3 Lessons from Crisis and Decline in the Mainline

At Christianity Today we often speak of the summer months as the “church report season,” as many denominations hold their annual meeting or conference during this time of the year. The two words most often used to describe mainline Protestantism in North America are “crisis” and “decline,” both of which seem justified in light of recent trends.

Ross Douthat’s recent article in The New York Times, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” offers an insightful analysis of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), whose House of Bishops last week approved an official liturgy to bless same-sex unions. This is the same communion that counts among its great champions of the past the likes of Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley, and William Wilberforce, and of which George Washington was a member. Meanwhile, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) very narrowly turned back a proposal to redefine marriage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has already adopted what is euphemistically called a “more inclusive” policy in sexual ethics. This has resulted in denominational fracturing and the emergence of several distinct Lutheran renewal groups. Similar struggles have long beset the United Methodist Church. But this church body holds one significant advantage over other mainline denominations: the UMC General Conference allows voting members from outside North America. Largely with the support of African delegates, the UMC defeated the latest effort to “reform” (i.e. abandon) its historic commitment to biblical standards. There are flashes of light amid the shadows.

Three Lessons

What are we as evangelicals to make of these developments? Here are three lessons.

1. There is an intrinsic connection between spiritual vitality and theological integrity.

The debate over homosexual practices within the mainline denominations is not the root cause but only the presenting issue in the devolution Douthat has described so well. At the heart of this issue is a broken doctrine of biblical authority, a loss of confidence in the primary documents of the Christian faith. The patina of pietism and the lushness of a well-rehearsed liturgy are no substitute for what the Thirty-nine Articles calls “the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures.” Apart from such commitment, it will not be long before other cardinal tenets of the Christian faith become negotiable, including the Trinity, the full deity and true humanity of Jesus Christ, and redemption wrought through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Two of Chuck Colson’s most important books were The Body, a study of ecclesiology, and The Faith, a call for renewed orthodoxy. The church and the Bible are coinherent realities in the economy of grace. One will not long survive intact without the other.

2. The continuing saga and approaching collapse of mainline denominations should prompt us to pray.

Within each of the mainline denominations, there are many faithful believers who have not “bowed the knee to Baal.” Often they face harassment, discrimination, and litigation. Pray that they will remain faithful in the face of such assaults, and pray that they will find communities of love and support in what for many will be an increasingly isolated position. Some impatient evangelicals on the outside may be tempted to say, “Well, why don’t you just leave?” But breaking with the church in which one has been nurtured in the faith, often from childhood, can be like abandoning one’s mother. Like marriage, according to the Book of Common Prayer, such a decision should not be made unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in the fear of God. The words of the apostle Paul are surely pertinent here: “Let everyone be persuaded in his own conscience.”

But while we pray for those who remain as faithful witnesses swimming against the tide, we should also lift to the Lord in our prayers those who have responded to the Spirit’s leading to establish new communities of faith and ecclesial alignments. There is no place for self-righteousness on either side of this divide. However much ecumenical advance we have made, Protestants of all kinds remain divided from the Roman Catholic Church, the most glaring evidence for which is the lack of a common table to share the Sacrament of Unity. Going back even further, Catholics of the West have been separated from Orthodox believers in the East since the Great Schism of 1054. In the meantime, let us renew our commitment to the quest for Christian unity, even as we find ways to celebrate what Tom Oden called 25 years ago “The New Ecumenism.” In all of this we seek to bear witness to God’s love and grace in this fragile world.

3. Evangelicals have no room to boast or gloat over the “sickness unto death” in the mainlines.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two largest denominations in North America. Significantly, both groups have resisted pressures for theological accommodation in recent decades. But both face stresses and conflicts of their own, including some of the same temptations that beset mainline Protestants a generation ago. Among progressive Roman Catholics and some evangelicals today the temptation is to imitate the fading ethos of liberal Protestantism, in reaction to “authoritarian” dogma, “conservative” politics, or both. In both cases, the motive is often apologetic if not evangelistic: to win over religion’s “cultured despisers” to a kind of vague neo-spirituality. While the intention may be worthy, the results are likely to be disastrous: a social gospel that is all social and no gospel; a church that has nothing to say that secular elites have not already said, and usually said better; a horizontal faith with a penchant for the instantaneous and the disconnected but with no confidence in the overarching storyline of God’s redemptive love from creation to consummation. The trajectory from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Shelby Spong is a well-worn path. As Peter Berger once said, “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.”

