The Mainline and Me

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Church steps and doors' photo (c) 2010, Kevin Dooley - license:

 I never expected my posts “15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” to make such waves, but I’m still hearing from people who loved them, people who hated them, people who resonated with them, and people incredibly frustrated by them. 

One of the most common responses I’ve received has come from members of "mainline" Protestant churches.  (Progressive Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, etc.) “Oh you just need to find yourself a good mainline church,” they say. “Your problems are with evangelical Christianity. We’ve been politically diverse, accepting of science, and supportive of women in leadership for years now.” 

 Indeed many disenfranchised evangelicals have found happy homes in mainline churches.

Over at iMonk last week, Chaplain Mike wrote a lovely post about how, after a period of wandering through the denominational wilderness, he found a home in an ELCA Lutheran church “with a simple liturgy, wonderful music, a healthy and grounded pastor, a hospitable congregation, and an emphasis on Christ, grace, vocation, and other Lutheran essentials that answered questions I had been turning over in my mind for years in my evangelical settings.” 

“Though I recognize my debt to evangelicalism and am grateful for what God has taught me on the journey,” writes Mike, “coming back to a mainline church for me means coming home. I’ve found my oasis. I don’t hesitate to call myself a mainline Christian.”

Mike points to several of his friends who experienced a similar transition—including Robert Webber(author of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church),Diana Butler Bass (author of Christianity For the Rest of Us: How The Neighborhood Church is Transforming Faith), and Tod Bolsinger, (who wrote an open letter explaining why he plans to stay in the PCUSA church).  

He also points to Frank Schaeffer, who wrote this in an article for the Huffington Post:

I’ve been speaking at many small colleges that have historical ties to the oldest mainline denominations in the U.S. I have been noticing something interesting: a terrific hunger for a deeper spirituality on the part of many young people who come from evangelical backgrounds like mine and also like me are looking for something outside of the right wing conservatism they come from.

I’ve also noticed that while some people in the so-called emergent evangelical movement are reaching out to these young people the leaders of the mainline denominations both locally and nationally often seem blind to a huge new opportunity for growth and renewal staring them in the face. That new opportunity is the scores of younger former evangelicals diving headlong out of the right wing evangelical churches.

…I don’t get it. Where is everyone? Why is the “emergent” evangelical church reinventing a wheel that’s been around for centuries? And why aren’t the mainline churches letting us know they are there?

…If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I think both Mike and Frank are on to something. 

I’ve often been asked to speak to leaders of mainline churches on the topic of young people leaving the church. When I go through David Kinnaman’s research, which reflects just about every concern I express in my “15 Reasons” posts—(young people are leaving the church because they believe it is too exclusive, too combative with science, hyper-political, out-of-touch when it comes to sexuality, and an unsafe place in which to wrestle with doubt)—I am often met with blank stares. 

“But we’re avoiding all of those pitfalls,” these leaders finally say. “We’re inclusive. We avoid talking politics. We’re not judgmental. We care for the community. Why aren’t all these disenfranchised evangelicals flocking to us?” 

“Well when was the last time you talked about why you are inclusive, why you embrace science, why you care for the poor, and why you avoid aligning yourself with one political party?” I ask. “When was the last time you engaged in a serious, church-wide Bible study or launched a series on the spiritual disciplines? Evangelicals are used to being intensely engaged in their faith.  If they don’t sense that your church offers them a safe place to wrestle and grow, they won’t come at all. ” 

I speak from my own experience, because, while there is much I love and appreciate about mainline denominations, when I visit, I always leave feeling like something’s missing. 

I miss that evangelical fire-in-the-belly that makes people talk about their faith with passion and conviction. 

I miss the familiarity with scripture and the intensive Bible studies. 

I miss the emphasis on cultivating a personal spirituality. 

I miss sermons that step on a few toes. 

I am speaking in gross generalizations herebut in my experience, going from evangelicalism to the mainline can feel a bit like jumping from one extreme to the other:

While evangelicals often adopt a narrow, literalist view of Scripture that borders on bibliolatry, I’ve spoken with mainliners who admit that they are embarrassingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible. (One woman told me that the only parts of Scripture she recognizes are those found in her hymnal, that she didn’t know the difference between Psalms and Proverbs, and that she was shocked to learn that some of her favorite liturgy was taken directly from the Bible.)  

While evangelicals carry the unfortunate reputation of being married to the Republican party, mainliners are missing a great opportunity to talk about what it means to pledge one’s allegiance first and foremost to the Kingdom of God.

While some evangelicals avoid making justice a centerpiece of their mission for fear of looking too “liberal” (though I think this is improving), many mainliners fail to explain the religious motivation behind their acts of mercy. (One young woman from a mainline church put it this way: “I wasn’t learning anything about justice or creation care in church that I wasn’t learning in school. In fact, when talking about justice, my pastor was more likely to quote Gandhi than Jesus. So why would I bother going to church?”)

While evangelical pastors may care too little about who they offend, mainline pastors may care too much, to the point that they are afraid to say anything of substance. 

While young people may be afraid to share their doubts and questions in evangelical churches for fear of judgment and condemnation, they may be just as afraid to share their doubts and questions in mainline churches because no one seems to be talking about those issues! 

Again, my apologies for speaking in such general terms.

The mainline church family is obviously incredibly diverse, and there are many mainline churches doing an excellent job of reaching out to evangelicals, so we have to find a balance between observing trends and painting with a broad brush. 

One of my favorite churches in the country—Missiongathering in San Diego—is a Disciples of Christ church that has managed to attract throngs of young people by fostering a community that is diverse, inclusive, biblically literate, spiritually connected, appreciative of both liturgy and contemporary worship, and absolutely bursting at the seams with grace.  Mainline churches looking to retain and attract young people, particularly “homeless” evangelicals like myself, would do well to look to Missiongathering as a model, for, at least from my perspective, they have managed to combine all that is great about the mainline with all that is great about evangelicalism into one faith community. They aren’t perfect, of course. But when I’m in San Diego, that church feels a lot like home. 

So, what has your experience with mainline churches been like? Am I being unfair? This post is simply meant to start a now it's your turn!

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