Have Mainline Denominations Lost Their Voice?

I was reading Frank Schaeffer’s most recent article on Huffington Post and was stopped in my tracks by these statements:

“Why aren’t the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant and noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale?”

“If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I wanted to shout at my iPad, “Yes, and that is what we are seeing happen in The United Methodist Church when we intentionally reach out to people in our communities.”

If fact, I feel so strongly that mainline denominations have lost their voice in the ongoing media revolution that I recently penned a book called “We Must Speak: Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.

Mainline denominations, each for its own reasons, decided to withdraw from the media in the 1980s, at the same time these media were becoming the most influential shapers of attitudes and values in human history.  Amid a revolution in thought and conversation, many of the mainline churches left their place in the discussion to others.

This retreat has caused faith communities to lose their voice in the ongoing conversations that are shaping moral and ethical values.  The result is disastrous.  It is not merely accidental that an image of God is being projected by some religionists that is judgmental, vindictive and the cause of human suffering.

When the church loses its capacity to engage in conversations about faith, it diminishes its capacity to be relevant in an increasingly secular culture. And we’re seeing how harmful this can be.

The irony is that many young adults are seeking a Christianity that is more progressive, less defined by blue state/red state politics and more concerned with the needs of their community, and re-defining who is our neighbor.  They want to hear about healing, hope and redemption. And they want to act on these values, not just talk about them.

The mainline denominations offer that message and the opportunity to act on it, but without a voice in the media landscape, we are destined to obscurity.

In The United Methodist Church, we are reaching out to young adults through a call to Rethink Church, our invitational media campaign.   We are asking young adults to rethink church, not in terms of what it is, but what it could be.  Not just a place to go, or a particular politics, but rather something we do.  By using a variety of media in partnership with local congregations and general church agencies, we are calling young adults to join us in acts of mission.  In 2011, some 4500 churches mobilized more than 500,000 volunteers, serving 4,000,000 people in 16 countries.  Up to 40% of these volunteers were not members of a United Methodist Church, and through this association were more inclined to visit these churches.

Communicating strategically in the global media environment in which we live today is an act of theology. I think we’re answering Schaeffer’s question and a movement is building, but that he is asking the question means we must do more.

For more information on “We Must Speak” and our voice in the culture, click here.


14 Responses to “Have Mainline Denominations Lost Their Voice?”

  1. william woods March 25, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    The problem is that the mainline churches have lost their authority to speak because they fail to satisfy the spiritual hunger of most of their own people. The clergy of the UMC has been neutered by theological education which dismisses the miraculous (and are as cessationist as the Baptists) and funnels all efforts into the “betterment” of the human condition. Energy is channeled into useless bureaucratic church programs which in turn frustrate the membership. Until the church provides contact with the supernatural it will continue to lose membership while the pentecostal churches (with their conservative political baggage) will continue to thrive.

    • Melanie Stanley-Soulen April 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

      William, I understand what you’re referring to. However, you pain with a broad brush that is glossing over some important truths. Most of my membership growth over the last 6 months (20%) has come from people leaving Baptist, pentecostal type churches who ONLY are in touch with their own personal supernatural experiences. Our rural UM church is vital, vibrant, spirit filled and led. We also care and work for justice, mercy and compassion ministries locally and for the General church. We take the Bible very seriously but not literally….thus we are an open, inclusive congregation that welcomes ALL! It’s an exciting time for us here in one of the poorest counties in central Georgia. God is at work everywhere!

  2. Ken March 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    Thanks for the article. You write, “The irony is that many young adults are seeking a Christianity that is more progressive, less defined by blue state/red state politics and more concerned with the needs of their community, and re-defining who is our neighbor. They want to hear about healing, hope and redemption. And they want to act on these values, not just talk about them.” It is intriguing that you associate “progressive” Christianity with the virtues of greater unity (“less defined by blue state/red state politics”), concern for the world, and action in the world. As a young adult myself, I think that what young people are looking for isn’t necessarily a “more progressive” Christianity, but in fact simply genuine Christianity. In my mind, the two are not always the same–and the former can be, actually, an obstacle to the latter. To what extent would you equate them?

