Mainline on the Margins

The Mainline denominations were once at the
center of the national dialogue, especially during the Civil Rights era and
during the Vietnam War. Today they are relegated to the margins, and lack of
media savvy is one reason.

More people
rely upon
media for
than attend
church on
–Barna Group

More people rely upon media for spiritual information than attend church on Sunday. The Barna Group has completed a nationwide survey that finds that 56% of adults attend church services in a typical month and a significantly larger number report they rely on various media to get spiritual information.

A study recently published by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership compared references to four mainline denominations–Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian–in the New York Times between 1922 and 2002. Mention of the denominations declined dramatically over the 80-year period. Institutional news about the inner workings of the denominations dropped from 85% of total coverage of these mainline groups in 1922 to 4% in 2002. This pattern reflects diminishing coverage overall. Authors David Schoeni and Lovett H. Weems, Jr., write that “mainline denominations are no longer at the center of the national “public square” but seem to have moved to the margins of public discourse…today’s mainline denominations are best known for their influential role in the past.”

are no longer
at the center
of the national
“public square”
but seem to
have moved to
the margins of
public discourse
–Schoeni & Weems

It’s a frustrating paradox to some that the marginalization of the mainline has occurred at the same time the evangelical right was ascending. The public dialogue has been dominated in recent years by more aggressive and media savvy evangelical leaders who have made it their mission to get their agenda before the public and political leaders.

There is no single cause and no simple reason for the lowered visibility of the mainline groups. Several factors combine to create this result.

I wrote in an earlier post how public policy limited access to broadcast media. This was especially damaging to mainline groups that had relied upon public access programming to reach mass audiences.

today’s mainline
are best known
for their
influential role
in the past
–Schoeni & Weems

The mainline was never able to compete in the deregulated marketplace. The VISN Channel, an ecumenical cable network, attempted to operate as a non-profit organization in a market-driven cable television industry that was increasingly profit-oriented and keenly competitive. This failed. Eventually, VISN sold its network holdings to Hallmark and today its successor, Faith and Values, is content to produce an occasional drama or documentary but neither contribute significantly to the public dialogue.
In addition, in the 1970s some mainline leaders made a conscious decision to disengage from the public media and to decrease funding for media production, a process that continues to the present time. Communication has not generally been viewed as an expression of the mission and ministry of denominations. It’s been seen as a tool to distribute messages for fundraising and public relations; that is, until public relations got a bad name and this resulted in even more retrenchment.

Generations that have matured in an electronic environment are bemused to learn that there was also a debate some years ago about the value of print over electronic media. Electronic media were considered inferior in content and rigor. Therefore, educational models continued to rely on print curriculum in the churches even as the wider culture moved to electronic and digital media, and appropriated it with great enthusiasm.

Likewise, popular culture was regarded as low-brow and unworthy of serious analysis. Popular culture shapes attitudes and reflects concerns and values of people in the society. Theology need not affirm the excesses, abuses and superficialities of popular culture to analyze it and understand how and why certain cultural expressions appeal to the inner space of youth and adults who participate in it. But this idea is almost heretical for some in academia.

As a result, this lack of mainstream involvement with media results in more than merely falling behind in technology. It also results in a gaping hole in meaningful analysis and understanding of media. Seminarians in mainline denominations were not trained to analyze electronic media and the popular culture until a few seminaries began to recognize this gap only recently.

The work of cultural critique and media analysis has fallen into disrepute. James Wall, William F. Fore, Martin Marty and Tex Sample gained international stature and influence by bringing theological critique to media analysis. Edwin C. Parker connected media access to justice from a theological base and was influential in shaping public policy. While these pioneers continue to work, some in retirement, no one today in the mainline seminaries, nor other entities, demonstrates their understanding of media, culture, theology or public policy.

In fact, the most common response from mainline academics to popular culture and digital and electronic media has not been informed critique, it has been criticism from a distance. It has reinforced the disengagement of the mainline from the culture and contributed to the marginalization of the mainline voice.

The evangelical right, on the other hand, has not only been quick to utilize new technologies. It has also been attentive to reading the culture and formulating messages that resonate with the inner yearnings revealed by cultural expressions. Like it or not, this engagement has meant evangelical Christians have been doing theology in the culture and in the process, have found their voice.

While they represent a small minority (Barna says 7% of the U.S. population), they exert considerable influence on how Christians are perceived in the public mind and they have gained significant influence on public policy in recent years.

Today the mainline community finds itself in the unenviable position of lacking the savvy (the exception being Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches) to engage in the dialogue that is shaping public policy and unprepared to effectively communicate on a sustained basis in public venues to influence social values. There is a decided lack of passionate theological motivation to engage the culture through digital and electronic media, and no theoretical framework from which this engagement would be understood as a legitimate expression of mission.

The tragedy is, this is occurring at a time when more people are turning to media to get the information they use to try to understand their spiritual yearnings. Moreover, new media are proliferating and these media help to form perceptions and inform values. They offer an ever-increasing field of opportunity to engage in two-way dialogue and communicate important messages.

The new media provide the mainline with new opportunities to re-engage. Some have even attempted to enter the old, traditional public media through advertising and they have benefitted from increased visibility as a result. The United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA have all conducted, or will conduct soon, public media campaigns.

The use of blogs, Internet meeting sites, targetted e-mail, information websites and a host of other media provide the means to share information and to interact in meaningful ways. They offer one more chance to move from the margin and get back in the conversation. The larger question is, “Will they take up the challenge?”

(note: The following posts in this series are:
Reflecting on Digital Empowerment
New Media, New Journalism
A Mediated Culture of Sadism
Out of Sight, Out of Credibility

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