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  • Douglas

    As an infant I was baptized Catholic, then I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and as a young adult I was born again, and then I became Pentecostal. By the time I graduated from Bible college, I ran head on there into what I think is a big part of the problem with much of American Christianity as a whole, sort of an organizational vulnerability inherent in all of institutional Christianity: the body becomes the Head. In this I see two epicenters of radiating destruction. As Christians lose sight of the organism that is the church, the body of Christ, they are doing so as they become more and more allegiant to the perpetuation of the organization, that which becomes increasingly more political and less spiritual in nature. The headship of Christ and His design for His body are subordinated to an increasingly professionalized organization that loses its organic nature to one synthetic, ultimately corrupting the church, herself. Then, the cellular design and growth of the body of Christ, the organism and its supernatural life, becomes incompatible with the subsuming organization. A synthesis occurs that renders a fertile environment for the organization but only enough nurture for the organism to eventually be starved. The gifts of God and the members of His body shrivel, exercising less and less of, and imparting less and less of, Christ’s functionality and life.

    I think it is not that the church is dying; I think the organization is dying. Long live the church! May Christ have mercy on us, His bride, for our adultery.

    • Brian Werner

      Amen Douglas…. the problems that plague the institutional church do not plague the body of believers… Churches as corporations and institutions are not losing influence because they are losing touch with the keystone historical principles by which they have existed for long…. homosexuality is not THE issue at all… the church has become what it meant to replace… Jesus came to tear down the power structures of mankind,, replace the formalized organizational church government with a body of believers who exist in, through and for the spiritual realm…. a vibrant body of people connected to God through the power of his final act… he restored the connection between mankind and God…. so that the priest, the bishop, the pastor, the minister etc…had no more power or access to God than the average parishioner…. He tore the veil… we All can rush to the mercy seat of God…. We do not need the Pastor to lead us there…. Believers are running from the organized church because the church seems increasingly more authoritarian and self aggrandizing…. propping itself up as My Leader and all that seems to get done inside the 4 walls of the institutional church is “Business”…. buy this book, pay this salary, pay this mortgage, subsidize our lifestyle so we can ponder what is best for you….

      The Body of Christ is healthy, vibrant, and spiritually potent…. but it is so only because it has thrown off the pretense of Institutional Spirituality…. those who exist inside the Institution are increasingly spiteful, overly political, and stoked by organizational ambition…. essentially a spiritual wasteland.

      The Body of believers moves on…. the institution itself as a whole is the problem… not the petty social issues it wages war over.

      • mel

        AND people have a natural sin aversion to submitting to any kind of authority. If the church leadership is trying to lead the people in a biblical way then the church body should recognize that leadership from God. Instead people want to go their own way, use their own reasoning instead of biblical truths and blame the “institution”.
        Which basically just means that if they were in charge then things would be different. And since they can’t be in charge, can’t get anyone to follow them then they are taking their marbles and going home to play alone.

  • http://covenantalorganicchristianity.wordpress.com Donald Borsch Jr.

    I reckon my question is: what in the world makes people think that One He is building?any denominational ‘church’ has anything to do with His Church, the one He Himself is building?

    Denominational Christians scream for UNITY!, yet whisper division with tongues like knives as they dissect His Church for the sake of their traditions.

    This should not be so.

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  • Douglas

    Hi Mel.

    I think that what you describe here is true of many who complain as I have. But my complaint is no less valid in that I have aptly described both the cause and effects of the disintegration of structural / institutional / organizational Christianity and how that differs from what is the spiritual headship of Christ and his body, an organism mystical that transcends institutional religion. Of course, this implies that the “organism” may also be in the organization. I contend simply that the organization impedes and sometimes stifles the cells (believers) as it usurps from Christ His leadership and lordship as head of His body. It seems likely to me that some churches are very nearly void of Christ and only very culturally Christian.