5 Ways Progressive Mainline Churches Can Welcome Disenfranchised Evangelicals

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’ve never considered denominationalism a bad thing. I like to think of the various Christians traditions as different facets of a diamond refracting the same light, or as workers tending to a shared garden but with unique tasks, or as a single body made of many interconnected parts (see 1 Corinthians 12). No single group owns the copyright to Truth, and we need one another. 

There is much to love about evangelicalism, but lately I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from disenfranchised evangelicals who, after a break from church, are looking to return. Many hope to find a place in a more progressive tradition, but feel a bit disoriented their first time in an Episcopal Church or at a PCUSA coffee hour.  In addition, when I travel, I meet many progressive ministers who are eager to welcome new people to their churches. So with all that in mind, here are some ideas for helping those evangelical visitors feel more at home: 

1. Update your Web site. 

Disenfranchised evangelicals aren’t looking for a highly-produced show. They aren't looking to be impressed by the latest and greatest technology. (They’ve had enough of all that, trust me.) They are, however, looking for your address. And maybe a belief statement of some sort.  

Millennials in particular tend to start their search for anything—be it a church or an apartment or even a date— on the Internet, so if your site is difficult to navigate and embarrassingly out-of-date, they may not bother to come for a visit. I also appreciate it when a church’s Web site includes information about beliefs, ministries, worship, ministerial staff, educational programs, etc.  And if your church is located in a more conservative area (say, East Tennessee), you might even want to make special note of the fact that you welcome LGBT people and affirm women in ministry. 

Just keep in mind that often our first "visit" to your church is via the Web site. So it might be worth putting some extra time and resources into it. 

2.  Take risks on unconventional church plants. 

In my next book, I feature several unusual church plants that are thriving in their communities, and many are associated with mainline Protestant denominations that were willing to take a risk on unconventional models. One such church is St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn—a small “dinner church” centered around the Eucharist as both a sacred ritual and a meal. St. Lydia's is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. 

Another church that comes to mind is Missiongathering in San Diego, which is associated with the progressive denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but which has a very evangelical “feel” to its worship because it attracts a lot of folks who come from evangelical traditions and enjoy evangelical worship but are looking for a church that welcomes LGBT people. I think too of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, also associated with the ELCA.  

I’m no expert on church planting, but what these churches seem to have in common is a pastor with a vision for ministering in a unique way to a specific group of people in a specific neighborhood, partnering with a denomination that can help with resources and accountability. These days, it’s less about getting people to come to you and more about going out, serving the people, and then letting them build the church together. 

3.  Infuse the traditional liturgy and sacraments with some creativity. 

A lot of disenfranchised evangelicals like me are drawn to the beautiful and ancient liturgy of more traditional churches. For us, it’s a refreshing alternative to the highly-produced contemporary worship services we’ve grown used to (conversely, folks who grew up with more traditional worship may love the contemporary worship of an evangelical church). So you don’t have to replace your smells and bells with electric guitars to welcome evangelicals. But it’s nice to see a little creativity infused into the liturgy.  

House for All Sinners and Saints seems to do this beautifully. On their Web site, they explain:

“We follow the ancient liturgy of the church (chanting the Kyrie, readings from scripture, chanting the Psalm, sermon, prayers of the people, Eucharist, benediction, etc.) We also sing the old hymns of the church. So there's lots of ancient tradition at HFASS, but there's also some innovation. We always include poetry and a time called ‘Open Space’ in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community's Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver. We like to say that we are ‘anti-excellence/pro-participation’, meaning that the liturgy is led by the people who show up…”

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco also takes a creative approach to their traditional liturgy. Check out the worship section of their Web site. 

You don’t have to make any radical changes all at once, or go as far as HFASS and Gregory of Nyssa, but doing things differently now and then actually enriches the inherent beauty of the liturgy and reminds both longtime members and newbies why it's so central and so important to the life of your church.  

4.   Don’t assume we know why you believe what you believe, or why you do what you do. 

The other day I had a conversation with a young woman who grew up Methodist. She explained to me that when she went to college and began attending a conservative complementarian church with her friends, she felt ill-prepared to explain why she supported women in ministry. “They had all the Bible verses,” she said. “And I had no idea how to respond to them. I guess growing up Methodist I’d always taken women pastors for granted.” She grew up knowing her church affirmed women in ministry, but she never learned why her church affirmed women in ministry.

I also hear from a lot of evangelicals who have begun attending Mainline Protestant churches precisely because they welcome LGBT people, accept science, avoid aligning with a single political party, practice traditional worship, preach from the lectionary, affirm women in ministry, etc. but these new attendees never hear the leadership of the church explain why this is the case.  This need not happen from the pulpit, but perhaps a Sunday school class or Bible study addressing these issues would be helpful, not only for those new to the church but also for those who grew up in the tradition and need a refresher. 

Also, don't assume people know all the nuances of your particular tradition. I can't tell you how often I've spoken at a Baptist church (American or Cooperative) and had readers come up to me and say, "I can't believe they let you speak in a Baptist church!" because they assumed all Baptist churches are like Southern Baptist churches. 

The Episcopal church we’ve been (somewhat sporadically) attending held “Anglicanism 101” classes recently that served as both an introduction to Anglican theology and practice and as confirmation classes. We were unable to attend due to travel, but two of our friends (former evangelicals) did, and they were confirmed this spring. They said many in the class were longtime Episcopalians there for a refresher, and many disenfranchised evangelicals just learning the ropes. 

(Note: If you're an evangelical finding your way to a church in the Anglican tradition, you will love Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert Webber.) 

5.  Create safe places to talk and build relationships. 

We former evangelicals LOVE to talk about our faith and are sometimes surprised by how little opportunity there is to do so in a Mainline Protestant church environment. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems like Mainline Protestant churches are less likely to have “small groups” where members gather together in one another’s homes to simply share life together. (If I’m making an unfair assumption or generalization, let me know.) Obviously, such groups can be problematic when they divide everyone up by age group and marital status, but I’ve also seen them represent what is most powerful about church as members become deeply invested in one another’s lives. Weekday Bible studies can also serve this purpose, or perhaps even certain Sunday school gatherings. I’m convinced that one thing folks from my generation long for is the chance to talk openly and honestly about our faith, our doubts, our questions, our ideas, our struggles, our joys, etc. in the context of a faith community.


What else? How can progressive Mainline Protestant churches welcome disenfranchised evangelicals? 

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