What ails the mainline? (part the millionth)

A speech Rick Santorum made in 2008 has resurfaced in which he laments Satanic influence on many of the institutions in America. In addition to raising the alarm about the usual bogeyman of liberal academia, he opined that mainline Protestantism “is in shambles [and] gone from the world of Christianity.”

This is of course nothing new, as Sarah Morice-Brubaker pointed out in an article at Religion Dispatches. Mainliners are quite used to hearing from conservatives that they are too liberal, too accommodating to the surrounding culture, and are failing to uphold the integrity of the gospel. The numerical decline of mainline Protestant churches (which include the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is often taken by conservatives as evidence of their slackening faithfulness.

The reality, as usual, is probably a little more complicated. For one thing, mainline churches are experiencing demographic shifts that are affecting pretty much all religious bodies in America, albeit at different rates. Second, numerical success is not necessarily a reliable indicator of theological faithfulness, as any number of suburban megachurches and prosperity-gospel TV ministries prove.

Moreover, the decline of mainline churches is almost certainly due in part to the increasing obsolescence of church membership as a matter of social respectability. Once upon a time, people went to church because that was what respectable, middle-class people (or people aspiring to be respectably middle-class) did. The fact that this expectation has largely vanished, at least in many parts of the country, is, on balance, a good thing. The conflation of Christianity with middle-class respectability is something we’re well rid of.

That said, liberal, mainline churches have plenty of self-inflicted wounds: shallow theology, a lack of economic and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social reform to the exclusion of personal piety and devotion being the ones that spring immediately to my mind. Not all mainline churches have these problems, obviously; but they’re common enough to have become cliches.

Note, though, that none of these are matters of “liberalism” per se. And this is where I agree with Sarah Morice-Brubaker. There are good Christian theological reasons for embracing liberal social and political views. This is what Santorum and other religious conservatives often miss or ignore: the social ethics of liberal Christians, at their best, are motivated by the gospel. In my view, too much mainline preaching and social action fails to make this connection explicit, and mainliners too often surrender the mantle of “orthodox” Christianity to social and political conservatives. But the connection is there.

To the extent that I agree with the conservative critique of mainline Protestantism, it’s that I think mainliners have failed (not always or everywhere, but often enough) to make their churches places where people encounter the holy and loving God of the Bible. When this encounter happens, it often results in radical transformation–both personal and social. But when it doesn’t, the church becomes little more than a social club, an amateur social-service agency, or a political lobbying group.

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2 thoughts on “What ails the mainline? (part the millionth)

  1. Mainline Protestantism has been preaching “Celebrate our diversity!” while somehow remaining over 90% (sometimes over 96%) White amiddmiddle/upper

  2. middle class. Either the programs you’ve spent millions on are designed and administered by complete idiots or you’re just lying and hoping that nobody will call you on it, or just make a few rhetorical calls to “Increase our efforts for justice and inclusion” while everything goes on pretty much as it did before.
    And you wonder why people tune you out? Any other group that said one thing and did nothing would be an even bigger joke-you’re lucky you’re being ignored. You deserve much worse.

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