For the last 40 years, the mainline church has suffered significant decline.
So says Dr. David Greenhaw, President of Eden Seminary, during a workshop at the UCC Kansas-Oklahoma conference meeting in Wichita, September 28-30.
But Greenhaw has hope for the mainline's future.
The key, he says, is to lift up three hallmarks that characterize mainline churches:
1) Faith that is bound to thought.
Mainline churches are unafraid to ask the most difficult questions about God and the world. There is freedom to explore such questions and answer them in ways without fear of reprisal. Scholarship and critical thinking are cherished values. Doubt is a pathway to faith and knowledge.
2) Faith that is bound to social responsibility.
Mainline churches have a social conscience. They take seriously Jesus' command to love our neighbor. Historically, it was people in mainline churches who fought against slavery, injustices to workers during the industrial revolution, and advocated equality during the civil rights movement. As Greenhaw related, "We give the needy a cup of cold water and then we go on to ask why there isn't enough water."
3) Faith that is bound to understanding the other.
Mainline churches are ecumenical. They seek out connections with people not like themselves. Dialogue is important-- between other Christians (National Council of Churches) and other faiths (Muslims, Hindus, etc.). "We don't view others as unworthy," says Greenhaw, "but different and without denigration."
These are three definite strengths of the mainline church.
I would suggest that in order for these characteristics to lead the way in turning around the mainline church, it's critical that they be protected by boundaries. As Episcopal leader Caroline Westerhoff explains in her seminal work "Good Fences," boundaries enable us to define who we are and in turn welcome people into something that is truly distinct.
In application, the mainline church must maintain its distinctive strengths by not allowing those strengths to become the very thing that weakens it:
1) Faith and critical thought should not end up creating a Gospel that has no historical continuity.
In a First Things article entitled, "An Unworkable Theology," Episcopal priest Phillip Turner observes that there's a vast difference between the confessed creeds of the mainline church and its actual working theology. In practice, Turner contends the mainline is adopting a Gospel that lacks continuity with the faith once delivered (Jude 3). Does our faith have non-negotiable essentials, or is everything up for grabs? Freedom of thought that leads to a radical redefinition of the Gospel certainly proves that we're free, but is it faithful or responsible?
2) Faith and social responsibility should not end up being solely whatever gets said by the Democratic Party.
Here, evangelicals are equally guilty, for their political beliefs often mirror Republican policies. Evangelicals' major concern is life. Mainliners' passion is the poor and oppressed. Could it be that God cares about both? Somehow, the church needs to avoid looking like shells for our preferred political party.
3) Faith and understanding the other should not lead us to say, "We have no differences."
Sometimes, inter-faith dialogue has led some to say, "Christians and Muslims worship the same God." That's not entirely accurate. While both trace their history to the God of Abraham, Christians and Muslims do not share a common understanding of who God is-- which is very evident in discussing the nature of Jesus. Christian faith is different than other religions. That distinction should be unashamedly retained as we dialogue with others about how we can all live together peaceably. Pop artist Charlie Peacock puts it well: "We're a whole different. A whole lot the same."
The mainline church has endured a challenging past.
But hope springs eternal.