Is there Vitality in “Mainline Religion?”

Is there Vitality in “Mainline Religion?” July 24, 2013

Is there Vitality in “Mainline Religion?”

Yesterday (July 23, 2013) my colleague Philip Jenkins posted an article from The New York Times on his blog. The article is entitled “A Religious Legacy, with Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” (No URL was provided, so I’m not providing one here. Google the article or go to the NYT web site to read it.)

The gist of the article is that scholars and the media have focused so much attention on evangelical Christians in the past several decades that they have neglected “mainline religion” in America. The thesis of the article is that some scholars are arguing (rightly is implied) that it’s now time to re-focus attention on mainline religion, its history, theology, spirituality and political influence.

Here is a couple excerpts from the article that give a taste of its flavor:

“We now have quite a lot of good stuff on
evangelical Protestantism,” said David A.
Hollinger, an intellectual historian at the
University of California, Berkeley, who delivered
a provocative presidential address to the
Organization of American Historians in 2011,
defending the legacy of what he called ecumenical

“But we ought to be studying the evangelicals,”
Mr. Holligner (sic) added, in “relation to the people
they hated.”

“Ecumenical Protestant” is here treated as synonymous with “mainline religion” and“liberal mainline Protestantism.” The article specifically mentions Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as examples of this religious genre.

Not very subtly hidden within the article is a thesis put forward by some scholars of American religion: that mainline religion has had a significant impact on American culture, including politics, and that it still has much to offer. It almost sounds as if some scholars are experiencing a case of sour grapes because they identify with the so-called mainline of American religion (which usually means one of the “eight sisters”—ecumenical denominations that are perceived as forming a core of historically culturally influential Protestantism) and believe too much attention has been given to evangelicalism. What they may be overlooking, however, is that most of that media attention (and much of the scholarly attention as well) has been negative.

An underlying theme of the article and the scholarly speeches and articles it reports about is that American mainline religion, liberal, ecumenical Protestantism, still has vitality and deserves recognition for its historical and contemporary cultural and political influence.

Here I will respond to that theme and thesis—admittedly briefly. But first let me lay out some of my credentials for doing so. For much of my life I have existed and worked on the boundary between American evangelicalism and what the article is calling American mainline Protestantism. I attended an evangelical seminary and upon graduation joined an ABCUSA (American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.) church and received recognition of previous ordination there. I have identified myself most closely with the ABCUSA for decades and now with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. (I also identify through my church and professional affiliation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas which is by some counts the eighth largest denomination in the U.S. and definitely “mainline” in Texas!) The ABCUSA is definitely one of the “mainline” denominations in the U.S. It is one of the eight sisters. For three years I served as Minister of Youth and Christian Education in a United Presbyterian church (now part of the most definitely mainline Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.). I earned my Ph.D. in Religious Studies under mostly mainline scholars or religion and theologians in a secular university. I served as president of the very ecumenical and mainline-dominated American Theological Society (Midwest Division). I have written many articles and book reviews for Christian Century. I have been invited to speak at numerous mainline Protestant churches and events (most recently the “Ale and the Almighty” weekly theological symposium sponsored by an Episcopal church and held in a pub!).

I won’t trot out my evangelical credentials here. Anyone who knows anything about me knows them. I have been deeply embedded in American evangelicalism for decades and am a consulting editor of Christianity Today.

So, I feel at least moderately qualified to talk (write) about “mainline religion” (as defined in the NYT article).

Before attempting to say whether I think there is vitality in “mainline religion” please bear with me as I object to that label. Years ago Martin Marty, the “dean of American church historians,” published a column in The Christian Century in which he rightly called for a moratorium on that label and suggested instead “old line religion.” He rightly pointed out that “mainline” is a value-laden label and no longer really appropriate for describing the older, historic, Protestant denominations (the eight sisters). In much of America versions of evangelicalism and other religious genres far outweigh those denominations in numbers and influence.

Who ever decided to deny the Southern Baptist Convention the label “mainline?” In much of the U.S. it is the religious mainline—in terms of size and influence. Evangelicals are broken up into many more than eight main denominations, so it’s more difficult to lump them together than the ecumenical Protestant denominations that once all had offices in the so-called “God Box” building in New York City (now called the Interchurch Center). However, numerically evangelical Protestants outnumber actual adherents (faithful attenders and supporters) of the mainline denominations. And in Utah and adjacent counties of surrounding states, at least, Mormons outnumber everyone else.

