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My struggles with the mainline church

April 13, 2012

I caught up this week on reading a couple of lively discussions about the differences between evangelical churches and the mainline, and why more disenfranchised “evangelicals” don’t flock to mainline congregations.

I was fascinated in part because this is somewhat like reading a transcript of the debate inside my head.

After all, I was once an “evangelical.” (I still believe in evangelism, by the way, despite its troublesome baggage.)  Then, around the time of my teens and early to mid-20s, I became a “disenfranchised evangelical.” For years now, I have been a mainliner – actually an outdated term since the churches that make up the so-called mainline (Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Episcopalians, UCC, Disciples of Christ and others) are no longer the main line. Yet, I am not only a mainliner, but a candidate for the Office of Teaching Elder (pastor) in a mainline church, Presbyterian Church (USA).

Today’s post is part one: Things I don’t love so much about the mainline church. Tomorrow I will post part two, the positives. Speaking generally, and realizing this may or may not apply to your specific church, here are some of the things that trouble me about the mainline:

  1. Lack of biblical knowledge. Many of the lifelong Presbyterians I know just don’t have the same knowledge about what the Bible says as those who come from a Southern Baptist background, for example. I remember when a friend of mine who grew up in a similar tradition as mine attended Bible study with me at church one day. Afterward, he had a look of shock: “Some of them acted as if they hadn’t heard any of this before!”
  2. Queasiness over evangelism.  Many people in our mainline churches don’t even like to say the ‘E’ word. This is because they grew up traditions in which evangelism was associated with the uncomfortable moment in which somebody they didn’t know so well grabbed them by the lapel and asked if they were “saved” and warned them that they better be or it could get awfully hot where they were headed.  They came to our churches to get away from all that. Unfortunately, not as many people hear about the good things going on in our churches because we tend to keep it to ourselves. This seems to be a problem that is engrained in our church culture. I was once at a Presbyterian retreat that included a small group discussion on “greatest fears.” One of my partners said his greatest fear was inviting his neighbor across the street to church. He was looking for advice on how to develop the courage to do it. At the end of the session, we divulged our vocations. His was pastor of a church.
  3. Too comfortable, unwilling to change.  The words “because this is the way we’ve always done it” are not words that are the hallmark of a vital, Spirit-filled congregation. Mainline churches are sometimes too reluctant or too slow to respond to change in the church or community.  Sometimes we take issues and meet them to death.
  4. Troubling lack of diversity. This one is a difficult one for me, because we talk a good game. If you read key denominational statements from mainline churches and check out the issues for which those churches have stood, they indicate support for poor and minority communities. Yet, the fact is that the makeup of our churches remains overwhelmingly white and somewhat well to do.  This indicates a troublesome disconnect between what we say and what we do. We may use welcoming words, but we have not been truly welcoming, or our numbers would be different. Jesus preached the Good News to the poor and the suffering. So, if they are not among us on Sunday morning, I am worried about our spiritual health. I have done Skype interviews with roughly 8 or 9 churches over the last year. Only one of them so far has had a single African-American on its Pastor Nominating Committee. That same church listed its demographics as 1 percent African-American. When he introduced himself to me, the man said, “As you can see, I am the 1 percent.”  Admittedly, the greater issue is much more complex than how I have just characterized it. There are many reasons why Sunday worship remains the most segregated hour of the week. But I believe the issue for us is: How can we truly welcome others — not just talk a good game?

So, what bugs you about mainline churches?

Tomorrow:  Mainline, how I love thee. Let me count the ways.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2012 2:32 pm

    It pains me to see division in the church and in-fighting and quarreling. In the words of Rodney King: “can’t we all just get along ” or better yet in the words of our Father:

    1 Corinthians 1:10- “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

  2. April 16, 2012 7:52 pm

    I read with interest this post & your followup (what you love about mainline churches) and found much that I agree with in both posts. As one who has been in the discernment process for the Episcopal diaconate for a long time, I would add that the processes by which we raise up leaders in our churches have a tendency to become long and cumbersome, turning hoops to jump through into hurdles to climb over. While I appreciate the need for careful discernment (both on the part of the candidate and the church), I wonder about the formation process of the next generation of church leadership and what ramifications that has for the future of our denominations.

    • April 16, 2012 8:00 pm

      Thank you Alisa, it sounds like we are in similar boats. I certainly share your well-stated concerns.


  1. Here’s a ‘Bible series’ for you: Holy Week at a Presbyterian Church | Witness to Grace

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