Are “Mainline Churches” in Denial? by Timothy C. Tennent

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

John Buchanan is the thoughtful editor of the Christian Century.  In a recent editorial (See, March 8, 2011 issue) entitled “Living Traditions” he bemoans an article which had recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 4) entitled, “Where have all the Presbyterians gone”
The article had pointed out the rapid decline of “mainline” churches and the rise of the non-denominational churches.  Buchanan is a bit miffed that his beloved Presbyterians (PC, USA) are held up as the poster child for the denominational decline.  Buchanan is clearly unhappy with much of what he sees in today’s growing independent and “mega” churches.  He cites the excessive consumerism and the individualistic narcissism which is rampant in many of these rapidly growing churches.  He reminds us that today’s consumerist culture does not care what denomination you belong to as long as you offer a dynamic youth program, great music and a nursery.  Buchanan attributes the growth of non-denominational churches to “smart marketing” and providing “multiple options.”

What’s so fascinating about Buchanan’s article is that he makes so many excellent observations about the contemporary North American church scene which lives under the “evangelical” banner.  Nevertheless, Buchanan misses the real reason why mainline churches are in decline.   I contend that even if all of these non-denominational churches were to disappear tomorrow, it would not substantially change the precipitous decline of mainline churches.   Buchanan seems to think that these independent, individualistic churches have co-opted the mainline church members.  However, let’s remember that just because two patients share the same hospital room, it doesn’t mean that they have the same disease, or that one caused the other. Mainline churches are in decline because these movements reached a critical mass such that sufficient numbers of bishops, pastors, elders, deacons and laypeople lost, forsake or otherwise failed to remember the true marks of the church.  The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.   When the church becomes divided, unholy, parochial and forsakes historic orthodoxy, then it will decline.  This will be the long-term verdict of the mega-church as well as the mainline church if they do not remember afresh that they are Christian churches.

What Buchanan misses is that the rise and fall of Christian movements is fundamentally not really about denominational loyalty or whether a church has a great music program.  It is far too reductionist to simply say that the mainline churches need to do “smart marketing” or that mega-churches are simply benefiting from a “great American innovation.”  The United Methodist Church has spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the smart marketing byline:  “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”  But all this “smart marketing” does is underscore the United Methodist disease.  This marketing line says nothing about Jesus Christ or the apostolic faith.  It actually communicates the very blandness which is the problem when a denomination loses its center.  The phrase, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” says nothing about “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”  It says nothing about our great communion with the global church around the world and back through time.  It says nothing about the beauty and power of Jesus Christ.  It affirms, at best, congenial niceness, while carefully avoiding anything about Christian identity.  The phrase, “open hearts, open minds, open doors” could very well have been a sign hanging over a 19th century brothel.

It is the gospel which keeps us connected through history and with our brothers and sisters around the world (catholicity).  It is the gospel which reminds us of the apostolic message (apostolicity) and calls us back to orthodoxy when we are tempted to throw it all away for the latest cultural “mess of pottage.  It is the gospel which “tears down the dividing wall of hostility” and creates a unity which transcends all racial and ethnic barriers (oneness).  It is the gospel which calls us to holiness – both personal and social – at the profoundest level.  One, holy, catholic, apostolic church should be the “sign” written or unwritten over every church in the world.

Buchanan says he is is weary of being lectured about what is wrong with the mainline church. I don’t want to add to his weariness.   As a lifelong United Methodist I am as concerned with mainline renewal as Buchanan is.  However, as a Christian, I am buoyed by the truth that Jesus Christ will “build his church.”  The goal, after all, is not the long term success of any denominational movement.  The goal is the long term spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I have hope for the United Methodists as well as the Presbyterians (PC USA), but that hope will only emerge out of the ashes of metanoia (repentance) and a return to apostolic faith and practice.  In the meantime, let’s not confuse the wine with the wineskins.


  • JAy. says:

    Well said, Dr. T!

    Thanks for keeping it real for all of your readers.

  • Fred Leo says:

    Right on! How do we save the United Methodist Church? Methodism is worth saving as a denomination. It is a beautiful Christian message and tradition.

  • You’ve always spoken the Truth in love my friend. Your “larger perspective” still shines through!

  • Cassie Kile says:

    Dr. Tennent, I completely agree! I wish our churches would read this blog! I’m totally sharing this on facebook.

    • Gary says:

      Wow, the good professor hit the nail right on the head with his 3rd to the last sentence of the article. “The goal is the long-term spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ”. It isn’t about denominations. I am pretty sure that God doesn’t care if you are a Presybyterian or Methodist as long as you love Him with all your heart, mind, strength and soul and that you love your neighbors.

  • Lawson Stone says:

    Your analysis is spot-on. What troubles me about Buchanan’s comment is his obvious scorn for…dynamic youth programs, great music and a nursery! A dynamic youth program means a church is serious about the generation that stands at the cusp of adulthood. Great music means a church cares about the culture, cares about the talented people in its midst, most of whose talents go beyond the piano and organ or choir arrangements. And a nursery…he’s knocking churches that care about parents of small children? His attitude epitomizes one of the core problems with mainline churches–the presumption that youth, music and children don’t matter!

    I’d also note that “mainline” denominations are actually better termed “colonial era” denominations, sharing the worldview of a hierarchical, authoritarian organization that feels entitled to tribute. We no longer live in the colonial era, and organizations that work that way are going to struggle.

  • Warren Lathem says:

    Well said. Thank you for your voice and call to faithfulness.

  • Darryl says:

    absolutely fantastic post.