So, having registered my objection to the label “mainline” for the religious genre the NYT article describes, what is my answer to whether what I (with Marty) will call old-line Protestantism has contemporary vitality?

Yes and no.

Beginning with “yes.” Nobody doubts that old line Protestantism was a major force in American culture and continues to be a powerful presence in certain segments of it. The whole idea of the conservative “Religious Right” phenomenon being somehow a violation of separation of church and state ignores the political power of old-line Protestantism in America from the days of the Social Gospel Movement through the 1950s. People like Washington Gladden, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Sloane Coffin and William Sloane Coffin, Harvey Cox, and numerous other so-called “mainliners” were the thinkers and sometimes organizers of a powerful Religious Left in America for decades. Surely that legacy is not entirely dead, even if it is somewhat faded and submerged. It is primarily out of the old-line Protestantism that all forms of liberation theology have been born or kept alive in America. In fact, I would argue that liberation theologies (plural) are the new manifestation of the same impulse as the older Social Gospel Movement—motivated and energized by old-line Protestant (and Catholic) people.

Also, continuing the “yes,” there are within every old-line Protestant denomination power-house churches that show tremendous vitality. Many, perhaps most, of them are evangelical in ethos while shunning the fundamentalist side of evangelicalism. I have lived in quite a few American cities and have observed growing old-line denomination churches—some of them bursting at the seams. In almost every case they are charismatic or evangelical ethos-wise and exist in some tension with the hierarchy and especially the liberal theologians of their own denominations. The largest church in Iowa, for example, is a Lutheran (ELCA) congregation and it continues to grow beyond its capacities so that it is now forming satellite locations in its metro area. It is evangelical in ethos with revivalistic and semi-charismatic elements blended with its classical Lutheranism.

Now for the “no.” I think old-line Protestantism has submerged its vitality, leaving it mostly as potential, by means of the following errors.

First, by embracing inclusivism and pluralism old-line Protestantism convinced many of its own people and outsiders looking in that it lacked conviction—except perhaps with regard to “peace and justice” issues. But you can get those in many secular organizations. Why commit to a church for that alone? What do bells and smells (liturgy) have to do with peace and justice? Maybe something, but old-line Protestant denominations have not been good at explaining it. So what do I mean by “inclusivism” and “pluralism?” Here, anyway, inclusivism means the old-line churches’ open door policy that allows virtually anything. Not long ago I heard a well-known and influential old-line Protestant pastor speak and he spent most of his talk (to a college group) on Buddhism and how his spirituality has been energized by his “discovery” of a popular Japanese form of Buddhism. He argued that there is no conflict between that and his Christian faith. Most in the audience were not convinced. This is all too common in old-line Protestantism—syncretism, wild eclecticism, unfettered spiritual and theological experimentation. I believe this drives people away from the old-line denominations. And it saps their vitality by making their witness shallow and confused. By “pluralism” I mean the same—a tendency to allow virtually anything and even encourage wild diversity.

All that is to say, much of the vitality of old-line Protestantism has faded due to the loss of an adequate spiritual-theological center. Old-line Protestant denominations have absorbed one aspect of American culture so completely that it is killing them—tolerance. And here by “tolerance” I mean fear of objecting to anything except intolerance.

Second, old-line Protestantism has fallen out of step with most Americans in terms of religious, especially distinctively Christian, affections. The last time old-line Protestant denominations experienced a surge of vitality, an opportunity for real revitalization, it was the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But, for the most part, the leaders turned their backs on it, relegating it to corners of their denominational life. They went out of their way to shun charismatics from leadership positions. They confined them to special interest groups within the denominations and then marginalized their voices, even treating them as fanatics and weirdos. This was a major mistake.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans seek experiences—even and perhaps especially in religion. They want to feel something, have a personal relationship with God that is transformative. Revivalism or at least “renewalism” is a major component of American religious life. Most old-line Protestant leaders shun that entirely unless its somehow related to African-American music and preaching or contemplative prayer (or meditation). But these and all emotional experiences are kept at arm’s length in most old-line denominations. They may be talked about, observed, briefly participated in, but they don’t permeate the fabric of old-line Protestant spirituality. And old-line Protestant churches have by-and-large missed the contemporary worship boat altogether and dug in their heels with traditional liturgy (at most tinkered with under the term “liturgical renewal”).

