I Am a Mainline Protestant Under the Age of 35. Yes, We Exist.

By Olivia Whitener

Reblogged from Sojourners.

I am a Mainline Protestant under the age of 35. Yes, we exist.

I spend (most of) my Sunday mornings sitting in a pew at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, singing old hymns, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer which I have had memorized since before I went to school.

At age 22, I make an effort to get my dose of word and sacrament before heading to brunch on Sunday mornings. Though I love the beach, I found greater joy in singing songs and leading Bible studies at a mainline church camp during my recent summers.

I love the sound of an organ.

Unlike 35 percent of my age-group peers, I hold much of my identity in my Christian tradition. But while many are losing hope in the church as a community and institution, I experience a place where I can struggle alongside others and find support. There are many ways the church has failed us; religion is often used to justify gross injustices, leaving many feeling abandoned by the place where I have found a home. And sometimes being a Christian and being a member of a worshipping community is hard, because it is another responsibility on our shoulders and it requires us to give back.

It isn’t always convenient, but here’s why I stay…

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) Why I refuse to use “Mainline” any longer

Great article by Carol Howard Merritt, whose blog Tribal Church is hosted by the Christian Century.

In The Christian Century and the Rise of Mainline Protestantism, Elesha Coffman outlines the origins of term “Mainline.” The label commonly refers to the Episcopal Church, The Presbyterian Church (USA), northern Baptist churches, the Congregational church (now UCC), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Disciples of Christ. Sometimes that list is longer and other times it’s shorter.

Coffman writes:

In America, mainline has referred colloquially to the railroad leading to the elite northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia. Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell described this Main Line in his 1958 study, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class…. By the 1950s, according to Baltzell, the term “Mainliner ha[d] become synonymous with ‘upper crust,’ ‘old family,’ or ‘socialite.’

It was not a term that denominational leaders came up with, but we have embraced it for many years. Now, it’s a good time to discard it. Why?

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) How seminaries and the ordination process leave theologically “liberal” Christians behind

This article makes a good and true point, although the empathetic part of me suspects that evangelical candidates for ordination face a similar fear of rejection by their committees.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that mainline Protestant denominations are neither conservative/evangelical nor liberal/progressive in their theological orientation (much to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists on both sides), but are trying to hold both perspectives together under the umbrella of their true agenda: maintaining the survival of the institution.

Theologically, this means trying to occupy the Barthian-Niebuhrian middle ground that dissatisfies evangelicals and liberals alike.  Evangelicals fear that the denomination is pandering to political correctness at the expense of gospel truth.  Liberals fear that the denomination’s appeasement of cantankerous reactionaries is blunting the edge of prophetic witness.

My experience of the process left me with the sense that my committee and examiners just wanted to know that I was able to articulate that middle-ground perspective using the language of our denomination’s polity and historical confessions.

I think the main thrust of this article is true, but it could equally apply to our sisters and brothers on the evangelical end of the spectrum.

Reblogged from Crystal St. Marie Lewis:

“Many denominations require candidates to obtain a graduate degree involving work in the areas of theology and philosophy. In those graduate programs, professors spend countless hours training students to think outside the theological box, only for their ordination committees to demand that they put God (and their capacity for exploration) back inside the box. Seminaries are often free and open spaces where people are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about sacred matters. Yet, students endure rejection after the academic stage of their ordination processes–ironically for drawing unapproved conclusions.”

Click here to read the full article

The Call to High Adventure

Vida Dutton Scudder. Image is in the public domain.

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) was a professor at Wellesly College, a member of the Socialist party, and a prominent activist in the Episcopal Church.  She was involved in the Social Gospel movement, the campaign for labor rights, the equality of women, and (eventually) pacifism.  She helped to organize the Women’s Trade Union League, the Episcopal Church Socialist League, and joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross.  Vida and her partner, Florence Converse, lived together for 35 years, from 1919 until Vida’s death in 1954.  She is celebrated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints: her feast day is on October 10.

