A Future for Mainline Protestantism

If you believe that Christianity is something that people can re-form into a shape that suits our felt needs in this time and place….then a strong form of Christianity cannot survive…The grandchildren of today’s progressive Christians will either be traditionalist Christians or not Christian at all. We really are at a dramatic fork in the road, and Christians had better understand this. – Rod Dreher

I don’t believe this has to be the case. But that is not because Rod Dreher could not amass a lot of anecdotal evidence and data in his favor:

  1. The UCC retains a little more than 1/3 of those who grow up UCC. Same with Disciples and Unitarians. In comparison Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans, and Catholics keep about 60% of their youth. Judaism comes in about 76%.
  2. The UCC and Disciples lost half of their membership since their beginning half a century ago. The Assemblies of God, a conservative denomination, have more than doubled their membership since 1975. Reform Judaism has steadily increased on par with the Jewish population.
  3. Anecdotal evidence points to the possibility that most UCC, Disciples, and PCUSA ministries, started outside of the church, do not retain their Christian identity. This would include student ministries, colleges, social justice organizations. That fits Rod Dreher’s account.
  4. 73% of white liberals never or almost never attend church. Anecdotally, the number of self-identified liberals who will not walk into a church building, even if the event has no explicit religious purpose, astounds me. Our community LGBT organization has moved to the library from the Unitarian church for that reason. Parishioners tell me stories of how their children will not accept the idea that a liberal church is possible. This is somehow connected to the rise of the nones.

Point number 1 is a fact. So is point 2.  Generally, the mainline has been hit hard, numbers-wise. Pentecostal and non-denominational churches have flourished. Southern Baptists have been hit with decline too, so it is not a simple left/right issue, but the results still have not helped most liberal churches.

Point 3 may seem hard to believe. But let me provide a few links to campus ministries supported by the mainline that have no Bible study, worship, or any explicit reference to the Christian tradition, much less to their denominations (beyond a history and support page).

As for 4, ask your liberal friends about the church. Not whether they go or not, but their feelings, attitudes about the church.

These are snapshots that together start forming a picture, one which we need to be attentive to if the mainline has a future. Now if I really knew how to save the mainline, I could have written the book and received a lot of money and accolades. Given that I don’t know the answer, the title of this piece is off. But I still want to offer some guesses.

Liberal Protestantism does not have the ability to carry the faith through generations like conservative movements do. I say this as someone who grew up liberal Protestant and who remains one, so I know there are exceptions, including the folks who read this blog. But taken as a whole, this is the case. And the trend is re-enforced by failure to invest in youth ministries, campus ministries, church camps etc.

Justice work that is consistent and long-term can open to doors to some liberals, but to attract liberals is to work on the hardest demographic. Never mind millennials, the kind of folks who would walk into our little church in Oklahoma are a small number, folks who are progressive in politics and religion and want to go to church. Our increasing political and religious polarization makes that work harder year by year. But it’s important work.

What I want to focus on in this piece is the formation of worship, identity, and practice. The reason I kept throwing in Jewish and Lutheran numbers above is that they strike me as a counterexample to Dreher’s claim. These are religious communities that are able to hold together a kind of religious liberalism and a set of practices that allow them to pass on their religious faith to their young and create a sense of identity without resorting to exclusive ideas.


I want to focus on Judaism and Mordecai Kaplan’s idea of reconstruction. Kaplan believed that Judaism was not a set of ethical maxims, nor was it reducible to a set of theological claims. He took Judaism as a people, a culture, a civilization. So that what makes Judaism Judaism, is all the practices, the Hebrew language, the culture, the social justice politics, the ritual practices, the religious claims, the holidays, the food, the music, the prayers – Everything.

For Judaism to be able to carry on being Judaism means re-embracing all these distinctive practices that make for a people. And not simply embracing, but reconstructing them so that these ideas, practices could carry on their original work. It was not simply an embrace of tradition for its own sake, but rather that the tradition identified key ways of being human and living in the world that could have power today if reformulated.

For instance, to say that God created the heavens and the earth means that there is an order, not a chaos at the heart of reality. (27) It means the world makes sense. But it cannot mean the same thing as it did to those ancestors who believed the world was 6000 years old. The idea of God as creator has to make sense of our evolutionary story if it is to do the work that originally inspired the idea.

To talk about salvation is not an otherworldly rescue from on high. It is the recognition that all is not right with the world and with ourselves. That as individuals and societies we need transformation if we are to live into our possibilities. Our description of salvation, if it is to keep to that original insight, would move from the otherworldly and toward the resources found in this life and world that make for transformation to the better. (57)

I have a friend who I hope is able to finish her book on grace for liberals. Not grace as what makes one attain an afterlife, but grace as that which indicates freedom from the kind of guilt that can immobilize social justice work or have us devolve into nitpicking over which issue matters more or debating on whose work is more important. Grace that vanquishes works-righteousness so that the work of justice can continue.

However the conditions of life may have changed and however different our modern conception of the cosmos may be from that held by our fathers, the need for a faith that will save us from a sense of the vanity and futility of human life remains with us. For man is not a self sufficient entity. ( 51)- Mordecai Kaplan

That premise undergirds Kaplan’s project. The assumption is that the tradition, in grappling with the problems of human life, hit upon real needs and developed important insights. Because they were conceived in a different time, the way they are presented to us today seems fantastical, whether it is wrapped in the miraculous or in a cosmology that no longer holds in our current understanding of the world. So we go back to the tradition, strive to understand the original insight, reconstruct the idea, belief, practice, prayer, ritual, such that it does the work of the original insight.