    • LHollon March 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

      Ken, While a label such as “progressive,” as you write, might not be acceptable to everyone, for me Christian faith that supports the value of all persons, the sacredness of human personality, justice for all and compassion is genuine faith. It embodies the teachings of Jesus. It is about following what in the early church was called The Way. That is what I believe results from a commitment to follow Jesus. If progressive is an unacceptable label, I would not push it, but I would say that how we follow Jesus is important, and that involves commitment to spiritual as well as social values. And it means we speak of these values because we are called by God to affirm that God desires for all people and the whole of Creation to flourish.

      • Ken March 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm #


        Thanks for the clarification. My concern is with the use of labels, whether it be “progressive,” “liberal,” “conservative,” or even “mainline” (Scott Kisker, a professor at Wesley Seminary, makes a fascinating argument challenging Methodist association with that last term in his book MAINLINE OR METHODIST? REDISCOVERING OUR EVANGELISTIC MISSION); what concerns me is that labels can be misleading and potentially even divisive. Beyond the label that you use, however, in your reply you clarify the substance of what you have in mind. I agree with you that how we follow Jesus is important, and that holistic discipleship is what we need to pursue. Your appeal to the early church’s understanding of The Way provides a good example, I think, of retrieving from the riches of Christian heritage key principles and commitments for our life today. I personally find the language of retrieval to be helpful because it calls for reclaiming constructively what is central to and distinctive in our tradition–and getting that message out, as you rightly note, is a critical task for us today, for the sake of the world that God so loves.

  3. Victoria Rebeck April 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    It’s about time someone told us to speak up. Most of our churches also need to clarify the message. (Maybe you address this in your book.) I was part of a UMC congregation a few years ago at which a member told a visitor, “You can believe whatever you want here.” Well, a visitor certainly may, but the UMC does have a distinct theology. In many cases, in a rush “not to judge,” we’ve put aside our ability to articulate a distinct theology. We’ve thrown out the baby with the bath water. If we don’t like the way some people express the Good News–maybe it doesn’t sound so good in some expressions–let’s work on a nonreactive articulation. And speak up, indeed!

  4. John Shaver April 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Larry, thanks…it seems in our area faith communities are trying to be like everyone else and in a community of large denominations they don’t even quite know why the do what they do…in terms of baptism, communion, serving, etc. Easter Worship starting on Good Friday (giving cash as prizes for coming to Easter Service, carnival rides, etc.)…I’m finding more and more that when we clarify who we are as United Methodists and that at our core we are Christ Followers who are here to open the doors to ALL people and let Christ do the transforming people are catching the message. It all harkens back to Wesley too one of my favorite quotes, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” —from a sermon in the Works of John Wesley. Thanks again for the great thoughts and conversation.

  5. Bill Frase April 15, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Dear Reverend Hollon,

    Thank you for this article and the book! God is moving powerfully among the people, and I am so excited to see what we will accomplish together when we make serving others more important than serving ourselves! I can’t wait to see what happens when we become more concerned with doing right than with being right.

    Again, thank you!


  6. cc April 22, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    Yes they have lost their voice. Their voice can not be heard because there is nothing the church is saying that is unique or different from the worlds voice. The world and the church sound exactly the same. The UMC is as unstable as the world. Nothing is standing on solid ground. I don’t have to go to church to hear what the UMC is saying. I can watch the evening news and hear the same thing.

    • sheila October 23, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      Ouch! Perhaps you need to seek out a different United Methodist Church, because Jesus sure runs counter to the culture I encounter. But that’s my experience. I hope you find a church home where you can grow and be challenged to live in a new way that’s unique from how “the world” teaches us to live.

    • don October 23, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

      I agree with “cc.” When we’ve been completely co opted by the “tolerant,” “humanistic,” “enlightened” culture, our voice is only an echo.

      Offer them Jesus. If he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.

  7. cody October 31, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Yes, thankfully. A leader in the GBCS recently proclaimed (trying to explain UMC attitudes on abortion)the UMC is a prolife but not a pro-birth church…whatever that means, its typical of the nonsense you’re likely to hear from that and other agencies in the UMC. Also, the political maneuvering at GC to limit impact of African delegates undercuts all the inclusivity talk to an almost comical degree.


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