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.