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Why I love mainline churches

April 14, 2012
country church

This is part two of the things I love and don’t love about mainline churches. I started yesterday with the negatives, so today I list a few of the positives.

For me, the mainline churches are the most faithful and promising expression of Christianity. I remain extremely hopeful about their future, despite the continuing erosion of membership and divisions over issues that have divided congregations for decades.  Christ is magnified in human weakness, and I am excited to see how God, who is always creating, is re-creating the mainline in a way that will allow it to speak more prophetically to our fast-changing society.

I also am optimistic when I consider how churches in both the “evangelical” and mainline traditions have borrowed from one another in recent years. For example, both segments of Christ’s church have seen an increased focus on spirituality. And evangelical churches, once resistant or uninformed about the church calendar, are dipping their toes into Lent and Advent. These developments are good for all people of faith.

Speaking generally, and understanding that this may or may not apply to your specific church, here are some of the things I love about the mainline churches. (You may note that numbers 1 and 2 – lack of biblical knowledge and queasiness over evangelism – also appeared on my list of negatives, for different reasons.)

  1. Lack of biblical knowledge. Yes, sometimes this is a good thing. Many people have heard certain passages interpreted one way all their lives, and so they are given to understand that they know what those verses mean. They are so certain they understand these passages that they have closed out the Holy Spirit and cannot even consider alternative interpretations, even when shown evidence from the original languages.  People who are less biblically entrenched are more open to exploring the Bible in creative ways, and it seems they are also more open to and respectful of dissenting opinions. After a period of adjustment from my childhood, being a part of a Bible study where we explored the questions — instead of being force-fed pat answers — was incredibly refreshing. Also, people who did not grow up in church often feel uncomfortable around those who constantly put their biblical knowledge on display, and it may cause them to feel unwelcome at your church.
  2. Queasiness over evangelism. Because of the sensitivity that many mainline church people have about  evangelism, they often are able to come to a broader understanding of what evangelism is – not just obtaining assent to a statement of faith but modeling life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Now, if we could only be a little more comfortable talking about our faith from time to time.
  3. Lack of judgmentalism. I probably should have placed this at the top of the positives list and IN BIG LETTERS because it is perhaps the number one characteristic that got me back into church after my years away. I once felt unworthy to walk back into a church. There were certain churches where, upon arrival, I would feel judged, and yet I found there were others where that was not even on the radar. It is because of this second kind of church that I was able to return to worship.
  4. Broader view of sin. Mainline ministers do not tend to call out personal sin from the pulpit. For some people from a more evangelical tradition, this is a real problem. However, in the broader church culture, the emphasis on personal sin has always been about one thing to the exclusion of everything else: sex, sex, sex. This emphasis has obscured the large biblical themes of love and justice. The American version of Christianity often emphasizes personal piety while either missing or outright contributing to the sinfulness of bigotry, poverty, idolatry, violence, wrongful use of authority. The biblical call for social justice is overwhelming, in both testaments. Mainline ministers seem more likely to be able to see the bigger picture and are willing to speak out, even to their own detriment. Historically, mainline churches have been in the forefront of movements seeking equality for ALL of God’s children, often decades before other segments of the Christian community came to a similar understanding.  My personal connection to a mainline church first came when I heard a prayer for people all over the world who were suffering from drought, living in war zones. I began to think about God being much bigger than the question of my “personal salvation.”
  5. Rich traditions. I love the historic ties to the ancient tradition of Jesus followers. I love that we say many of the same words and creeds that were repeated by early Christians. I love the opportunity to recite rich, meaningful liturgy. I love that we hold onto connections to the past that become discarded when other churches strip down to a sleeker model of faithfulness. I hope we can explore more ways to make the liturgy more accessible to the people, and “unchurched” people more accessible to the liturgy.
  6. More theological diversity. Mainline churches are much more likely to accept and engage various understandings of the faith and be tolerant of what others believe. This holds more promise for the possibility to engage people outside the church and be in relationship with people of others faiths. For me, this is at the heart of the major theme of the Bible: reconciliation with God and one another. The historic practice of some within the mainline to split away from the church whenever it becomes more inclusive threatens the church’s theological diversity and dilutes its message. If our church only includes people just like us, then we probably are no longer a church.
  7. You don’t have to bury your head in the sand to be a member of a mainline church. Scientific discovery, higher education and critical thinking are not enemies of the God we are called to love with our mind, as well as our heart, soul and strength (Luke 10:27). Being a member of a mainline church does not mean closing your mind. Quite the contrary is true.

What do you love about mainline churches?

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