Note from CM: Yesterday’s back and forth prompted me to look up this post I wrote in 2012. Some things have changed in my life since then, but the main message of the piece still holds up.
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I Know It’s Not for Everyone, but I’ve Found an Oasis in a Mainline Church
In other essays here on Internet Monk, I have described my own journey through the post-evangelical wilderness. I grew up in a mainline church (United Methodist), but most of my spiritual journey has been in evangelicalism.
I had a spiritual awakening in a Southern Baptist church when I was in my late teens, attended a non-denominational, fundamentalist, and dispensational Bible college, served as pastor in a Baptist church (nominally American Baptist that became independent), a Bible church (Independent Fundamental), went to seminary at one of the most prominent conservative evangelical seminaries in the world and received my ministry license in the Evangelical Free Church, and served in two evangelical non-denominational “Community” churches that were founded by Wesleyans, most of whom had ties to Asbury Seminary.
When I resigned from a difficult church situation, I entered the wilderness. After several false starts and experiments, my wife and I found a lovely ELCA Lutheran church with a simple liturgy, wonderful music, a winsome 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. In November 2011 I wrote a “wilderness update” about coming to terms with the faith tradition to which I now belong and the decision I’d made to pursue ordination in the ELCA.
Though I recognize my debt to evangelicalism and am grateful for what God has taught me on the journey, 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.
What happened to me is not a new phenomenon and there is a large company of people who have made a similar journey.
Let me introduce you to a few friends I’ve found along the way.
It was back in 1985 that Robert Webber described his own experiences of becoming an Anglican and the conversations he was having with students at Wheaton College about their attraction to historic churches and liturgical worship.
In his book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church, Webber made it clear that leaving free church evangelicalism was by no means a repudiation of orthodoxy, but a deeper participation in the orthodox faith.
Webber named six aspects of orthodoxy that were not adequately fulfilled for him in his previous Christian experience, but which he found in the Anglican church:
- A sense of mystery
- Worship that transcends intellectualism and emotionalism
- Sacraments that provide tangible symbols of Christ
- A historic sense of identity
- An ecclesiastical home
- A holistic spirituality
Webber described his own pilgrimage as a journey in three stages: from familial faith in fundamentalist Christianity to searching faith to owned faith in the Anglican church.
Diana Butler Bass is fine Christian writer who likewise found an oasis in mainline Christianity. She describes her transition in Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith.
For many years I had been associated with conservative evangelical Protestants. Despite many good things they taught me, and the many faithful individual evangelicals I knew, I increasingly experienced their communities as narrow and inhospitable. I worried about the increasing political partisanship in evangelical congregations. The liberal church that I joined was just the opposite — full of lived grace, an open invitation of God’s love, and refreshingly unpartisan.
Bass’s book is designed to counter the accepted wisdom that America’s mainline churches are in decline and that the truly vibrant, growing, and influential churches are the conservative evangelical congregations, especially the megachurches. Surprisingly, she found that many traditional neighborhood assemblies are flourishing and displaying authentic Christian faith and witness.
Tod Bolsinger is an evangelical believer who graduated from Fuller Seminary and who teaches at Fuller and Denver Seminary. He is also the senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church, a PCUSA congregation. Where I live, churches are fleeing the PCUSA. Two close to us just left the denomination and joined the Evangelical Presbyterian church. Others have gone PCA. One down the road is joining the Christian Reformed tradition. But Tod Bolsinger has decided to stick with his mainline ordination and congregation. On his blog, It Takes a Church, he wrote an open letter telling his friends why.
I realize that for some leaders leaving the PCUSA at this time is an issue of conscience. For them, being members of a denomination or Presbytery where some would condone what they find to be in contradiction to the Scriptures is a violation of their consciences. I too have deeply struggled with this and continue to wrestle with it, so it is not difficult for me trust them to their convictions. I would guess that my opinions on this will matter little to these who for conscience’s sake feel as if they must withdraw from the denomination, and frankly that is the way it should be. But, I offer this rationale in a spirit of inquiring conversation to any whom would be interested in perhaps finding a different way.
…I am concerned that the anxiety of the moment and the drive to bring ‘relief’ from our tensions is keeping us from doing the hard work of truly defining and experimenting with a Reformed, Presbyterian ecclesiology in a post-Christendom, missional context. If nothing else, staying within the PCUSA keeps me squarely in the middle of that critical ecclesiological conversation and exploration.
…My perspective is framed more by the larger changes that are required of every church, every community of faith, and every theological institution that endeavors to remain culturally engaged and prophetic for the gospel of Jesus Christ today than any particular issue, no matter how important.
In short, Bolsinger believes that the energy being expended on certain issues dividing mainline Presbyterians needs to be redirected. “I am concerned that the focus of creating of yet another denomination, at this time, can become a way of avoiding addressing the deeper issues of ecclesiology, discipleship and mission in a post-Christendom world,” he writes. Therefore, he will stay so as to keep on addressing those issues.
Frank Schaeffer grew up in an iconic evangelical family and was influential in the early days of the culture war, when the Christian Right was born as a political force in the 1970’s. In a March 15 article published in the Huffington Post, Schaeffer echoes something Michael Spencer wrote back in 2007 — this is a time when mainline churches should be recognizing as opportune. There is whole wild wilderness full of post-evangelical spiritual refugees out there. Much of what they are longing for might be found in mainline traditions if only pastors and congregations would begin tapping the resources at their disposal and offer them to wanderers.
Listen to Schaeffer:
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.
If this is to happen and post-evangelicals (especially those who continue to maintain evangelical beliefs) are to be attracted to mainline churches, here is a starter list of characteristics that I suggest those churches must demonstrate [updated from 2012]:
- They must show that they take the Bible seriously.
- They must be able to present the case for tradition, historical connection, liturgical worship, the sacraments, and proven spiritual practices with clarity and winsomeness.
- They must not only be able to carry out strong programs of spiritual formation for those baptized and confirmed in the church, but also intentional efforts to make converts through outreach and evangelism.
- They must provide a strong practice of pastoral care.
- They must find ways to expand the idea of “inclusiveness” to include people with conservative views, and creatively take the lead in helping folks with differing opinions talk and relate to each other. There is a vacuum of moderation and peacemaking waiting to be filled in our culture. Why shouldn’t the church, which began as a project of uniting Jews and Gentiles under one Lord, take up this role as a major priority today?
- They must develop more organizational wisdom to move past outdated, bloated, and, frankly, boring bureaucratic structures. They must not only talk about mission, but develop the kinds of infrastructure that will make mission flow more freely. This is especially true with regard to preparing and sending out those seeking vocational ministry.
- They must not become imitators of evangelical “church growth” models and think that they should capitulate to contemporary culture in the attempt to be “relevant” and grow their churches.
- While it is fine for them to keep a focus on matters like inclusion and social justice, they must avoid a tendency to make things that are not the main thing the main thing. The “whole” gospel includes encouraging our congregations to pursue a vibrant spiritual life in Christ, deep theological wisdom, and a measure of personal and corporate piety that ignites good works with spiritual passion.
I know the oasis I’ve found may not be for everyone. But mainline churches have a huge potential waiting to be tapped. And there is room for a lot more around the water hole at this oasis I’ve found.