The Myth of Mainline Death

There’s been a long history of prophesy that
mainline religious denominations are in a death spiral. I don’t buy it. I see
too much vitality and energy to believe in the dire predictions of
demise.

If you believe the media reports and listen to the voices of church renewal consultants you’d think the mainline denominations are about to topple off the edge. Lyle Schaller writes that the ice cube–The United Methodist Church–is melting. He makes a case that the denomination is shrinking and lays out several reasons why.

What’s interesting is this: 26,000 local congregations have attended training sessions to become more welcoming and hospitable to newcomers, there’s been a 19% increase in first time worship attenders in the last four years, the denomination has won a significant dispute with Reuters allowing it to advertise in Times Square, membership decline has slowed–not halted–but slowed, giving has actually been increasing for a decade, and the church is engaged in a lively, sometimes fractious debate about significant moral issues.

Does that sound like a death rattle? Or is it a vigorous community struggling to determine its identity and direction under new circumstances in the culture?

The research we’ve done at United Methodist Communications presents a far more complex and hopeful future than most analysts present.

It’s consistent with research reported in Chasing Down a Rumor: The Death of Mainline Denominations, by Robert Bacher and Kenneth Inskeep.

Research we’ve done at UMCom says that people seeking spiritual meaning and purpose want to connect with a community of like-minded people who make a difference in the world, who offer acceptance and support for all persons, who care about families and proffer guidance in parenting, who see the world in holistic view and who maintain an open mind to contemporary issues.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s also a clear indication that for many in this society a closed attitude about moral and spiritual issues is a turn-off. That’s consistent with the experiences that The Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners reports in his book tours around the U.S. It’s an indication that there is a yearning for community and for a moderate middle that is inclusive, even if we must live in a society that systematically undermines community with messages of consumption that denigrate moral values and concern for others.

The mainline denominations simply haven’t found the way to communicate their commitment to these basic principles that are deeply rooted in Christian community. But many are trying. None is turning away from the culture, nor turning its back on searching people. We may not have the perfect plan, but we’re a long way from disengaged or unconcerned.

In fact, in the late 1800s Methodist circuit riders went where the people were and communicated their understanding of the gospel in language that the people understood. It wasn’t classical European theology, to be sure, but it was effective in building communities of concern and compassion that resulted in colleges, universities, hospitals, and local congregations in tough frontier towns, and these became significant institutions in the infrastructure of this nation. Many of these became the foundation for the “American community” ideal, in the words of Bacher and Innskeep, that fuelled social movements for public health, public education, social security and civil rights, movements for social justice. These were about creating inclusive communities.

Today, the church is still walking in the path of the circuit riders adapting to new social contexts. By taking its message to people through electronic and digital media, it is extending an invitation to people to participate in an inclusive community. We’re still living and acting in the tradition of the circuit riders by going where the people are and speaking in language that makes the gospel accessible.

I don’t think we do enough. I don’t think we reach everyone we should. I wish we were better at the meeting the challenge. I wish we lived up to that tradition in much more aggressive and accepting ways than we do.

But I’m glad we’re doing what we’re doing and I’m even proud that the church has the steel to call itself a people of open hearts, open minds and open doors, and then to work to embody those words.

Every now and then I get my fill of the carping, nastiness and analysis that proclaims the demise of the mainline and and critiques its theological stances, which are many and varied.

But then, I think, this self-critique, reflection, critical analysis and forward-looking reform is what keeps the church dynamic and creative, and alive.

I think it’s the spirit of Christ who, when asked by a seeker what he must do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25-37), said that he must love God and love his neighbor as himself. Then he taught the story we know as “The Good Samaritan” which is about compassion and service to those who are not of our own community. It’s clearly a story about inclusive community, among other things.

I’m glad I’m not part of a community that is insisting on adherence to absolute dogma that allows no room to breathe, looks backward to what was and has no capacity to look to the unknown future and dream of what might be. That’s not who we are now, and I hope we don’t go down that road.

What I read into the research I’m seeing is this:

  • people seeking deeper spiritual connections yearn for a community of support. As the materialism of this culture undermines our values and our community life, as Rabbi Michael Lerner contends (in the podcast attached to the post preceding this one), the need for a caring community only intensifies.
  • people want something to commit their lives to, and that something must be worthy of, and bigger than, a mere passing fad. We want substance and depth, even if we can’t quite articulate it in these terms.
  • people want meaningful engagement. In a world that gives us “bread and circuses,” (make that entertainment that is superficial and fleeting) we want more that is purposeful and meaningful.
  • people want affirmation and acceptance. When the messages of the material culture attempt to manipulate us by playing on our fears, undermining our self-confidence and promising us more than it can deliver, we are left with a desire for something authentic, affirming and fulfilling.

To sum it up, I think people who are searching for meaningful spiritual encounters are looking for inclusion, not exclusion; community, not individualism; meaning in complexity, not moral absolutes.

They’re searching for what mainline congregations can offer them, if we find a way to communicate clearly and if we live out the promise authentically. We can do that. And that’s why, along with Bacher and Innskeep, I don’t buy the myth of the demise of the mainline.

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