Mainline Protestant Decline and Hope

by Mark Tooley


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(Below are Mark Tooley’s remarks at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia at the Areopagus Forum on February 18.)

This year is an ignominious anniversary for Mainline Protestantism, commemorating a half century of continuous decline since their membership peaks in the early 1960s. Fifty years ago one of every six Americans belonged to the Seven Sisters of Mainline Protestantism. Today it’s one of every 16 and plunging. Membership has dropped from 30 million to 20 million during a time when Americas population has nearly doubled. And it did so despite Gallup Poll’s insistence that overall church attendance has remained essentially the same for about the last 80 years.

In our current post denominational age, many question why this decline matters. Who cares about the Mainline except the dwindling and increasingly aged members who remain? After all, haven’t evangelical churches, especially nondenominationals, plus Catholicism, more than filled the void? Wasn’t it time for the Mainline to leave the stage, having more than played its part in American and Christian history across 4 centuries? And in the end, didn’t they deserve their own demise?

The answers are yes and no. The decline is indeed deserved and self precipitated, but nonetheless very sad for America and the Body of Christ, leaving a spiritual and cultural void that Evangelicals and Catholics, even with their increased numbers, have not been able to fill.

Mainliners literally founded America, from Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, generated its founding principles, which have become universal, and were the spiritual and cultural flagships for our nation for over 350 years. They shaped how we publicly lived out faith and applied it to our democratic process. They created civil religion, which uniquely in the world protected and integrated religion into every aspect of public life without legally establishing any particular religion.

The Mainline’s implosion in part facilitated the culture wars and polarization since the 1960s. With three centuries of experience, the Mainline knew how to lead, to unify and to challenge all at the same time. It offered continuity. It was thoroughly American yet also rooted in the European Reformation. Evangelicalism and Catholicism can’t replace it. One is maybe too much an American creation, and the other is perhaps not American enough.

Mainline Protestantism lost its way when it forgot how to balance being American and being Christian, choosing American individualism and self made spirituality over classical Christianity. Nearly all mainline seminaries had embraced modernism by the 1920s, rejecting the supernatural in favor of metaphorized faith integrated with sociology and political revolution.

By the 1960s, not in-coincidentally, too few clergy were left in the Mainline with strong educations in theological orthodoxy, hence their inability and even unwillingness to evangelize, preferring to adopt the themes of radical cultural and political change that was hyper utopian, egalitarian, therapeutic and individualistic. A 1967 survey found 60 percent of Methodist clergy, for example, disbelieving the Virgin Birth and 50 percent disbelieving the Resurrection.

The impact on Mainline membership was predictable. Absent the imperative for soul-saving and confidence in Christian doctrine, gaining new adherents became more of a sociological exercise or a bid for institutional preservation. Neither inspires great zeal.

In the 1980s there emerged a prominent Mainline prelate who embodied the new face of the Mainline.

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of New Jersey appeared on talk shows and wrote provocative books suggesting the Virgin Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier, or Jesus’ body was torn apart by wild dogs instead of resurrecting. In later years he rejected “theism” altogether. Despite his clerical collar, he’s essentially a materialist who rejects the supernatural. For him Christianity is chiefly an instrument for socialization and political justice.

One of Spong’s books was “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” its thesis being that orthodox Christianity would be rejected by rising new generations, so the oldsters needed to get hip, like he had. But he was essentially peddling an already aged form of Protestant modernism that peaked 100 years ago. Unsurprisingly, during his 20 year reign over the New Jersey Episcopal Diocese, there was a 40 percent membership loss. Who really wants to go to church to hear that Jesus is not divine, didn’t rise from the dead, doesn’t forgive sins, and doesn’t offer eternal life?

Several years ago an IRD staffer after visiting a liberal Methodist seminary to hear Bishop Spong, joked he could find the event by simply following the old people. Even on a college campus, Spong’s audience was all white headed, probably mostly retired oldline Protestant clergy who still can’t figure out why their theology and churches had failed.

Bishop Spong has remained active and outspoken. I’ve subscribed to his weekly email for years but rarely read them, as he has very little new to say. But recently I did read, mildly enticed by the headline “Jesus and Elvis.” A questioner to Spong compared the Savior with the musician, saying he admires both but the fans of each “freak me out.” Despite claims by “fundamentalists,” he says the real Jesus was “anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer, never anti-gay, anti-abortion and never anti-premarital sex among other parameters.”