I well remember a “revival” at an ABCUSA church. The congregation built it up as a major renewal event. It fell absolutely flat and accomplished nothing discernible. I was on the Executive Council, so I was more than an observer. In advance of the revival I argued for lively worship and inspiring, convicting preaching. Instead, the congregation sang a few anthem-type hymns and heard a dry-as-dust sermon, read from a manuscript, about the importance of spiritual life. There was no invitation. Some revival. Typical old-line, though.

Now, if you jump back into the pre-Civil War era of old-line American religion you’ll find the same tensions there. The old-line denominations all had two “sides” or “schools”—one revivalistic and one anti-revivalistic (usually liturgical, sacramental and confessional). The revivalistic sides/schools grew; the anti-revivalistic went dormant. Before the Civil War the revivalistic groups within then old-line denominations were often very activist with regard to peace and justice issues. So there is no necessary conflict between revivalism/renewalism (“religious enthusiasm”) and leftward political ethics and activism. After the Civil War, however, the revivalistic groups within the old-line denominations began to separate out and form their own denominations (e.g., Nazarenes out of the Methodist Episcopal Church). The anti-revivalists within the old-line denominations captured them and ever since have tended to be extremely leery of revivalism or anything that looks or sounds like emotional religion.

By holding tightly to liturgical worship and refusing to update to be more in step with what especially younger Americans favor in worship (viz., “praise and worship” singing with bands, worship teams, etc.) they have missed out on a tremendous opportunity to revitalize. The few attempts I have observed in the old-line churches have been lame.

The one quotation in the NYT article that almost made me laugh was this one by the same scholar I quoted from the article at the beginning here:

“The focus on personal religious experience being
at the heart of religious life, which does come
out of liberal Christianity, seems to me alive
and well,” Mr. Hedstrom said.

Now, I’m sure Mr. Hedstrom is an excellent historian, a gentleman and scholar, but this claim is almost ludicrous—unless perhaps he’s referring to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “God-consciousness” as “personal religious experience.” Even then, however, one has to ask Mr. Hedstrom about Pietism—the “heart religion” and “experiential Christianity” that predated Schleiermacher by a long way—going back to at least the late 1600s with the movement launched by Spener, Francke and Zinzendorf in Germany that spread to Great Britain and America. That can hardly be considered to have “come out of liberal Christianity!”

So what are my prescriptions for revitalizing old-line Protestantism? First, I suggest they rediscover generous orthodoxy (a good phrase coined, so far as I know, by Hans Frei) and enforce it within their denominations. Most of them have confessional statements that have been largely ignored or allowed to be used so flexibly that they are virtually meaningless. That’s because they contain doctrines that modern Christians cannot stomach (e.g., the double decree). I suggest separating those out and affirming (with teeth) basic, historic, broadly orthodox Christian doctrines such as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, the Trinity and salvation by grace alone through faith. The flip side of this is expelling leaders who join Buddhist sects (etc.).

Second, I suggest they rediscover and encourage living Christian spiritual experiences—conversion-regeneration by means of personal repentance and personal faith in Jesus Christ, sanctification through discipleship including infillings of the Holy Spirit, devotional life using Scripture and classical devotional literature.

Third, I suggest they discover blended worship with lively singing, worship teams and bands, and decrease their commitments to high liturgical worship as their sole style of worship.

Fourth, I suggest they rediscover the supernatural—belief in and experience of God actually answering prayers in ways beyond natural explanation—and encourage people to share their stories of that without embarrassment.

None of this requires any diminution of peace and justice activism; it just requires demoting peace and justice witness and activism from the be-all and end-all to one aspect of Christianity.

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  • Zach Waldis

    I wish you’d tell this to my church! As an evangelical pastor in a mainline denomination, we need the things you’re talking about now more than ever. There is hope though. After attending a very liberal seminary, I was dismayed by the fact that I hardly ever heard anyone say that they loved Jesus. I was very pleased to hear most everyone I talked to at our Annual Conference make this affirmation and say what a difference their relationship with Jesus made in their lives. To be fair, though, I suppose we’re one of the more conservative “mainliners” (“oldliners?” makes me think of “jet-liners” :)).

  • Karlw1988

    “Old-line” denominations would benefit a lot if they were more consistent in implementing aspects of African American Christianity in their congregations (in the sense of learning from it rather than copying it boilerplate). African American churches have historically struck a good balance between personal spirituality and ecstatic worship experiences and social justice.

