Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why I Am A Mainline Christian (And Not Some Other Kind)

Over the past month or so, there has been a flurry of blog posts and articles in response to Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times about Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants, that asks, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? 

Once comfortably at the top of American society (the image of President Eisenhower laying the cornerstone for the National Council of Churches’ headquarters comes to mind), the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists are now a fraction of their former selves.  And while it is true that nearly all churches are in decline these days – including Baptists and Catholics - questions about the future are most pressing for the liberal churches, some of which may literally be facing extinction within a generation.

All kinds of theories have been thrown around over the years to explain this decline, from low birth rates to liberal theology to a post denominational age.  But there is certainly something to Douthat’s suggestion that there are few differences between liberal Christianity and plain old secular liberalism these days - leading many to ask, “why bother going to church at all?”  After decades of pushing for social justice in society – many times being ahead of the curve on things like de-segregation and women’s rights – a lot of liberal Protestants stopped talking about God in any particularly Christian way altogether.  Some even openly advocated abandoning core Christian doctrines like the resurrection.  Now, with fewer distinguishing features and dwindling ranks in the pews, it is more likely that people will listen to liberal NGOs like Amnesty than to liberal churches like the Episcopalians when it comes to matters of social justice. 

Douthat puts the challenge facing mainline Protestants this way:
Today...the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
The time has come for mainline or “liberal” Protestants to rediscover their Christian voice in American society.  David Hollinger, a history professor at Berkeley, calls for a resurrection of Harry Fosdick’s old challenge: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?  Even Douthat admits that "the defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life."

Mainline Protestants should be standing in the gap between religious fundamentalists on the one hand and atheism on the other, offering a third way to a disaffected generation of Americans who maintain Protestant values but have abandoned the institutional Church.

Why bother with the Church anymore?  As a young pastor in the mainline, I keep going to church for the same reason any Christian does: to hear and see once more the good news of God’s love and grace.  The good news that God has graciously refused to give up on us by sending us Jesus to show us the way toward peace and hope and eternal life, and by stirring within us as a community of ordinary folks trying to live out what the gracious love of God looks like in our world today.  I keep going to church because I find there the words and the way of life and hope in a world of death and despair.

As a mainline Christian, I am set apart from my atheist and secular friends by this faith in God – Father, Son, and Spirit.  But I am also set apart from fundamentalist Christians in some important ways I live out my faith. 

In other words, why do I bother going to a mainline Protestant church and not some other kind of Christian church?  What makes mainline Christianity worth saving?

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is an ecumenical faith, where we are proud of our distinctive heritage as Protestant Christians, but believe that God’s love and grace are bigger than the things that divide us.  We are all God’s children and so we work to be reconciled to all our sisters and brothers in the same way Jesus has reconciled us to God.  As John Wesley once said, “if your heart beats as my heart, give me your hand.”  That’s why we welcome everyone who loves Christ to celebrate the holy meal of Communion with us.  That’s why we work with other Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith in order to bring the world closer to God’s Kingdom of love, justice, and mercy for all.

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is a reforming faith, keeping in mind that it’s the religious people in the Bible who often miss out on what God is doing in the world.  We recognize that God is bigger than our own limited ideas, that human selfishness often clouds our understanding of God, and that God’s gracious actions were recorded in the Bible by ordinary, imperfect people bound by their particular cultural contexts.  That’s why we welcome questions and try to keep an open mind, always ready to reform our beliefs and practices as we grow together in faith guided by God’s Spirit and the tools of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. 

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is an inclusive faith, where in Christ, our differences are no longer seen as reasons to exclude or divide, but as reasons to celebrate the variety of gifts being brought to the whole.  That’s why you’ll find women and people of color serving at every level of leadership in our churches.  It’s also why we work hard to make sure that a diverse variety of people are included in our decision-making processes – instead of allowing power to remain consolidated in the hands of a small group of male clergy.  A commitment to diversity and inclusiveness requires that we do a lot of listening and that we sometimes agree to disagree.

Because we believe in God’s love and grace, ours is a socially active faith, not confined to the intellectual or personal realm, but deeply involved in the difficult and holy task of making God’s love and grace a reality in the world.  We believe the best way to make new followers of Jesus is not to merely talk about God’s love, but to show people what God’s love looks like.  Over the course of our history, we have founded some of the best schools, universities, hospitals, children’s and retirement homes, and humanitarian relief agencies in the country and the world.  Today, we are committed to working for the rights and dignity of all God’s children, until the Kingdom of God has come upon the earth. 

While certain evangelicals or Catholics may share one or more of these commitments, no other Christian tradition in America is as fully ecumenical, reforming, inclusive, and socially active.  With other mainline Protestants, I refuse to give up either on my Christian faith or my commitment to justice and mercy for all people.  We offer a third way for people tired of extremism on both sides, asking a new generation that has wandered far from church, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”