This is part 7 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)
Well as soon as I say I’m finished with this series of posts on leaving established church, Brian McLaren goes and writes this amazing commentary on the landscape of mainline and evangelical religion in the U.S. (in the context of a counter-criticism of Al Mohler’s criticism of Rob Bell):
From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart – the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable – especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):
- Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
- Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
- Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the Twentieth Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
- Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
- Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the US Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
- Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies – first radio, then TV, then the internet – as savvily as Evangelicals have.
- Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates – rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
- Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic – agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Viet Nam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
- Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.
Now I think the reasons for mainline decline are many and complex, and I wouldn’t bet my life on any one of these possible rebuttals alone or even all of them together. But taken together, they show that the “conservatives grow and liberals shrink” formula might give a false sense of superiority to one group, and a false sense of inferiority to the other. (My personal belief is that neither Evangelicals nor mainliners nor Roman Catholics nor Pentecostals nor anybody else is or has the full answer. I think Fr. Vincent Donovan had it right when he said we shouldn’t leave others where they are, nor should we try to bring them to where we are, as beautiful as that place might be. Instead, we should go with others to a place neither we nor they have been before. Where we need to be is not where any of us currently are; we are all being called higher up and further in.