    It seems to me that mainliners keep holding on, expecting that society is going to catch on to how socially progressive the movement is, and join in on the party. But again, the OPPOSITE is happening.

    I’ve given you my sense of the picture. So let me ask you: why do you think this is happening? You don’t doubt that the mainline movement is in serious decline do you?

    By the way, as an aside, I am certainly not taken with the evangelical approach either. It has its own unfortunate ties to modernism. This may be where my history lies, but today I am decidedly post-evangelical- in both senses of the word.

  • I heard to my surprise my name mentioned during one of your comments 🙂 Thanks for that 1 moment of fame! I’m now reemerging after the birth of our third one … Ewan Kit Kye Ren on November 9, 2007, 11.07am.

  • Darren,

    I don’t deny that the Mainline churches have suffered decline, and there are many reasons for that. But to say as was once said that conservative churches grow and liberal ones don’t doesn’t stand up. There are small conservative churches and large progressive ones.

    Rather than the problem being that Mainliners lack a vision or the Spirit I do think that they bought into the idea that faith is a private thing — something we don’t speak about in public. That is changing. In fact, Martha Grace Reese’s excellent book Unbinding the Gospel (Chalice Press, 2007) speaks to this very issue.

    But again things are changing. There is greater openness to speaking of faith in public, of not hiding the lamp under the bushel to quote Jesus.

    The point I was making is that on many issues progressive churches are a head of the curve, but where they have stumbled is making that known. The reality is that while evangelical churches may be bigger than mainline ones, as a percentage of the population the church is getting smaller.

  • Devin G

    I’m enjoying the blog, Tony, and the conversation that sparks on this wall. My best friend is out at Fuller, taking classes and working as a Faculty Assistant with the Thompsons, of whom I hear nothing but great things. Keep tucking in that shirt…

  • Pingback: Faithfully Liberal - » Does the Mainline Have a Future?()

  • I have read quite a bit of research on church attendance, and the effect of religious-switching (e.g. having quite a lot to do with the issue of doctrinal emphases such as the H.S.) is not the main effect, although it contributes to a decline.

    Research clearly shows that life-cycle and the demographic imperative are the main effects. What this means is that the mainlines decline primarily due to lower rates of birth and smaller families. The second contributor here that is related is that they hold on to the babies that do grow up not quite as well as other churches. This is not due to religious switching later in life however.

    What this means is that the suggestion of having a more “sectarian” doctrine of exclusivity or a particular theological emphases in order to maintain persistence in membership is not conclusive in the data. At least this is how I would characterize the categories used to describe “conservative” in this regard.

    I use sectarian as a descriptor here because the more sectarian and exclusive you tend to be the better you can hold on to membership. There is a connection between exclusivity and persistence, but that does not account for the rate of consistent mainline decline, nor does it account for the surge in more conservative or sectarian churches and traditions over the last 20 or so years. Hout and Greeley do show that the demographic imperative is the main effect which is fascinating. That was at least the last shot across the bow in the conversation in 2001. A more recent study by Regnerus et. al. glances at this particular emphasis, but does not argue this point directly.

    You can read more about this in the presentation I gave to the Association for the Study of Higher Education in 2006 on my blog under “Publications”. I’m not referring to that for traffic, but it’s easier to get the bibliography and the actual paper I presented there 🙂 It’s important to take our anecdotal experience in light of these data since it give a radically different spin on ministry approaches it seems to me!

    There at least you can see the bibliography of the sources I have consulted. My analysis might be way off, but I think it’s important research that we all ought to take into account in these discussions.