Spong chastised the questioner a bit, explaining that Jesus “called people to wholeness,” while Elvis was “hedonistic” and died fat, addicted to drugs and booze, revealing “pretty substantial differences.” But Spong admitted both had “devoted followers and one could even say that the followers of both were unable to accept the reality of their heroes’ deaths.” Spong readily agreed that Jesus’ followers have been often quite wicked, a favorite theme of his own, but he points out that the church has at least “raised up within itself visionary voices that bear witness to unpopular truths that eventually have forced institutional change.” No doubt Spong had himself in mind but he modestly cites others like radical Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether and gay advocate Bishop Gene Robinson, another failed Episcopal bishop whose diocesan numbers plunged. In contrast, Spong noted the “followers of Elvis Presley have never raised up minority voices to purge and to purify their movement.”

Spong insisted the “Bible asserts time and again that Christianity is called to be a minority movement, but always affecting the majority. We are told in the New Testament to be the leaven in the dough that causes the bread to rise, to be the salt in the soup that gives it flavor and to be the light in the darkness that will not be extinguished.” Spong explained he’s a Christian despite the church’s sins because “minority Christian voices can and do purge institutional Christianity of its excesses and of its life-diminishing prejudices.”

Interesting that Spong cited the Bible and New Testament as definitive authorities for his views to which others should submit. Maybe he’s still rhetorically clinging to the southern “fundamentalism” of his youth that he’s expended decades mocking and disavowing. Spong sees himself and other enlightened voices as the prophetic minority witness within a large corrupt institution, the church, which has been largely failing to represent its Founder for virtually its whole history. But what higher truths above church and Bible credential Spong et al? He’s never really clear. Spong likes to cite “science” with the sneering confidence of a village atheist, but science says nothing about the moral imperatives of fighting racism and homophobia that are central to Spong’s career.

So Spong’s final authority is Spong and the kindred spirits, mostly all modernists, he finds along the way to echo his own views. It’s a narrow perspective, very captive to the here and now, and even then to a certain segment of politically correct, Western liberal opinion. But Spong soldiers onward, with fewer and fewer listeners. At least he’s remained resolutely consistent in his 35 years of scoffing critique of orthodox Christianity.

A colleague of Spong’s on the Jesus Seminar who recently passed away, although a decade younger, was Marcus Borg, another Episcopal self styled theologian who represented a somewhat newer version of Mainline Protestant liberalism. He has been eulogized in countless blogs and articles by admirers acclaiming his spiritual insights. We can pray that God comforted his family in their recent loss.

Unfortunately, Borg did not believe in the kind of personal deity, or “supernatural theism” as he derided it, who provides this kind of direct comfort to individuals. Instead, he advocated an impersonal deity understood through panentheism (distinct from straight pantheism), which asserts that all creation is a part of God. As professor at Oregon State University, he specialized in deconstructing traditional Christian beliefs about God, Christ, and the Bible.

Twenty and thirty years ago the Jesus Seminar got routine headlines for its regular and supposedly scholarly “discoveries” that Jesus never claimed divinity or rose from the dead or said much of anything ascribed to Him in the Bible. Instead, Jesus was actually an irenic social justice philosopher and activist, just like most of the Jesus Seminar academics.

Borg’s obituaries have credited him for his relative respectfulness to more orthodox Christian scholars, in contrast with the disdain exuded by many of the Jesus Seminar’s philosopher kings. His colleague Episcopal Bishop Spong specializes in sarcastic contempt for orthodox Christianity and its unwashed adherents. Borg enjoyed debate with his theological adversaries, for years conducting public exchanges with his friendly interlocutor Tom Wright, the British biblical scholar and Church of England bishop. The two even authored a book together offering their different versions of Jesus, one a divine Savior announcing God’s Kingdom, according to Wright, the other a mortal Jewish mystic later deified by the church, according to Borg.

Fifteen years ago, in a typical exchange, Borg and Wright spoke at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which I attended and reported. Borg of course said much of the Gospels, like the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ multiplying of the loaves or walking on the sea, were “history metaphorized.” Likely Jesus didn’t think Himself a messiah or anticipate His death. Instead his martyrdom made him like Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Borg described Jesus as a Jewish mystic or “spirit person,” whose “visions of the sacred” were “shamanic,” “peak experiences,” or “altered states of consciousness.”