This was a different response to the Reform Judaism of Kaplan’s day, which had expressed a sort of minimalist liberalism – one that, having discovered an unbelievable belief, a practice constructed from a view of the world that no longer held, decided to remove it from the religion. In Judaism, to the extreme, little was left of the religion but ethical monotheism. The extreme for Protestants was Unitarian Universalism.

John Shelby Spong, as a rhetorical move, often speaks of dispensing with Christian doctrines and practices. The problem is, what is left? What shapes identity? What shapes practices?  What becomes the draw? And what is passed on to future generations? A number of articles have highlighted the draw, particularly for millennials, of liturgy, of tradition, of having a grounding and a history beyond the now. Think of it as a maximalist liberalism.

Now, doing liturgy or tradition for growth won’t work. It has to be responding some need. Which is what has happened to Reform Judaism since the 1960s – A desire to pick up those traditions, practices that have been dispensed with in the past, refitting them for today. Bar Mitzvahs made a comeback in that time for the Reform, but so did Bat Mitvahs for girls (a practice Kaplan created for his daughter).

I can see what that looks like for Judaism. I can even see how this can be done in Lutheranism, with its liturgy. But what does it look like for mainline Protestant churches where the liturgy is more scaled back? Presbyterian, UCC, Disciple churches were not immigrant churches in the way Lutheran bodies were, linking a people, an identity to a church. And what practices, what things make one UCC? Congregationalist, Disciple, Presbyterian (besides committee votes and the democratic process)?

There are the practices of ecumenical Christianity such as communion and baptism, certainly. But also the liturgical calendar, including Lent, Advent, Holy Week, Christmas, Epiphany and more. There is some indication that the liturgical calendar has made a comeback within the last 40 years in the mainline. Bringing back doctrines through the process of reconstruction is important too. Beliefs, like practices, are tools for getting on in the world. Salvation and Resurrection are two big ones. But what about the Trinity? Original Sin? Eternal Life?

As liberals, we can’t just embrace the past because it is past. We need to go through the storehouse of the traditions, dust off these ideas and practices, reconstruct them, re-imagine them, so that the original insight and new insights become possible through their use again.

As for what makes these denominations unique, one place to look is our history. Reclaiming and re-appropriation. Congregationalists learning what lessons, ideas, practices might be picked up from the Puritans and the early Social Gospel writers. Disciples learning about the Stone-Campbellite movement. Presbyterians, the confessions. History is a way to escape what Dreher calls “the eternal present” of modernity, such that we can see ourselves as a people on a journey. We can find the continuities between past and present, with ideas for the future.

As I indicated before, I don’t know if this can save the mainline. But it seems to have worked for Judaism, helping create a vibrant faith, identity, practices that are attractive for themselves, for converts, and for their children. And I see Lutheranism and Anglicanism as having that kind of identity. To see the PCUSA, UCC, and Disciples develop – not just as a counter to the religious right, but as a generous faith in our own right – that appears to be the task for those of us who are committed to the mainline, to its future.

The page citation numbers come from Mordecai Kaplan’s book The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

3 replies »

  1. As a life long “practicing” catholic married to an ordained Methodist deacon my exposure to church changes ever the past 50+ years has been comprehensive. The world has also changed and not necessarily in an negative way for religions. Phyllis Tickle’s book the “Great Emergence” helps to describe these world changes and their impact on religion. Too many churches focus on rules or procedures, a how to rather than a what to. If churches seek attendees who see a purpose then churches need to reflect that purpose. Lifestyles have changed due to many factors and I am not referring to LGBT, women’s choice, etc. Churches are “Up To Their Steeples” in politics and churchgoers aren’t; perhaps with the exception of some your article mentioned. Sorry to be so wordy.

  2. As someone who grew up evangelical, and was even, for a very short period of time, on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (the org. that produced tracts on “The Four Spiritual Laws” and “How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit”), I’ve long held the opinion that evangelicals ask for and get commitment in ways that are much more concrete than liberal churches. There is the original commitment achieved via alter calls and born-again experiences, reinforced by small group Bible study and discipleship programs. We evangelicals tended to view mainline protestant church goers as just that – Sunday church goers who had little commitment beyond participating in the weekly ritual. Lukewarm Christians, if even truly Christian at all.
    Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, so to speak, I have to admit that I attend church services very rarely these days.
    Although sometimes criticized for his “Calvinistic” tendencies, I think Henry Nelson Wieman was right to constantly emphasize the very great need for religious folk today to make a very concrete and explicit commitment. The need for commitment seemed to grow in importance for Wieman over the years, until in 1958 he wrote a book titled “Man’s Ultimate Commitment.” In his last published book, in 1968, it seemed to him more important than ever. “All available evidence indicates that mankind has come to one of those crucial periods in human history when this further step must be taken in the understanding and pracitce of religious commitment, or else the human race cannot survive.” (page 211 in “Religious Inquiry”)
    “The ruling commitment of our lives must be given to the creativity operating in human existence to expand indefinitely the valuing consciousness of the individual in community with others. This is the only way we can be saved from tyranny, saved from blindness to changing conditions requiring a change in the order of human life, saved from dogmatism, arrogance, narrow mindedness, and that disregard of the demands of unique individuality in others which is the source of so much evil.” (page 22, “Religious Inquiry”)
    The situation of the world calls for this kind of commitment now even more than it did when Wieman wrote those words in 1968.

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