Hope Yet for Mainline Denominations

Greg GarrettBy Greg Garrett

For the past half-century, many who consider themselves mainline Protestants have had little to cheer. They have watched as the religious landscape changed, as more fervently emotional Christian bodies seized the spotlight and political power, and as many mainline denominations and churches shrank from post-World War Two dominance to relative irrelevance. And as their numbers shrank, denominations split further over such things as worship styles and practices and the ordination of women and gays. When I went to an Episcopal seminary only a few years ago to prepare for leadership in that church, we often asked ourselves -- and each other -- if there would be a church left to lead when we finished.

But as recent research by author Diana Butler Bass demonstrates, while many mainline denominations continue to wrestle with their futures, many individual mainline churches are bucking the trends and growing in membership, financial support, and visibility. This suggests that the oft-spoken belief that "God's Frozen Chosen" (as various more intellectual strains of mainline Christianity have sometimes been called) are on the way out may be badly mistaken. The history, practice, and theology of mainline Christianity may in fact be better adapted to life in the 21st century than any of its detractors suggest.

One of the things that mainline denominations have to offer is a more adaptable faith than some more expressive or dogmatic kinds of Christianity. In the coming decades, as final conflicts over the authority of the Bible are played out, people will seek out churches in which Christians pursue their faith as an ongoing journey in the company of others -- not as assent to an unshakable fact or set of interpretations -- and churches that seek to serve God and each other in the world we live in.



Generations that have grown up with openly gay friends, family members, and role models find it difficult to believe God cannot and does not love GLBT people; in fact, recent research suggests that one of the things driving people 18-49 years old away from Christianity is their perception that Christians hate gays. Churches that are inclusive and loving will be much more attractive than those that advance outdated arguments about where God draws the line.

Likewise, generations that have come of age in the last fifty years are accustomed to women serving in all aspects of life with intelligence, creativity, and responsibility. Women have been Fortune 500 CEOs, Secretaries of State, university presidents; many will be hard-pressed to believe that women are not also supposed to occupy church leadership roles simply because one reading of one part of the Bible suggests so.

In Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches where doubt and wrestling with the scripture have been acknowledged rather than swept under the rug, Christians have been able to live into their faith without pretending their faith is perfect -- and without holding the Bible to impossible standards of consistency and truth. When one's entire faith rests on the proposition that the Bible is the perfect and inerrant Word of God -- and yet so many things in the Bible not only do not make sense in the 21st century, but contradict other things in the Bible -- one must either ignore the inconsistencies or lose one's faith. It's a horrible choice, and, fortunately, one that doesn't have to be made.

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.