Spirit and truth in the mainline

Oct 23, 2017 by

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Every time we meet, a mainline Protestant pastor bemoans the decline of churches like his. Fewer members, lower attendance, congregations closing.

Yes, it is all true. Yes, but.

Though ordained in the Mennonite Church, for 25 years I have worked and worshiped with mainline Protestants. I’ve visited dozens upon dozens of mainline churches, the last 17 years with the United Church of Christ. Wherever I traveled, we faithfully worshiped in Spirit and in truth.

And still there was decline. But it’s not just a mainline phenomenon. Across the U.S. landscape of rural and small towns, churches of all kinds have been declining, closing or merging. This has been happening for decades. The cause has little to do with their theology, worship or engagement in the community. People have been dying or moving away. It’s happening to Mennonites in Kansas, UCC churches in Vermont and, increasingly, Baptists in Texas.

Diana Butler Bass, a scholar who specializes in American religion and culture, says the Southern Baptist Convention’s loss of a million members over the past decade exposes the false narrative that only liberal denominations decline.

“Cultural circumstances surrounding religious life and religious choice are far more important than the specific theology of any one denomination,” Bass writes. “The issue is not whether you’re a liberal or a conservative denomination. . . . The issue is: Are you a congregation that provides a way of meaningful life for people to be able to navigate chaotic times and to be able to connect with God, to experience a new sense of the Spirit, to be able to love and be compassionate? That’s what makes religious communities vibrant.”

I believe most pastors are not into popularity contests nor the civil religion of a bygone era. Being a faithful church drives them, rather than seeking a full meetinghouse.

It appears Mennonite Church USA is on the way of faithfulness to Jesus and the Gospels. Mennonites might want to explore this life of faithfulness more fully with their neighbors in mainline churches.

Jesse Glick
Middletown, Conn.

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  • David Lapp Jost

    Sadly, I don’t think you’re seeing the whole picture here. While many denominations have sharply declined, evangelical and non-denominational right-wing churches have grown in number, and unlike Mainline denominations and Catholics, evangelicals have remained steady as a percent of U.S. Americans — something we see reflected in the enduring strength of the right in our politics and culture.

    I heard once that if you truly, fiercely believe other people should believe what you believe, you’ll probably grow and succeed. I don’t think Mainline Protestants feel this with conviction; certainly most of my Mennonite peers don’t! Evangelicals do. I don’t think this is a question of inherent strength or weakness of an ideology; the Christian peace-seeking, Jesus-following left surged with power just a few decades ago. We need more conviction.

    David Lapp Jost

    • Jesse Glick

      I have not seen any recent reports and stats that show growth in numbers of conservative evangelical churches. Their decline is evident across the landscape including among the largest churches, the Southern Baptists. But my main point, is not about numbers, but the preaching and faith (Spirit & Truth) found in many Mainline, etc. churches is the reality in which I rejoice. (See below my experience and comments too long to be included in my original posting.)

      “The leaders of evangelical churches have continued their alliance with the powers that be, and the children of evangelicals are saying, ‘We don’t buy it.’

      On the other hand, Mainline pastors and conference or diocesan leaders come out of and approach worship, preaching and teaching from the rigor of seminary training. (In contrast to those with the more casual Bible school training.) They follow liturgies and resources that match in creative and diligent ways the news of the day, local or wider world. They begin with the Gospels and Jesus, and Scriptures from the Lectionary, and from their own planning for the church year. A process foreign in most Evangelical circles. It’s a process of proclaiming the Word infused by the same Spirit that descended and STAYED upon Jesus.

      This process is most dramatically part of church life and worship in the higher liturgical churches. There, in the midst of sight, sound and smells, a procession of youth, adults, and clergy wind their way through the assembled congregation until in the very center, they stop and the raised ornate Gospel is read aloud. I think back many centuries when all the people were illiterate and the church dramatized its liturgy to convey its truths and teachings.

      The Mainline, Episcopal, and Catholic churches of the U.S. are blessed by what I have observed and described here. I believe most of todays’ pastors are not into popularity contests nor the popular civil religion of a bygone era that conservative evangelicals have devoted their energies to reviving. Being a faithful church following Jesus drives these church leaders rather than seeking a full meetinghouse.

      The Mainline church, “has a rich theological tradition of intellectual rigor (but) also emotional gentleness, not always present in evangelical conservative churches,” says columnist, David Brooks, “On those churches and campuses I don’t see a tradition of tough thinking’ says Brooks, “Our future moral disputes will have less to do with the sexual revolution and more to do with the actual life of Jesus…”

      “Young people long for a place where they can go that will offer them a profound sense of peace from distraction, a sanctuary that leads to something deeper… “Some are looking for a Sabbath from their lives, and a place that won’t throw its values in your face,” he added.

      It appears the Mennonite Church USA (and Canada) is on The Way of faithfulness to Jesus and the Gospels. Thanks to Mennonite and other seminaries that are leading the way to a life of service to and religion of The Way. Something Mennonites might want to explore more fully with their neighbors in faithfulness.

      Jesse Glick
      Middletown, Connecticut

  • Ken Fellenbaum

    Raised & educated as a Mennonite, ordained as a Baptist – currently in semi-retirement and pastoring a small but growing Congregational Church (UCC). God blesses His Word & the Spirit gives life!! Preach the Word & call people to believe in Jesus and follow Him – discipleship. We are called to make disciples – not peacemakers. Disciples are peacemakers – with God and their fellow human beings. Real Christians OBEY Jesus teachings!

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