Earlier today, as I was reading Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity, I came across an amazing prediction of Scudder’s that Butler Bass took from Scudder’s 1912 book Socialism and Character.  In this passage, Scudder prophesies the advent of mainline church decline, which eventually started to happen in the latter half of the 20th century.  I was amazed at how closely Scudder’s views resemble my own, except that she was writing a full century before I started thinking about it.  Listen to what Scudder has to say:

One certitude is forced on us : it is unlikely that Christianity will retain so nominally exclusive a sway as it has hitherto done in western Europe. In all probability, the day of its conventional social control is passing and will soon be forgotten. The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine.

And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished.




Singing Up the Sun: A Prayer for the Church

Christians in the Reformed tradition have long recognized the dual nature of our life together as a faith community.  On the one hand, you have churches that exist as religious institutions.  On the other hand, you have the Church that lives as the Body of Christ, the spiritual fellowship of God’s covenant people.

Heinrich Bullinger, writing in 1561, observed:

Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end… And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.).

The Westminster divines identified this duality by referring to the visible church, which is “a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children” and the invisible church, which is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.”

Writing over three centuries later, the authors of the Confession of 1967 noted,

The church in its mission encounters other religions and in that encounter becomes conscious of its own human character as a religion… The Christian religion, as distinct from God’s self-revelation, has been shaped throughout its history by the cultural forms of its environment… But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian.

Earlier today, as I was praying for my church, the image of an egg came to mind.  When people glance at an egg, they tend to notice the hard and plain exterior shell.  Most people don’t think about the baby chick inside.  They just see an egg.  But if they could somehow get inside, they would immediately notice the disparate chick-to-shell ratio.  There’s a lot more bird than egg in there!

As cracks start to appear, many throw up their hands in mourning (or celebration) that the egg is now broken, ruined, and not long for this world.  In one sense, they may be right.  However, I wonder whether those who focus exclusively on this fact might be forgetting about the amazing new life that lurks just beneath the surface.  The cracks signify, not the failure, but the success of life that has grown too big for its shell.  The cracks mean that the shell has done its job and life is now ready to burst forth into the world.

I think the church is like that egg.  It looks rather rigid, plain, and fragile from the outside.  The cracks in our institutional shell are obvious and appear at both congregational and denominational levels.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Lackluster theology
  • Biblical illiteracy
  • Indifference to social justice
  • Cliques
  • Power-plays
  • Denominational schisms
  • Liberal/conservative conspiracy theories (take your pick)
  • Not enough/too much inclusivity (take your pick)
  • Worship is too traditional/contemporary (take your pick)
  • Obsession with church property
  • Dwindling financial resources
  • Declining membership
  • I could keep going…

With all these cracks, it looks like our egg is falling apart.  That’s because it is falling apart.  It’s supposed to fall apart.  Ecclesia reforma, semper reformanda.  Our ancestors gave us this shell in order to safeguard the precious treasure of life within it.  Just as they hatched from their own institutional shells (think Calvin during the Reformation), life dictates that we must hatch from ours.  What’s more is that we will most likely hand our spiritual progeny another shell from which they too will one day break.  The shell’s job is to protect and nurture life.  Its breakage during times of change is a sign of success not failure.

There’s a lot more bird than egg in our church.  There is new life waiting to be born.  The future will not look like the past.  The decline of mainline Protestant churches doesn’t bother me.  I think God is coaxing our churches out of their collective shell so that we can take up the prophetic mantle once again.  We are not dying; we are being born.

For some this will mean questioning “the way we’ve always done it” and reforming our denominational or congregational structures from within.  For others it will mean abandoning traditional denominations or congregations altogether.  Whatever new thing they come up with will not be the end-all/be-all perfect solution forever.  It will one day be broken and discarded by their descendants.  As Jesus warned his disciples, “Not one stone will be left on top of another.”

Whatever path we feel called to follow, let’s let our focus be on the new life that God is bringing to birth from within the cracking shell of our churches.  Let’s be open to the vibrant and prophetic future into which we are being led.  Let’s move forward in faith, not fear.  For some of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be hens who produce new eggs with shells that will nurture and protect the next generation until those chicks are ready to break out.  For others of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be roosters who climb to the rooftops and sing up sun, announcing the arrival of a new dawn.

Thanks be to God!