    If, by “blended worship,” you mean that the service should be semi-liturgical (not totally extemporaneous) and should strike a balance between discursive and non-discursive worship styles, I totally agree. 🙂

  • MJ

    As an evangelical, I must say that I don’t “hate” mainline churches. There are “evangelicals” and those who are still broadly “orthodox” that I find refreshing. It is the dominance of these denominations by those who essential believe in nothing because they believe in everything that I find repugnant. May God grant the very renewal that you calling for. The renewal of the mainline denominations could only be a positive effect on American culture and a tempering effect on the more radical strands of fundamentalism. So at the risk of showing my emotional revivalist tendencies: a big loud “AMEN” to your call for renewal.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I don’t think you are doing justice to the wide variety within “mainline congregations.” Just look at the Methodist church; some extremely liberal congregations and with some extremely conservative ones (in terms of view of the Bible, focus on the supernatural etc.). Also a big mix of traditional ‘high liturgy’ services but also many who do the ‘blended worship’ you describe. You seem to be playing off a stereotype of mainlines that its a bunch of stuffy liturgical readings and pomp while the bible study is reading the latest work by Spong. While of course some churches would fit that sort of caricature, many are far from it.

    Also, churches can always look to what would “sell” the most. Yes, most Americans want “an experience” . , ,and the most successful mega-churches (both pushing the prosperity bunk and more evangelical) deliver that. But it becomes a feel good excursion on Sunday and then most people go back to their daily lives not following the message of Jesus any more than before. It’s like indulging in ice cream; the sugar high and flavor is outstanding, but after it’s all gone it’s gone. That sugar boost won’t last the rest of the day, let alone week.

    While I concur some mainlines would do well to search for a smart balance of new and traditional, I think following the formula that has brought success to evangelicalism (especially a focus on confessional statements . . really?) recently is a poor move, especially considering that those churches as well are in decline . . it just has begun more recently.

  • John

    As a pastor is a mainline/oldline denomination (United Methodist Church), but with evangelical and charismatic leanings and experiences, I appreciate what you’ve said here. At least one United Methodist professor has published a work that distinguishes Methodist from mainline (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?

    • Roger Olson

      John, Because the hyperlink did not lead to a review I omitted it.

      • John

        Sorry about that. Googling “Kisker mainline or Methodist” should lead to it.

    • Michael-Maria DeAlienum

      John, I referenced this work as well. (Discipleship Press, Nashville, 1989) ISBN 978-0-88177-541-9 if anyone is interested. It addresses this very issue in excellent form. Additionally, the text is required reading for Methodist Theology classes at Asbury Seminary.

  • Phil Mitchell

    Fascinating. My experience with the old line has been far more limited than Mr. Olson. But it has been consistent–constant hostility toward historic orthodox Christianity. When I was 16 years old I attended a Methodist youth meeting. I was asked to present the “devotional” so I read John 3:16 and simply stated that to go to heaven one must believe in Jesus Christ. The pastor–who was monitoring the group–launched into a strongly worded attack on my presentation and accused me of “proof-texting.” At the time I had no idea what he was talking about and I’m not so sure now. Machen got it right a hundred years ago in “Christianity and Liberalism.” Many in the old line denominations simply follow a different religion from Christianity. Hence, they have no power, or, at least, not the power of Christ. Their decline and death will be no more consequential that the demise of any of the old pagan religions of the past.

  • labreuer

    Rightly or wrongly, Americans seek experiences—even and perhaps especially in religion. They want to feel something, have a personal relationship with God that is transformative. Revivalism or at least “renewalism” is a major component of American religious life.

    A ‘good’ form of this sentiment seems well-supported by Psalm 119:32—at least when it is translated properly (hehe):

    I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart! (ESV)

    This ‘running’ seems to be what people want. I find myself motivated to ‘run’ when God is enlarging my ‘heart’—in the Deut 6:5 sense. This means increasing my intellectual and emotional understanding of God.

    Now, if you jump back into the pre-Civil War era of old-line American religion you’ll find the same tensions there. The old-line denominations all had two “sides” or “schools”—one revivalistic and one anti-revivalistic (usually liturgical, sacramental and confessional). The revivalistic sides/schools grew; the anti-revivalistic went dormant.