Like Buddha, Jesus taught “wisdom,” and Jesus was also a social prophet who critiqued the “domination system” of His day. “Does it matter if Jesus thought He was messiah?” Borg asked. “Tom says yes. I say no.” He rejected an “interventionist God” who performs miracles or directly inspires Scripture.

Although erudite and polished, Borg could be a little snippy with traditional believers, especially if they lacked academic pedigree. One questioner in the cathedral audience asked if the Holy Spirit had guided interpretation of the Bible. “I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would be helpful in judging the factuality of the Gospels,” responded Borg. “The Holy Spirit is irrelevant in that decision making process.” Responding to another questioner, he said Jesus only became divine metaphorically in the church’s memory after Easter. And the Resurrection didn’t mean anything actually happened to His corpse. Again, more metaphor, merely showing Jesus to be “at one with God.”

Over the years I heard Borg speak on numerous occasions, usually at liberal Protestant events whose audiences were typically old, nearly all white and tied to academia or the clergy of declining Mainline denominations. Borg himself became a cannon theologian at an Episcopal cathedral, and his wife is an Episcopal priest.

Even though he professed Christianity, Borg was frank about rejecting nearly all core Christian beliefs. The “pre-Easter Jesus is a figure of the past, dead and gone. He isn’t anywhere,” with talk about his corpse or an empty tomb merely “irrelevant distractions.” Only an arrogant, delusional Jesus would have claimed divinity or predicted resurrection, Borg noted, adding, “We have categories of psychology for people who talk that way about themselves.”

Accordingly Borg didn’t think God answered prayer, didn’t believe in a specific afterlife, didn’t think Christianity was uniquely true or would even necessarily persist, and did not believe in a creator God or even a personal God, concepts more suitable for children who lack “critical thinking” than for adults.

Raised in a traditional Lutheran home, Borg apparently first gained enlightenment through liberal theology at Union Seminary in New York. He at times recalled that he once believed in the Christmas story as literally involving a virgin birth, a “magic star,” and Wise Men, when he lacked the “mental equipment” in his youth to think otherwise. Only with education and post-adolescent critical thinking did he reject “childlike literalization of the personifications of God.”

Rejecting God as a personal creator who presides over creation, Borg hailed panentheism for recognizing “we and everything that is are in God. God is not something else. God is right here and all around us. We are within God.” He explained: “The best way to refer to God is You, the You who is right here.”

With this notion of self-deification, along with Jesus’ supposed “shamanic journeys,” Borg believed in “paranormal healings,” visions, and altered states of consciousness. Of course, Borg rejected notions of sin and salvation, along with conventional “moralistic” standards, preferring self-enlightenment and self-empowerment.

Christianity for Borg was only a helpful “lens” through which to view the sacred. “If we stop using the Christian lens, then we cease to be Christian and that’s not the end of the world. If humanity lasts 10,000 years, then I expect that, if Christianity lasts at all, then it will be a tiny sect like Zoroastrianism. We’re not going to last forever in the Christian tradition. The Christian lens will eventually fall into disuse.”

Bizarrely, Borg, speaking in the 1990s, thought liberal Mainline churches were losing members because they still clung to biblical “literalism” instead of embracing his idea of enlightenment. But they would have a “very bright future” once they reinterpreted their faith “metaphorically.” In contrast, “fundamentalism” had “reached its high water mark.”

Borg’s deity did not hear prayer, forgive sin, exude grace, inspire love, or offer heaven. For Borg, an abstract deity within self and nature can be reached in self-generated visions or altered states of consciousness. His panentheism ultimately incorporated even evil into the divine, making virtue and love nonsensical. Such a vision is depressing and illogical. Why it, if fully contemplated, should have inspired anybody is unclear.

Yet Borg had his fans among especially Mainline Protestants. Along with his leftist politics and critique of traditional Christians, perhaps they identified with how he clung tenaciously to Jesus as “light of the world,” even if only a metaphor. He rejected absolute truth yet also resisted nihilism. Seemingly some kernel of faith from his Lutheran childhood survived and hopefully reignited when Borg finally faced the afterlife and personal deity he had for years rejected.

Sadly the Mainline churches and clergy who have heeded Borg’s theology have suffered a terrible price in lost members, vitality and cultural influence.

Recently I was conversing with a United Methodist friend about a church we previously attended. It’s now in difficult financial straits, property has been sold, membership is down, and the minister is leaving early.

