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

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.