    This reminds me of the theory vs. experimentalism divide in science. There is way too much of a disconnect between the two. Likewise, I think there is way too much disconnect between those who relate to God in mostly intellectual ways, vs. those who relate to God in mostly emotional ways. (Some would say that we must relate to God more intellectually than emotionally; I challenge such people to defend this claim biblically.) It’s as if the hand is saying to the foot, “I have no need of you!”, or the foot saying to the eye, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the same body!” Might this be part of our problem?

    First, I suggest they rediscover generous orthodoxy

    This makes me think of the old unity vs. diversity problem. One’s stance on required unity defines one’s stance on allowed diversity, and vice versa. Suppose we insist on ‘too much’ unity. Then we restrict the diversity in ways that violates e.g. Romans 14. Might the postmodernism of this age be a response to ‘too much unity’? It’s like the nuclear option: people are calling things ‘truth’ which are not true, so we will simply uproot the entire conception of ‘truth’, at least for a time.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Well, the author forgets that the mainline religions were “evangelical” once and then turned into “unnoisy solemn assemblies” (to borrow sociologist Peter Berger’s phrase). The Social Gospel as a way to revitalize mainstream Christianity? We just tried it on a gigantic scale and it failed massively. It was called the Sub Prime Mortgage Market Bubble coupled with the affordable housing/social justice legitimation from liberal and evangelical Left churches. Let’s not return to the Social Gospel which never worked even during the Progressive Movement. But the author is onto something here especially with Lutheran churches which have a treasure trove of theology.

    • Roger Olson

      The Social Gospel helped give us child labor laws among many other wonderful social changes to help the weak and disadvantaged.

  • steve rogers

    I’m pretty sure it was not your intent, but it seems like you are suggesting that the old-liners need to become more like evangelicals. I wish there was a third option since, from where I sit, it feels like both groups are fading into cultural irrelevance and only get attention for hot button political stances during election cycles.
    Their influence upon vital, everyday life of the community is vague at best.

    • Roger Olson

      Of course I think they should become more like evangelicals–my kind of evangelicals! What would you expect me to suggest? 🙂 On the other hand, I think many evangelicals could improve by becoming more like the best of old line Protestantism. They have much to learn from each other. And you know by now that by “evangelical” I don’t mean your typical, run-of-the-mill neo-fundamentalist church that calls itself “evangelical.”

  • Jason Douglas Greene

    Roger this is a great article.
    Take a look at United Theological Seminary in Dayton Ohio. There is a wonderful evangelical renewal that is taking place in the UMC.
    Jason D Greene

  • Kullervo

    I’m not sure what worship style has to do with it.

    • Roger Olson

      Much of old line Protestant worship is specifically designed to AVOID anything that provokes feelings or emotions. That leaves out a large part of the spectrum of our humanity.

      • LogicGuru

        But old line worship in the high liturgical style is precisely what is intensely emotional. There’s color, ceremony, elaborate costume–you are bombarded with sensual experience and you get to participate with your body. You sit, stand, kneel, bow, go up for communion, and SING! The evangelical churches services I’ve attended were dull and flat–no color, no visuals, no ceremony, people didn’t sing, boring Christian rock, no chance to move around or participate, and a l-o-n-g sermon–it seemed like some dull TV variety show.

  • David Martinez

    Dr. Olson,

    Can you help me to understand something? I have always thought that the distinctive doctrine of Pentecostalism is that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, I read on a website that Wesleyans are Pentecosals. How can this be so if Wesleyans do not teach that tongues doctrine? What am I missing here?

    David Martinez

    • Roger Olson

      I can only think of one reason someone would claim that Wesleyans are Pentecostals–to try to take the label “Pentecostal” away from “classical Pentecostals” so that they don’t have a monopoly on it and apply it more broadly to all Christians who, for example, believe in a baptism of the Holy Spirit experience (which Holiness Wesleyans do)–without speaking in tongues. The Church of the Nazarene was originally “The Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene” but dropped the “Pentecostal” part of their name when tongues-speaking Pentecostalism made its appearance (I think about 1907). So, Pentecostals would probably say “You gave it up; now you want it back?” Ironically, there are some classical Pentecostals who do not believe speaking in tongues is necessary for Spirit baptism, but they are a minority among Pentecostals and other Pentecostals have looked somewhat askance at them. So what exactly makes someone “Pentecostal?” That’s hard to say. I would say that anyone who regards speaking in tongues as a spiritual gift or prayer language for every Christians, whether required or not, is “Pentecostal.” Anyone who says speaking in tongues is not for everyone is not “really Pentecostal” in the modern sense of that word as it is usually understood and used among scholars who study and classify religious movements.

