Last week’s post on the mainline and me generated a big response. I heard from more than a dozen mainline pastors who were receptive and appreciative of the critique and eager to continue the conversation.I also heard from my friend, Aric Clark, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the creative minds behind the blog Two Friars and a Fool. Aric pushed back a little on some of my assumptions in the post, and I’m glad. He offered to share his thoughts in this guest post today.
Aric says he discovered he is religious and not spiritual in a Chan Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. These days he inflicts that religion on a congregation of Presbyterians in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He does this while fathering two wild heathens, writing everything but this week’s sermon, and husbanding the amazing Stacia Ann. He is a world-class Game Master, a pacifist, an over-activist, and a number 8 on the Enneagram. His influences include James Alison, Pomplamoose, Pema Chodron, Iain M. Banks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stephen R. Donaldson, Chipotle chicken burritos, John Howard Yoder, Cowboy Bebop, and the highland bagpipes. He still cannot grow a beard.
When Rachel posted her article 15 Reasons Why I Left Church I was one of those silly mainliners in the comment threads presuming to solve all of her problems by inviting her to attend my church.
Fortunately, she responded with her piece on the Mainline and Me, explaining with her usual honesty and clarity why she hasn’t chosen to make a home in the mainline. She said that whenever she visits a mainline congregation she leaves feeling like something is missing.
To be sure, much of what she said hit the mark. There were countless disenfranchised evangelicals expressing a similar opinion in the comments and, even more tellingly, a lot of mainliners saying they agreed as well. I am writing, not to try to deny the validity of Rachel’s experience or her observations, but to push back on some of the stereotypes of us mainliners.
Consider this a minority report.
Just as Rachel did in her article I will speak in regrettable generalizations. Below I address the things she said she missed in mainline churches:
"I miss the emphasis on cultivating a personal spirituality."
It is true that there is not as much emphasis on personal piety in the mainline. Our preaching, our theology, and our worship are all oriented around systemic and communal spirituality. If you hear someone talking about sin they are more likely talking about big problems like environmental degradation, economic justice, and war, than about issues of personal morality like adultery or gluttony. Our bias just runs that way.
Personally, I’m suspicious of most piety as either being a seedbed of hypocrisy or a distraction from matters of justice. Jesus didn’t have much kind to say about the pre-eminent practitioners of piety in his day - but I also recognize that Jesus prayed in private often and my suspicion is probably unwarranted.
Indeed there has been a significant rise in personal spirituality in the mainline in recent years.Most study groups I encounter would rather be reading Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen than Dominic Crossan. They’d rather pick up Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World than N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God.
"I miss sermons that step on a few toes."
There’s no excuse for a preacher who is afraid to ruffle some feathers. Across the board I wish we had more courageous voices in every wing of Christian practice. It is part of what makes Rachel so admirable - she speaks with humility and conviction.
That said, I think there is most likely a cultural gap here that is going unnoticed. Most mainline preachers I know are quite bold about calling out structural sin or proclaiming gospel truths like Christ’s love for the oppressed, the poor, the victims, and the marginalized. I imagine nearly every mainline pastor reading this has recently preached a sermon which they were nervous about because it challenged the ethics, or the politics, or the culture of their congregation. Speaking for myself I have had many long conversations with parishioners, some which ended well and some which ended poorly, about controversial messages in my sermons.
What is probably true is that mainline preachers are less likely to call individuals out on personal sin, because it is not on our radar, as such.
"I miss the familiarity with scripture and the intensive Bible studies."
Biblical literacy is a big problem in most mainline churches. There is nothing to be said to that, but “Amen.” We need to do a better job of teaching our people the Bible.
At the same time, the mainline is the beating heart of Higher Criticism. Without scholars from the mainline willing to challenge the idea that the Torah was written by Moses, the creation accounts, the Flood, and the Exodus may not have been historical events etc... modern Biblical scholarship as we know it wouldn’t exist. All of the modern translations, commentaries, and interpretations owe a huge debt of gratitude to the spirit of rigorous intellectual honesty that the mainline is primarily responsible for cultivating.
In my congregation we employ Historical Critical Method in our Bible studies. Our people wrestle with the origins, the politics, and the historicity of every text. They are free to express their doubts and their confusion. In three years we have studied the entire Old Testament book by book and the Gospels and will begin studying the Letters of Paul next. They may not be able to quote chapter and verse, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are wrestling with the Bible in an intense way.
"I miss that evangelical fire-in-the-belly that makes people talk about their faith with passion and conviction."
This is the most oft-repeated criticism of mainliners so I have saved it for last. Ever self-deprecating we Presbyterians even call ourselves “the Frozen Chosen”. Many who come to our worship from an Evangelical background find it sedate. You won’t find many praise hands, and there will be even fewer shouts of “Amen” or “Preach” from the gallery. Many mainliners choose not to speak of their faith very often in public. These stylistic, but not in my opinion substantive, differences give rise to the charge that we are lukewarm.
I think it is misplaced.
Over 60 years ago when it was still extraordinary for women to work out of the home in this country the mainline was making the theological case for women in ordained ministry against the overwhelming opposition of most Christians throughout history. We have steadfastly maintained that witness and grown better at promoting female leadership in the face of constant criticism and great cost to our congregations and to some individuals. That is not the behavior of people who are dispassionate or wishy-washy.
Moreover, this isn’t unusual for the mainline. We have been deeply involved in movements for abolition, suffrage, civil rights, economic and environmental justice, and now we are at the forefront of the movement in the church for LGBTQ inclusion. Every one of these stands was costly and unpopular. It takes conviction and courage to speak against the culture. It requires a fire in the belly to speak against our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who have often called us heretics and apostates.
I don’t want to exaggerate the influence of the mainline or exclude others who have acted with courage in the Church. It is also true that large swaths of the mainline are fat and happy with the status quo and need a good kick in the rear, but if you want to find a church whose passionate pursuit of Christian justice has been consistent over decades you’d do well to start looking in the mainline.
What do you think? What else might I be missing about the mainline?