The trajectory would be familiar to many Mainline Protestants. There was a film series introduced into the adult Sunday school featuring Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, among other radical revisionists, generating contentious debate and ill will. The lobbyist for United Methodism’s liberal Capitol Hill office was a featured guest preacher. The U.S. flag was removed from the sanctuary. The small young adult group was sent to visit an urban Reconciling congregation as an exemplar. “Transgender” and “global warming” occasionally appeared in a sermon, as did references to supposedly universal church decline across America, to which we were evidently to be reconciled. “Sexual orientation” appeared on the church website. A prayer to “our Father/Mother God” prompted me to stop attending there altogether.

All of this liberal inclusivity and diversity should have been enticing to Millennials and other sought after demographics, right? Of course not. The once strong and large congregation now may or may not survive.

That story, as I was telling my friend after worship at another United Methodist church, contrasts with another previously dying congregation in the area, which is Southern Baptist. It has a large, imposing property but the congregation had dwindled to a few elderly. Another conservative Presbyterian congregation that rents the property had been expected eventually to purchase it. But a new young Southern Baptist pastor was dispatched, and a couple hundred are now worshipping in his congregation. He has a dramatic testimony, and he is emphatic about the exclusivity of Christ and the Bible’s authority. His message and ministry fall considerably outside the parameters of political correctness. And now his once dying church has a future.

My United Methodist friend remarked upon hearing this story that in general we know what will grow a church. It’s not a mystery. The real question is, do we want the biblical message and ministry that will attract new people, or do we prefer less challenging alternatives, with predictable outcomes. Church vitality or decline to a large extent are choices. For 50 years, once Mainline denominations have chosen to decline. Some Evangelical churches have chosen to grow. The Lord sets that choice before every church and honors the decisions made.

United Methodism is the largest Mainline denomination. The year 1965 was the last year that Methodism had membership growth in the U.S. Starting in 1966, there’s been membership decline EVERY year. Our church lost almost 4 million members, over one third of the original 11 million, during a time when the U.S. population nearly doubled.

Meanwhile, other Wesleyan denominations have grown over the last 50 years, often dramatically.

The Church of God increased by two thirds. The Wesleyan Church increased by 75 percent. The Church of the Nazarene nearly doubled. The Free Methodist Church increased by 25 percent. The Assemblies of God have increased a whopping 500 percent. Growth for most of these churches over the last several years has leveled off, except for the still fast growing Assemblies. But none are experiencing United Methodism’s ongoing exodus.
Methodism had been America’s largest Protestant denomination until surpassed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1967, whose membership is now more than double United Methodism’s.

Nearly all the Mainline denominations have declined even more than Methodism, with similar comparisons to more conservative denominations of the same tradition that have grown significantly. Thanks to Africa, United Methodism is growing globally, with nearly 13 million members, possibly the 9th largest denomination in the world. But none of the other Mainline denominations have that global advantage.

Many perhaps most Mainline clergy remain firmly in denial about the causes of decline. Some falsely and comfortingly assume all churches in America are shriveling. Others try to sanctify shrinking churches as somehow more faithful and spiritually elite. For them, church growth is idolatrous.
But there’s nothing holy about a death spiral, is there? The Gospel commands offering redemption to the whole world. All the church’s good works, rightly understood, are in service to the urgent evangelistic imperative. The fields are white to harvest.

Recently in Washington, D.C. I was walking by an old United Methodist sanctuary, one of scores of beautiful Mainline sanctuaries in the nation’s capital and countless other large cities that but sadly mostly empty on Sunday mornings. Hearing uncharacteristic music emanating from the windows, curiosity drove me inside, where I was surprised to see a full congregation of almost all twenty-somethings singing robustly as a band performed behind the altar. There being no seating left, I went upstairs to the balcony.

The congregation, of course, was not United Methodist but an Evangelical congregation tied to a Calvinist network and founded just a few years ago by a young pastor from out of town. Meanwhile, the home United Methodist congregation has virtually died off. I was glad to see the stately old sanctuary put to good use for vital worship and ministry reaching Millennials.

But I was saddened to contemplate there is no Methodist equivalent in Washington, D.C. or in most large cities. Institutional United Methodism in America has given up on cities and given up on young people, so no surprise we are declining by nearly 100,000 annually. Pockets of United Methodist vitality are typically is in the suburbs.