      • Lila Wagner

        Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish among “Pentecostals,” “Charismatics” and “Holiness advocates.” All three groups encourage Spirit baptism but the first see only “tongues as evidence,” the second look for any “gift of the Spirit”–eg. prophecy, healing, tongues but the third group reject tongues and/or prophecy and look for “the fruit of the Spirit and holy lives.”

        Hopefully I’ve not been too dismissive of any of these streams, having swum in each at some time in my life.

  • Roger, really enjoyed the article, will respond on my blog soon; we should meet sometime. Loved your Against Calvinism book.

  • cimach

    The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become so left and liberal that it literally stands for nothing any longer. One glance at …will show you that there is no faith or discipline left in this church body.

    • Roger Olson

      Read my recent blog post about NOT POSTING HYPERLINKS! I have to edit them out which is also time-consuming. I simply do not have time to check them all out which I would have to do before posting comments. PLEASE everyone! No hyperlinks. You can point people toward things you want them to look at in other ways. As for the ELCA. Well, what you say MAY be true of the denomination, but I know many evangelical ELCA churches and individuals.

  • Bev Mitchell

    You highlight well a common human condition – gravitation toward the extreme. Balance is so much work that the valleys of extreme tend to collect most of the wagons. So, partly in reaction to the encouragement of “wild diversity” we get abject fear of diversity of any kind. In reaction to unconditional inclusivism we find folks treating ecumenism as if it were a four-letter word. As a reaction to intolerance we get “tolerance of everything but intolerance.” When balance is seen as compromise by one group and as intolerant by the other, the results are predictable.

    But, this is all generally applicable. When the subject is Christianity, there is an essential added element that you also highlight – viz the Holy Spirit. Extremists on both ends often completely ignore, downplay, explain away or otherwise neglect this crucial part of the gospel and Christian life and influence. It is so good to see the spiritual heart of the matter so clearly addressed in your article. As educators, we would like to think that better teaching on the Holy Spirit should be a big part of the solution (like better theology addressed to the pews or better teaching on the Trinity), but there is a big part of renewal beyond our efforts and we must pray that the Spirit moves mightily – and that we not do things that stand in her way.

  • Grady

    Mr. Olson, your analysis in this article aligns exactly with the experience of our family in our faith community. We live in Greenville, SC, a city with strong fundamentalist influences. My wife and I had difficulty in our early years after coming here to find a church apart from this. Ultimately, though with some discomforts of its own, we settled into an old-line CBF congregation– a church much maligned by the fundamentalists in town. For a time we grew and even thrived among the mix of theological tolerance and overarching adherence to the Baptist belief of soul autonomy. Increasingly over time, however, the sort of inclusivism you describe prevailed among the ministry team. The mission of the church became increasingly blurred, and the congregation began to precipitously decline. Parallel to this the church leadership rigidly upheld the “high church” worship formats and strict avoidance of the least hint of the emotional. Then, when the decline of this lion congregation became undeniable, the leadership decided that a big building project was the path out of the wilderness. The result, now five years on has been catastrophic. It is a textbook example of your point, for sure….

  • Rob Plested

    “Who ever decided to deny the Southern Baptist Convention the label “mainline?” In much of the U.S. it is the religious mainline—in terms of size and influence.”

    I believe that the label is derived from the East Coast railroads. The New York Central’s, and the Pennsylvania’s mainline tracks running west from New York City, and from Philadelphia. The churches that were built along the mainlines were not Southern Baptist.

    • Roger Olson

      That’s an interesting theory, but I’m not sure about it. The label “mainline” is used for so many things. I remember an old gospel song called “Jesus on the mainline (tell him what you want)” in which “mainline” referred to a telephone connection. “Mainline” usually designates cultural influence when it’s used sociologically but I fear it also functions to put higher value on what it designates–demoting “non-mainline” to things not to be taken as seriously.

  • Dwight Welch

    I’m not sure whether such proposals could work or not, but if they did, the mainline would cease to be the mainline at least as it relates to the theological heritage of the 20th century and I would certainly be one of those forced out of the church because I am in the mainline precisely because of that heritage.

