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Renewing the Mainline

by Thomas C. Reeves


In an important new book about America mainline Protestant churches, historian Thomas C. Reeves points out that these churches are spiritual home to almost one quarter of the American people. They include the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Unites Methodist Church, and the United Church Of Christ. Reeves notes that millions of parishioners have abandoned these churches in disgust. In his book he asks why and writes about what must be done to renew them.--The editors


The plight of the mainline churches has undergone considerable scrutiny in recent years. Partisans have explored a variety of possible explanations, often expressing the desire not only to understand the problems but to rectify them. If the American people have largely lost interest in the history and meaning of denominationalism, there are still many who cherish the traditions of their churches and do not relish their disappearance.

Numerous polls and studies point to an important fact: great numbers of people stay away from churches simply because they do not see them as relevant to their lives. Liberal Protestantism in particular has become so secularized and indistinct that it cannot compete successfully with an abundance of causes and activities that many find more valuable. The great majority of Americans still cling to the Christian faith, or at least a watered-down version of it, but many fail to see good reasons for committing themselves to a mainline church.

Weigh the benefits: Sunday with the family at the beach or in [a mainline church] listening to a sermon on AIDS; working for overtime wages or enduring pious generalities about "dialoging," "inclusiveness," and "sharing and caring"; studying for exams or hearing that the consolations and promises of the Bible are not "really" or "literally" true; entering a race to raise funds for disadvantaged children or sitting through pleas for federal health insurance; shopping at the mall or hearing about the wickedness of anti-abortion demonstrators; reading the newspaper or being harangued about racism and sexism.

The mainline churches? Thousands of their parishes still present the traditional and authentic Christian message. But all too often, believing so little of the orthodox faith, liberal Protestants offer merely what can be found elsewhere in secular society.

So the mainline churches wane--disheartened, aging, increasingly irrelevant, all too often satisfied to serve as a sort of sanctimonious echo of National Public Radio or the left wing of the Democratic Party. For a variety of reasons, many liberal Protestants, especially church leaders, have endorsed a view of reality and a way of life that have helped produce a society that is cracking up. And they have become part of the problem.

The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has written: "the Protestant mainline churches are in acute danger of disappearing. I expect they will disappear if they continue neither to resist the spirit of a progressively secularist culture nor try to transform it." But a commitment to transform and convert must be grounded on something deeper than religious skepticism, moral relativism, and this morning's New York Times (the newspaper and its imitators being liberal Holy Writ).

Here we are at the root of things. The submission of liberal Protestantism to a secular gospel rests upon a failure to accept the essentials of the Christian faith. Alasdair MacIntyre once observed, "Theists are offering atheists less and less in which to disbelieve." The first and most critical step in halting the slide of the mainline churches is the restoration of their commitment to orthodox theology. Everything else depends upon that.

It is also the great stumbling block. To begin with, the recapture of orthodoxy requires faith in an all-powerful God who was and is capable of the miraculous. Christianity without miracles is dead, and its Founder and the Apostles madmen. That is true no matter how many fine paragraphs about "symbolic truth" and the like are spun by seminary professors eager to escape the supernatural.

Many liberals quickly dismiss such a historic and supernatural view of the faith as "archaic," "naive," and the like. The German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, for example, considered such an approach sheer folly. Bultmann, who had a huge following among American biblical scholars after World War II, claimed that virtually nothing reliable could be known about Jesus. He rejected the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, among other things, as primitive nonsense. The early church, in his view, invented most of the sayings ascribed to Jesus. In "demythologizing" the New Testament and translating it into "existential" language, Bultmann sought to make the faith meaningful to modern men and women.

Religious scholars are often loath to lend credibility to the supernatural; it isn't scientific, reputable, sophisticated, progressive. They do not wish to be identified with "foolishness." They reject the idea that people in the first and second century might have better understood the faith than modern liberals. They are often amused by the quantity of belief and trust exhibited by unlettered men and women at any time.

Radical feminists are especially determined to move far beyond the pale of the traditional faith. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, at Harvard Divinity School (where women make up 60 percent of the student body), is one of many scholars at work on a feminist reinterpretation of the New Testament. Prof. Sallie McFague of the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, whose Models of God won the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence in 1988, passionately opposes the masculine imagery of God portrayed in Scripture and wants to get rid of all "our safe havens, called dogmas and orthodoxy." Margaret McManus of the Center for Women and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, California, said in 1992 that women's ordination was just the beginning and that equality was no longer the prime consideration. "The issue is transformation of our religious institutions."

Some years ago, a British evangelical alliance produced a report containing a basic truth that warrants repeating, "In the last analysis there is only one distinction to be made; that is, between those who believe in the essentials of the Gospel and those who do not. This fundamental distinction is drawn sharply in the New Testament, as sharply as the difference between darkness and light, death and life."