Sometimes over the years I’ve been asked by friends where their young adult child newly arrived in the nation’s capital might find a vital and orthodox United Methodist church. I’ve told them there really are no options. So they end up at any one of dozens of Evangelical new church plants that successfully attract young people, like the one I spontaneously visited.

Think about it. The most powerful city in the world has almost no vital, orthodox United Methodist churches. Instead there are typically small, liberal congregations that celebrate their diversity but have little capacity for meaningful outreach. The same is true for most large cities. And institutional United Methodism has no capacity to address this challenge.

The Evangelical congregation I visited this evening describes their mission explicitly and evangelistically. Their website says: “We believe in the personal, bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”

It also says:

God’s gospel requires a response that has eternal consequences. We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace. Amen.

In contrast, what is the mission of diversity churches? Inclusiveness, community building, radical hospitality, affirmation, etc. One United Methodist congregation in D.C. advertises its welcome to all this way:

No matter,
– Where you’ve come from or are going;
– What you believe or doubt;
– What you are feeling or just not feeling;
– What you have or don’t have; and
– No matter whom you love
All of who you are
– is welcomed into this community of faith
– by a God who loves you passionately.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

So what does that mean? And whom would it excite? All are welcome into what, for what? Most Millennials, and nearly everyone else, would respond with yawns. Hence the empty churches.

As mentioned, a recent Gallup reports 41 percent of Americans say they attend church weekly or more. This number has stayed remarkably constant for 80 years. This survey, along with Pew poll showing large majorities believing in the historicity of the Christmas story, rebuts sweeping claims that America is becoming more and more and more secular. The rising numbers of “nones” partly reflects non church goers who once may have cited their parents’ religious affiliations as their own if asked but now no longer bother. Many of them are from Mainline Protestant backgrounds,

America’s cultural elites – in academia, entertainment, journalism, social sciences, and non elected government – maybe more secular. But the American people as a whole, however confusedly and inconsistently, seem to be as religiously believing and practicing as ever.

One of the mostly untold stories about the continued vibrancy of American religion is the last two decades of successful church planting in many of America’s great cities. Tim Keller’s very influential Redeemer Church network, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, in New York is a prime example. It, along with hundreds of other Evangelical urban church plants, specializes in attracting young professionals who have fueled a renaissance in many American cities after the several decades of decline and decay following WWII and America’s suburbanization.

Washington, D.C.’s rebirth and growth of recent years has included a plethora of new church plants appealing mainly to Millennials. One of the most prominent and successful has been a National Community Church (NCC), an Assemblies of God related network of now seven congregations, several of which are now in Virginia. Pastor Mark Batterson started the first church 19 years ago when himself in his mid twenties. It grew rapidly while meeting at a downtown cinema, and several of its congregations now meet in theaters, including a restored Vaudeville theater in the once depressed but now fashionably thriving Barracks Row neighborhood. NCC also owns a popular DC coffee house that often hosts special talks and music.

Batterson announced in time for Christmas that NCC, in its latest advance, has purchased the Blue Castle, an iconic 100,000 square foot 124 year old former trolley barn. It’s a few blocks from the Barracks Row theater and, across the street from the Navy Yard, in what recently was a dangerous, gutted neighborhood that now enjoys increasing vitality and development. This massive new church space, purchased with a $4.5 million down payment, will serve as a music and theater venue during the week, with more traditional church use on the weekend, plus children’s activities and “providing incubator spaces for like-mission, like-minded non-profits that serve the city.”

A seminal event for Batterson’s ministry was in 1996 after losing the school space where his young congregation met. He walked a prayer circle around Capitol Hill imploring divine assistance, after which he gained the initial movie theater space. He notes that the newly acquired Blue Castle is at the the same corner he rounded on his 4.7-mile prayer walk, which was the basis of his popular book The Circle Maker. The purchase letter of intent was signed 18 years to the day of his prayer walk.

“It was a miracle, 18 years in the making,” Batterson declares. “When God gives a vision, He makes provision.” He insists the “church belongs in the middle of the marketplace.”

NCC’s thriving ministry among mainly young people who are flocking to rejuvenated neighborhoods in the nation’s capital showcases the ongoing resilience of American religion, especially Evangelicalism. Batterson’s 11 books and wide social media following, with over 90,000 Twitter followers, also illustrate the changing optics and messaging of American spirituality. Some traditionalists maybe discomfited by the pragmatic styling, but the core message is orthodox Christianity transmitted through contemporary media.