    • Roger Olson

      But my point was that the mainline is dying out–and precisely because of its 20th century theological heritage (or at least how that has been handed down and translated by denominational leaders and pastors).

  • Jay Blossom

    Roger, I think you’re written a fascinating article tackling a giant topic. And, except for your prescriptions at the end, I think I largely agree. But as a member and lay leader in one of those very rare high-church (“Anglo-Catholic”) Episcopal churches that is growing, I can say that we will never adopt what you call “blended worship.” It would completely destroy our identity as a community of faith.

    I also think that liturgical worship and Pentecostal worship are both “emotional” in a way that Reformed worship is usually not. If Pentecostal worship invites worshipers to get outside themselves, liturgical worship invites worshipers to experience sublimity (in the 19th-century sense of that word). It’s multisensory and “beautiful” in a way that evangelical worship almost never is. It rarely “breaks the fourth wall” in the way that evangelical worship often does (“put your hands together and let’s praise the Lord!”).

    There are many ways that I think mainline Protestants should change, but it would be a personal tragedy if liturgical worship morphed into evangelical worship. Where would that leave me and those like me who grew up in evangelical and Pentecostal churches before discovering the beauty and profundity of liturgical worship?

    We don’t all want to be like you. Just as you don’t want to be like us. Can we coexist?

    • Roger Olson

      Of course we can coexist. My comment about blended worship wasn’t prescriptive; I only meant to say that liturgical worship isn’t appealing to most Americans and to hang onto it without some accommodation may hamper mainline vitality.

  • cfreeman

    Thanks Roger. Interesting reflection. Frei did use the phrase you mention, but the exact wording was a “generous LIBERAL orthodoxy.” It was in reference to his colleague, Robert Calhoun, little known outside of Yale University alumni. Calhoun was the turning point in the “Yale theology,” as he represented a retaining of what was good about liberalism and the new of Barth. What Frei hoped to describe was a blend of Christianity Today and Christian Century. A kind of liberal evangelicalism or evangelical liberalism?

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks, Curtis. I thought I read Frei shortening that to “generous orthodoxy” somewhere, but I may be thinking of Bloesch who I also recall using the phrase. I just want people to know Brian McLaren didn’t invent it. I was using it before his book of that title appeared. Calhoun influenced me through his student, my mentor, Niels Nielsen who founded the Religious Studies Department at Rice.

      • cfreeman

        You’re right. Frei did shorten it. McLaren does acknowledge Frei, but you’re probably right that lots of his readers think it’s his own invention. I’ve actually been somewhat disappointed in the appropriation of that phrase by that crowd. They’ve gotten the “generosity” that much of evangelicalism is missing. You’ve pointed this out multiple times recently. But they, to my knowledge, have not paid much of any attention to the “orthodoxy” part.

        Recently one blogger in this group responded to the ESS trinitarian gender hierachicalism by calling it “heretical.” (I do happen to agree with Kevin Giles that ESS is actually TRITHEISM, but that’s another conversation.) Another big voice within the emergents/millennials actually called out the colleague for using the “H” word, implying that it’s really unkind.

        All that may be true. But I guess my point is that generous orthodoxy doesn’t just mean being nice, which it seems is what it often is reduced to. It is, as you have tried to point out, also about attending to the historic faith, in the sort of way that EJ Carnell once did, quite well.

        I’d forgotten that Niels Nielsen was a Calhoun student. He was a really strong presence in Houston when I was there. You may get MEM “Sightings.” It treats this subject and interacts with some of the same literature you cite.

        Elesha Coffman’s new book is worth looking at. She’s a Wacker trained American church historian. Wacker learned his skills from the best historian on the subject, Wm Hutchinson. If you’ve not read it, I’d also suggest Gary Dorrien’s 3 vol history of liberal theology in America.

        Thanks for the musings.

        • Roger Olson

          Dorrien’s three volume history of liberal theology in America is must reading for anyone interested in American religious history and theology. I became acquainted with Dorrien some years ago through the American Theological Society and responded to a paper he gave at one of its meetings. He’s a gentleman and a scholar. His book on evangelical theology is one of the best (The Remaking of Evangelical Theology).

          • cfreeman

            Here’s the sort of example, not the same one referred to above. It is a bit odd, isn’t it, that the author appeals to Moltmann’s commment about Barth as not quite trinitarian enough as a kind of free pass to not be trinitarian at all? It’s pretty hard to imagine that Protestants would be having much of a conversation about this without him, not to mention that Moltmann would probably not have been able to write the Trinity and the Kingdom had Barth not set a trinitarian course in Protestant theology. But it begs the question whether anti-(non?)-trinitarianism qualifies as generous orthodoxy. I have a hard time imagining what orthodoxy even is if it’s not trinitarian.