It is extremely unlikely that efforts to renew the mainline churches will start from the top down. Meaningful reform will no doubt have to come, as it has in the past, from the rank and file. The "faithful remnant," described in Scripture consists of those who will not kneel to Baal or to any other substitute for the One at the heart of existence. These believers will face, as always, great labor, frustration, and persecution; the latter often coming at the hands of fellow Christians who claim to be tolerant and inclusive.

Few, if any, basic compromises may be expected in the struggle. To simplify only slightly, the clash is between two fundamentally different views of life; one based on the supernatural and the other on humanity itself. One is rooted in the gospel, the other in modernity. We are either under the guidance of a living and loving God who has revealed himself to us and has told us, at least in general terms, how to live and die, or we are alone on an indifferent and dangerous planet, forced to devise truth for ourselves.

There is good reason to be pessimistic about the ability of orthodox mainliners to reform their denominations. The laity, however conservative, remain largely uninformed and uninterested. Clergy, formed by the seminaries, often ambitious, and eager to avoid clashes with feminists and other strident members of their congregations, tend to conform to liberal demands.

It is too early to forecast the fate of the mainline churches with any certainty. They may, of course, be renewed. But there are at least two other possibilities. Plans are underway, under the banner of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), to unite mainline churches in a loose sense (there will not be a merger of existing organizations) early in the next century. Should that happen, in what one wag has called the mating of dinosaurs, the denominations might remain as they are, continuing to shrink individually but together appearing, at least for a time, large and influential. In the new alliance, further shifts to the left can be expected as church bureaucrats strive for authority, commensurate with larger membership numbers.

The United Church of Christ (UCC), for one, is determined that the new "Churches in Covenant Communion" will carry its ideological banners. The Twentieth Synod of the UCC, meeting in the summer of 1995, approved the COCU proposal but stated that the UCC would not be compelled to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (a "sexist" formulary). The United Church of Christ also appended to its acceptance a note stating that the ordination of gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons was a gift the UCC was bringing to COCU.

When John Henry Newman led an effort in the early nineteenth century to revive the Church of England spiritually, it is said that he placed these words beneath a picture of Oxford University hung in his room, "Can these dry bones live?" That is precisely the question we must ask of the liberal Protestant churches as we approach a new millennium.

To survive and prosper as Christian churches, the mainline denominations need to rethink and redesign their current operation in numerous ways. To begin with, there must be a greater emphasis on theological orthodoxy, an openness to the spiritual power promised in Scripture and amply described by saints throughout church history. Without such a commitment, renewal will be impossible.

Renewed mainline churches must be active, missionary-minded, demanding, disciplined, distinctive. Informed faith, personal holiness, and social concern should be top priorities; pathways to the eternal life that is, after all, the very point of our existence. If the faith be true, C.S. Lewis reminds us, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

As we have seen, there are critics of the mainline churches who predict their demise. David Mills, a resistance leader in the Episcopal Church, has written, "Barring divine intervention on a scale not seen since the parting of the Red Sea, they will predictably and inevitably collapse." Mills sees their mortal illness as part of a larger picture of the decay of Christendom in the West, stemming from the collapse of shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions about the nature of truth.

There is indeed cause for pessimism. But in my judgment, the possibility of self-transformation remains alive. If enough mainliners become sufficiently informed and concerned, I believe, they have a chance of reviving and invigorating their churches. With determination and energy, for example, elections can be won. Liberals, let us remember, are a minority--a fact they prefer to conceal. Zealous leftists who took over several labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s were eventually ousted by the rank and file (to be sure, with the help of the United States Congress). In the mainline, a full-scale struggle would be fierce, and the orthodox forces would have to be much larger and more committed than they are now. David Mills reminds us that in the mainline "liberals inevitably fight longer and harder and yell louder than orthodox believers, who have better things to do, like care for their families and evangelized the lost."

Liberal bureaucracies can be dismantled. The most effective way to achieve this is through the power of the purse strings. That process is already underway, as we have seen, as laity leave and reduce their pledges. One way to stop the flow of liberal propaganda from headquarters is to make it too expensive to publish.

The process of finding and electing orthodox leaders can be hastened by the protestations and selective donations of concerned clergy and laity. A determination by enough church members not to fund the promoters of heresy, immorality, and general kookiness could have a profound impact. Failing that, new seminaries can be founded.

Renewed mainline churches would be vital and vigorous, commanding the loyalty, obedience, respect, and self-sacrifice of orthodox Christians. That vision might inspire the majority of mainliners to go to work to save their spiritual homes. But it might also fail to be grasped, permitting the liberal Protestant churches to proceed on their steady slide toward complete irrelevance.


Thomas C. Reeves

is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

From The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity by Thomas C Reeves. Copyright 1996 by Thomas C. Reeves.

Reprinted by arrangement with The Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.


The above article is reprinted with permission from Good News Magazine, May/June 1997 Issue, Volume 30, Number 6

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