  • Jd walt says:

    He’s on fire! ;0)

    • RELIGION FREE ). Religion is human efforts to win God’s favor, and true ctirshianity will teach you that there is nothing you can do to do that. Religion is bad, I agree with you. But the Bible does not teach religion, it teaches about a personal relationship with your Creator.Last: Great sites!!! I will definitely visit this post a lot looking for inspiration. Design in general in the christian medium has grown a lot during the past few years, and these sites clearly show that.Thanks!

  • Dave says:

    I believe the mainlines are suffering from their own institutionalization. Howard Snyder addresses this cyclical pattern in his book Signs of the Spirit. We often look to revive something that is dying, or at least waning, when God is moving in other circles. There are many godly Jesus followers in the United Methodist and Presbyterian denominations but Jesus has always been culturally adept and will go wherever He finds hearts willingly to listen to His words.

  • May GOD be pleased to bless you, Sir Tennent. Posting this requires courage, passion, and divine empowerment. Will share this on Facebook..

  • I love reading your posts. I have included a live feed of your blog to my blog:


  • […] to Chris Roberts for pointing a post by Asbury seminary president Timothy Tennent on the decline of the mainline denominations: Mainline churches are in decline because these […]

  • Jane Bonner says:

    Hey, and what about how the UMC is going to transform the World rather than bring it to Christ?

    • Jane, you said, “Hey, and what about how the UMC is going to transform the World rather than bring it to Christ.” I think you are referring to the mission statement of the UMC, which actually mentions making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…

  • The unofficial motto of too many main line churches is:
    “We don’t care what you believe. Just come believe it with us.”
    One holy, catholic, apostolic church also implies some biblical and theological clarity and boldness.

    • Alan says:

      Dr. Sewell Woodward asked me to use his name and offer this hearty reply to Dr. Tennent’s original posting: “Amen, Amen and Amen!” I couldn’t agree more…

  • JJ says:

    Then again, the motto does tend to go over the heads of those Methodist who pick and choose only certain parts of the movement to believe in. What is killing the UMC is very plain to see to those with open eyes. Hypocrisy!

    Interesting to see so many that want to return to the church of the 50’s and the ideals that have caused the problems we are in today and ignore the truth of the here and now. Reminds me of watching Fox news and their disregard for the actions of the Republican Party and the current economic mess this country is in. However, I guess as long as they can continue to sell falsehoods to marks…

    Seems to me, that the UMC should do a video of a growing and vibrant church, and require it to be shown at a declining one. When one attends, a dying church it is very obvious what is missing, and it has nothing to do with a “marketing line”!

  • Lanny says:

    AMEN. You put into words what ive felt in my heart for a long time. Thanks!

  • Hmm, interesting message. I haven’t seen the original Christian Century editorial, so I can only reply to this blog post.

    I do think that most evangelical/pentecostal/charesmatic megachurches ARE as deficient in the matter of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” as the mainline denominations are. Part of living into Jesus’ prayer that we might all be one includes, in my interpretation of the Bible, an obligation for each local church to be part of a connectional denomination, which implies both theological and practical accountability. (When a denominational structure does not do this, the answer is to reform the structure, not to abandon the Biblical principle of connectionalism!) Apostolicity is a matter of liturgy and music as well as doctrine. Catholicity means working towards Christian unity. And Ted Haggard is hardly an example of holiness!

    I would also like to speak against strict correlation between theological conservatism and vitality. I have known a tiny little country church full of little old ladies who give tons of money to evangelists in Guatemala while resisting the idea of doing evangelism in their own backyard. The church I am in believed strongly in the gospel of repentance and forgiveness only through the blood of Jesus Christ. But they did not allow that Gospel to fill them with a zeal to preach to their neighbors. And the thought that church people had to dress and act and look a certain way, so someone in torn jeans and a t-shirt would not be welcome in that church. Thus, the gospel was formally believed in, but was not effective for this church, and it continued to decline. By contrast, I am now part of an urban church that would describe itself as “theologically liberal”. But they do preach a gospel of forgiveness and redemption through the life, death, and most importantly, resurrection of Jesus Christ. The trinity is invoked often in worship. Sin is spoken of from the pulpit, though primarily in social rather than individual ways. Everyone is welcome, but Christ is clearly at the center of everything this church does. They welcome every visitor extravagantly- the 16 year old boy who looks like he spent the night on the street no less then the blue haired matron in a gray suit and pearls. Naturally this church is growing. Both churches I mentioned are United Methodist.

  • […] should be the peace, love, and grace of the Gospel.Dr. Randy Mickler agrees with and recommends Are John Buchanan and the “mainline” churches in denial? by Timothy C. Tennent. Here’s an excerpt:Buchanan says he is is weary of being lectured about what is wrong with […]

  • Katie says:

    Now my professor is going to think I stole my paper topic from your blog!

    But the UMC has gone on from Open hearts to “Rethink Church” -do you think that means they’ll take a step back from corporate church and move towards the Acts 2 church?

  • John says:

    I am reminded of a quote attributed to the late Malcolm X. “If we don’t take a stand for something, we will fall for anything”. “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” sounds like the motto of a politically correct mainstream establishment that is more concerned with its “503” tax status than with “building the church of Christ” in the 21st century.
    And, I agree with you Dr. Tennent when you say that even if the so-called “evangelical” churches disappeared tomorrow, it would not lead to any swelling in the ranks of the mainline churches. “Congenial niceness” will only suffice to create a “real good, feel good” which will not endure even a minimal test of the church’s real mettle in the world, much less withstand against the “gates of Hell”.
    For the record, statistics show that most of the “new converts” that are shown on the rolls of these so-called “churches” are what I call “milk” commitments that never reach the age of “meat”.