          • Roger Olson

            I agree, but I tend to view the doctrine of the Trinity as more of a protective device (to protect monotheism and the deity of Jesus Christ) than a datum of revelation. I celebrate the 20th century renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity while believing some take it too far into the realm of speculation. I shy away from attempting to know anything about the immanent Trinity, for example, except that God was and always is triune. I can’t consider someone who blatantly denies any doctrine of the Trinity orthodox. But I view Oneness Pentecostals as simply confused.

          • cfreeman

            Thanks Roger. You’ve answered way more than needed. I do think that most evangelicals and free church Christians balk at language of the immanent Trinity. Because of their focus on Jesus, the Trinity remains almost always economic. This, as you know, can be a good thing, for the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity (Rahner’s rule). Yet the danger, and I don’t think I’m over-stressing here, is that too often the Christocentrism is not trinitarian. There’s an easy slippage to language about “God and Jesus” that’s not even binitarian, but rather unitarian. God is God and Jesus is the son of God. And then it’s a short line to Socinianism. But again, I think I’m probably about where you are on use of the economic language. I’ve been encouraged to see more attention to the Trinity among evangelicals, and even some of us Baptists! Thanks for the good work you’re doing.

          • Roger Olson

            I think we agree about all of this. Scary, isn’t it? 🙂

  • Matt Hedstrom

    Hi Roger and everyone — thanks for sparking a great conversation. I’ll start with a small point regarding the quote of mine that appears in the article, and that is: based just on the quote itself, which is all you had to work with, I agree with you to a large extent. Evangelical and pietist faith (the faith traditions of my own Evangelical Covenant heritage) certainly stress the transformational power of individual experience. But that was one quote out of a 45 minute interview in which I also said all those things. I did stress in the interview, however, that the liberal tradition of Emerson et al. unmoored that emphasis on experience from creeds, sacraments, ritual, and community, and that that process over two centuries is what has most powerfully influenced the culture of spirituality in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I’ll stand by that, and I think that’s what the reporter was trying to convey.

    Which gets me to the larger matter. I think Roger Olson here, and even the author of the NYT piece to a certain degree, miss the larger point that both Hollinger and I are making, in that we focus on culture rather than church. Some of the tone here and in the comments seems defensive because folks seem to think we’re saying the mainline somehow bested evangelicalism, when I don’t think that was the issue at all. I’m saying that liberal religious sensibilities have been more successful in the culture than often acknowledged, and I suggest that this might even be related to evangelical institutional success and mainline decline.

    The headline of this post is therefore quite misleading — I am not talking about mainline vitality, and none of the books mentioned makes a claim for mainline vitality, at least in terms of current church life. I am talking about the cultural success of ideas that flow out of liberal Protestantism and have become a kind of post-Protestant mix of mysticism, psychology, and cosmopolitan interfaith. Some will quickly want to jump to evaluation — good, bad, orthodox, heterodox, success, failure — but I am much more interested in my book in description of what’s actually happened and the cultural dynamics that made it all possible. So my emphasis is on the mechanisms of liberal cultural success rather than on the consequences for churches. Not that church doesn’t matter — it does! says this son and grandson and great-grandson of preachers — it’s just that it’s not what I study or write about in this book.

    Ok, enough. Thanks again for all the thoughtful commentary here.

  • Roger wrote: “The last time old-line Protestant denominations experienced a surge of vitality, an opportunity for real revitalization, it was the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s.”

    I think it was also a real opportunity for charismatic Christianity. After the 60’s and 70’s so much of charismatic Christianity went the way of the prosperity gospel. There was a real opportunity to ground charismatic experience in the larger history and tradition of the church. My favorite book on charismatic theology came out of the Lutheran Renewal movement (WELCOME HOLY SPIRIT, edited by Larry Christenson).

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, I agree. Unfortunately, the prosperity gospel preachers and teachers were able to claim the title “charismatic.” I was there when it happened (teaching theology at ORU.) I always insisted on reserving the word “charismatic” for neo-Pentecostalism within the so-called mainline churches (e.g., North Heights Lutheran in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN).