Mainline Protestantism


As a writer and ordained minister, I am in communication with clergy throughout the United States concerning major developments in their churches.  One pastor of a mainline Protestant church recently informed me that he had been encouraged by an influential member of his congregation to strive for inclusiveness in worship.  The member suggested that the pastor not be reluctant to preach from sources other than the Bible.  The Gita, Koran, and Analects of Confucius are, I guess, something of what he had in mind.

There are admittedly numerous spiritual pathways on which one may journey in this life.  Many of them unquestionably offer the traveler rich insights.  For this reason and others, dialogue between the world's greatest traditions of faith should be encouraged.  The promotion of academic scholarship in world religions is also beneficial.

Yet it is a cardinal mistake for one to assume that all faiths comprise simply alternative routes up the same mountain.  Their worldviews differ from one another.  Distinct mores, traditions, habits, and other aspects of culture are associated with any given faith. Deep conflicts exist between religious traditions. Assuming that syncretizing faith perspectives is a matter that can, or even should, be easily achieved is naïve.

A Christian clergyman should remain true to his biblical and theological commitments.  He should work in support of his own faith.  I do not mean by this that pulpits between churches should never be shared.  Nor am I contending that ecumenical endeavors should be abandoned.  My point is that a Christian minister stands in a broad, but distinct tradition of faith and should never lose sight of this fact.  For him to pay homage in his own corporate worship to Zoroastrianism's Ahura-Mazda or to seek to cultivate in his parishioners the mindset of a Bodhisattva does not speak of broadmindedness, but of spiritual bankruptcy.  Spiritual wisdom is not measured by the fluidity with which one moves horizontally from one world religion to another, but of the vertical understanding of the tradition in which one lives, moves, and has his being.

Mainline Protestantism has, sadly, become a superficial endeavor, in which its clergy often approach even their own faith tradition as a dilettante would and serve up theology cafeteria-style.  "Oh, hey, I think I will take a little of this and some of that, along with a helping of existentialism, process philosophy, Marxism, or feminism."  This red light of bankruptcy is reflected in embarrassing numbers too.  Mainline Protestant churches claimed 29.4 million members in 2008.  This represents a decline in membership of almost 6% from 1990.  Approximately two million members left these churches during the last 18 years. That is not counting the members who are inactive. It seems safe to conclude that mainline Protestantism is on the wane.  Its death is sure to be one of the most remarkable, but anticipated events of the twenty-first century.

Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Disciples churches, to name a few, are desperate for members. These communions are in a pressing financial squeeze.  They nevertheless trudge onward, believing that more of the same uncritical eclecticism is the answer to their woes.  Someone needs to remind them that a sound working definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results.

And what is it that these churches are doing?  They are, more than anything else, accommodating the modes of thought and behavior in popular culture.  Little is expected of a member.  One attends services occasionally, sits back and allows himself to be entertained by a "rocking" praise team, and listens to a sermon filled with bromides and platitudes and guaranteed not to offend.  The closest a minister comes to reality is sharing a story now and again about some racial triumph that occurred 40 or 50 years ago.  How soul-searching and heart-warming!

If a mainline Protestant church desires to be vital, then I suggest that it turn the corner on what we know today of mainline Protestantism.  It must speak to real problems in church and society, and must do so in a straightforward, reasonable, and, yes, loving manner. The emphasis should be on "biblical truth" rather than political correctness.  Spiritual discipline, reflected in a public stand for the world to see, should be expected of members.  Promoting a person to a high office or position of responsibility in the church in order to encourage his or her active involvement should be roundly ridiculed for what it is – a strategy of losers for losers. It is analogous to nominating a person to be a judge in order to encourage him to study the law.  This logic (or illogic) is not just ridiculous, but also blasphemous.

A leading seminary in my own denomination has recently honored the infamous Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pictured above.  One of the denomination's universities has also come close to implementing a proposal to reserve a dormitory for gay students to exercise their lifestyle.  How marvelously progressive!  I am not sure what, if any, holy writ would justify such initiatives, but something from Satanism seems to be appropriate.

July 30, 2009