Mainline Protestant Church

Mainline Death or Revival?

on February 3, 2016

Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes, former pastor of evangelical-leaning National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., urges in Christian Century that Mainline Protestants stop obsessing over their decline.

Most of the people who used to fill the pews of the mainline congregations long ago decided that the church has little relevancy to their souls, which are worn down by work, family, and a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams. They didn’t leave in a huff. They didn’t nail up 95 theses that called for reform. They wandered away and found that a Sunday morning spent with the New York Times or cheering for a child’s soccer game came closer to a sabbath than what they found in a sanctuary.

True enough. Barnes adds:

Little good comes from getting fixated on the empty pews. The mainline Protestant church has to stop fretting about its future. The anxiety takes up the air and leaves the church too lethargic to offer anything to the world. The alternative response is for the church to do what it’s always done at its best, what it did from the beginning: stop thinking about its future and sacrifice itself to its mission.

But what is the Mainline church’s mission? Barnes doesn’t really say, and neither typically does the Mainline church in any compelling way. Instead, he notes that Christianity has been remarkably resilient over 2000 years:

Historically, every time we landed in the ditch, as the mainline church has done today, Christ pulls us out and invites us again to lose our lives to find them.

True, but there’s no pledge from Christ, who promised that The Church will prevail, that Mainline Protestantism will necessarily have any future. There are plenty of Christian movements in particular times and places that have whithered and perished. Mainline Protestantism may have served its purpose across four centuries in America and will just fade into obscurity, leaving behind beautiful sanctuaries and lots of wonderful memories of momentous spiritual, cultural and social accomplishments.

Barnes cites growing evangelical churches but seems skeptical that their often market-driven schemes can graft onto Mainline congregations, which will lose their identity in the process. He might be right. And he concludes:

It’s a tragic irony for the mainline church to be anxious about its future when we are supposed to be a people who have already given up our lives. The church belongs to Jesus, and its future is in his hands. Fretting about the viability of our denominations only distracts us from the only thing that has ever given us purpose—keeping up with Jesus.

But who is Jesus and how does the church keep up with Him? The conservative critique of Mainline Protestantism is that, after a century of theological liberalism and a half century of membership decline, it cannot articulate a compelling reason to inspire the once multi-generational loyalties that cleaved to particular denominational traditions across decades and centuries. Why should anyone today give up Sunday morning much less commit their souls to the spiritual opaqueness that characterizes much of Mainline Protestantism?

Mantras about inclusiveness or humanitarianism or community building cannot energize any human institution, much less denominations that have lost one-third to over one-half their memberships.

Barnes seems to evade admission of what happened to sideline the Mainline and seems to counsel a form of continued denial. Meanwhile his own Presbyterian Church (USA) under its current rate of decline won’t exist in 20 years except as empty buildings with endowments.

Generic Evangelicalism in America is often thin, and much of it, often beholden to charismatic or strong personalities, may not be long sustainable. Mainline Protestantism’s rich traditions that allowed it centuries of evangelistic, culture shaping vitality could teach a lot to post-denominational Christianity. But the Mainline can teach little, nor can it survive, if it does not rediscover the core beliefs and practices that so long animated its unique, compelling presentation of Christ.

  1. Comment by Andreas Kjernald on February 3, 2016 at 2:40 am

    In other words, just let it die.

  2. Comment by M Didaskalos on February 4, 2016 at 5:51 am

    “Spiritual opaqueness” isn’t what’s wrong with the moribund branches of mainline Protestantism: the member-hemorrhaging ELCA, UCC, PCUSA, and Episcopal churches most notably.

    Heresy and apostasy are what’s wrong with mainline Protestantism. They’re preaching a different “Jesus,” a different “gospel,” and a church convention-bowdlerized, world-kowtowing “Bible.”

    Failing repentance from man-made doctrines that make the Word of God to no effect and that point men and women toward damnation, not salvation, mainline Protestantism deserves extinction.

  3. Comment by Ditto Fumehuffer on February 4, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Check the recent numbers for Catholicism in the US. It’s losing members even faster than mainline Protestantism:

  4. Comment by Jennifer P on February 4, 2016 at 7:08 am

    People are walking away from Mainline Protestantism because they no longer find Christ there. That’s because Mainline Protestants have essential stopped believing Him. They have rejected Biblical morality.

    Jesus taught us: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:17 ESV). Mainline Protestantism now rejects this. All are welcome and should be welcome, but there should also be a call to people to repent of their sin and reform their lives. People need to be told that some life paths (“choice”, all sex outside marriage (heterosexual and homosexual, etc.) lead to destruction and they should not be followed.

    Oh,and btw, look at the Catholics. They, too, are divided. Parishes and dioceses long led by liberal priests and bishops are empty and have low attendance rates. But the ones that focus on good worship and solid Biblical teaching are full and growing.

  5. Comment by Ditto Fumehuffer on February 4, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    I have a little bit of a different take. I think at least some of the people who are leaving are exactly those people who never had Christ to begin with. My experience is that it’s the more orthodox who are maintaining fidelity at the local church level. The wheat is being separated from the chaff, so to speak, and we just need for that shift to work its way up to the leadership. I think that’s already beginning to happen in the Methodist church, with explosive growth occurring in the more theologically orthodox African churches and the biggest declines occurring in liberal churches in the US Northeast and Pacific regions. Within 20 years, African membership in the UMC will outnumber US membership.

  6. Comment by Arbuthnaught on February 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

    There are enough examples of mainline churches that are doing quite well that have adhered to historic and orthodox Christianity to show the way. Craig Barnes need only look at his own denomination, the PCUSA, and the large congregations that USED to be in it to see successful models. The problem is that those who need to study those examples and what really makes them work,, ie adherence to historical Christian doctrines first and foremost, are the least likely to take the examples and understand them or apply them. The PCUSA seminaries are also temperamentally unfit to understand or apply the lessons of successful models. One might ask Craig Barnes if 10 denominational seminaries will be needed when the PCUSA membership implodes to a rump of 300,000 or less because those same seminaries are turning out ideological quadriplegics. Hard to think of a better example of a negative feedback loop.

  7. Comment by polistra24 on February 4, 2016 at 9:16 am

    It’s simpler than theology or morality. Just a question of availability.

    People who want Caitlyn Jenner can find her/him/it in all sorts of places. She/he/it is EVERYWHERE. They don’t need to find her/him/it in a church.

    People who want genuine religion CAN’T find it anywhere but a genuine church. It’s not just hard to find; it’s ILLEGAL and dangerous outside of real churches.

  8. Comment by Phil Mitchell on February 4, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Thomas Reeves said it well a generation ago in his book, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity. He says that the hardest question for the mainline, oldline denominations to answer is “What’s the point?” I know Reformed Judaism has been caricatured this way but aren’t the mainliners just the Democratic party with holidays?

  9. Comment by Ella Pauline on February 4, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    A view from the UMC pew: It was three books by Barnes that rescued me when things crashed and burned in the most spectacular fashion; in them, Barnes met me where I was in my life and in my relationship with the church; he told me what I was feeling; gave no easy answers; but this Presbyterian finally introduce me to a God worth worshiping; I finally found myself standing in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace. It is the part about introducing people to a God worth worshiping where American mainline protestant Christianity, including the United Methodist Church, has fallen off the rails. And in his books, particularly “Sacred Thirst” and “Body & Soul”, Barnes pulls no punches when he identifies that, at best mainline Protestant Christians in America are in arrested development. But, as far as I am concerned, it is the following quote from “Divine Intentions” by Larry Shallenberger that sums it all up very nicely: “Much has been written about how the church has become unintelligible to the surrounding world. The church has responded by changing its liturgy, music, and preaching styles. The church has adopted marketing models and business models in an attempt to reinvent itself. These efforts are necessary and frequently positive, but ultimately inadequate. The church is unintelligible to the world because, in the final analysis, it has become unintelligible to its own members. We’ve envisioned the church as everything that it’s not: a program, a building, an institution, the source of fire insurance, a curriculum dispenser, a moral watchdog, a guardian of heritage, or a self-help group. A self-destructive instinct leads us to conceptualize the church, and ultimately Christianity, as anything other than a relationship with God and his people.” Wake up United Methodist Church! You are in existence because John Wesley did such an amazing job of connecting people to a God worth worshiping and then to each other. But The UMC is currently a long way off from being able to do that because it is way too busy “fiddling with its own limitations” to even realize it does not have the first thing needed: a robust message that introduces people to a God worth worshiping; a message about God that, as John Wesley states it, leaves people “amazed and humbled into the dust at the love of God in Christ Jesus” for them!

  10. Comment by BJ on February 4, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    “Mantras about inclusiveness or humanitarianism or community building cannot energize any human institution, much less denominations that have lost one-third to over one-half their memberships.”

    Mr. Tooley, I love your thoughts, and I know your heart is in the right place, but if there was ever a good description of your United Methodist Church, this quote is it.

    It is time to call it, and move on.

  11. Comment by virginiagentleman on February 11, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    One thing the church is NOT: the U. N.’s Milliennium Goals! Another thing the church is NOT: a ’cause of the week’ club akin to the Kiwanis Club with robes and candles.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.