Possibly Washington D.C. is experiencing more religious renewal today than it has in a half century or more. We can be grateful for how God is deploying churches like NCC and pastors like Batterson, even as the Mainline Protestants are absent from this revival.

A recent survey showed about 90 percent of members of the U.S. Congress, which meets just blocks from Batterson’s church, profess adherence to Christian churches, according to a new survey from Pew, compared to nearly 95 percent 50 years ago. Members adhering to other religions, especially Judaism, have increased, with Jewish representation going from just over two percent to just over five percent. Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist representation stand at under one percent each. Less than one percent profess no religious affiliation.

In contrast, about 15 to 20 percent of the American general population profess no specific religious affiliation, and about 75 to 80 percent profess Christianity. No surprise here. Politicians, typically ambitious extroverts, obviously are much likelier to be joiners and adherents of institutions.

Maybe most interesting, although again not surprising, is the shift in types of Christian affiliation. Fifty years ago over half of Congress was Mainline Protestant. Today it’s only about a quarter. Methodists by themselves were nearly one fifth of Congress then, now it’s less than ten percent. Presbyterians also dropped by about 50 percent, and Episcopal/Anglicans lost about a third. Congregationalists dropped by four fifths, and now comprise less than one percent, a steep decline from their ascendancy in early America.

Catholics are up from under 20 percent to over 30 percent. And Baptists increased about a quarter, now just under 15 percent. Undefined Protestants have more than doubled to more than 10 percent, probably reflecting the growth of nondenominational Christianity, although almost no members of Congress specifically professed nondenominational.

Can Mainline implosion be faulted for increased fractiousness in Congress and government? The Mainline traditions transcended party differences and mediated how Americans, especially their governing and social elites, translated their faith into governance without succumbing to fisticuffs.

Some of America’s greatest social reform movements also emerged from Mainline Protestantism. These churches gave the nation civic conscience and orderly habits for government and debate.

Mainline Protestantism across four centuries in America mightily contributed to the ethos of American democracy by not routinely becoming partisan but by affirming honest civic life, opposing corruption, and backing social reforms directly tied to public morals. Protestant social reformers have fought liquor and drug abuse, prostitution, gambling, pornography, and government corruption, all of which were typically connected in a web of social vice. These reformers assumed that democracy could not effectively survive absent virtue.

The churches also long opposed these vices because of a specific Christian anthropology that affirms human dignity, understands the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and believes joyful living is premised on hard work, self denial and delayed gratification. They spiritually recognized that vice breeds more vice, and that the chief victims are typically not the ostensibly consenting adults but the more vulnerable, especially children and the impoverished, who are trapped under the trash heap of social and personal corruption.

Protestant social reformers long had a vision of social righteousness that saw the hand of Providence in the affairs of nations. They inspired and hearkened to the words of James Russell Lowell’s famous 1845 hymn, which has since disappeared from some Mainline hymnals, that declared:

Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

The original Protestant social reformers knew that humanity is spirit, and eternal, not just material, and that the soul of a nation supersedes its short term financial interests. Indeed, permanent prosperity can only be sustained by morality and justice. They also began their witness to society with the premise that the church’s first responsibility was to evangelize, disciple and nurture individual souls, guiding them heavenward, towards holiness and truth. A clean society with virtue on the throne would help lead individual souls in the right direction and in so doing glorify God before the world.

Protestant social reform understood it was fighting a perpetual spiritual war against the Devil and human sin. But they were confident in God’s redemptive power both for individuals and societies. But theological liberalism and the Social Gospel denied the spiritual aspect of humanity’s destiny and turned humans into strictly material creatures with rights to certain material goods, to be guaranteed by a coercive, engorged state.

Traditional Mainline social reform saw a righteous society as a roadway towards Heaven. Unlike the Social Gospel, which rejected Heaven and equated social justice with politically achieving God’s fulfilled Kingdom, the old Mainline witness was rooted to orthodox theology, and more accurately understood the institutional church’s carefully defined vocation for political witness.

The successes and failures of 400 years of Mainline Protestant witness in America have much to teach Evangelicals and other Christians, especially nondenominationals, of today who too often are untethered to historical traditions and are themselves very vulnerable to succumbing to hyper American individualistic spirituality at the expense of orthodox faith.

So maybe the Mainline at this point is primarily useful as teacher and warning. But we should be more hopeful still. As the implosion continues, a new generation will arise in the Mainline that will admit the failures and will seek a new direction that will lead back to orthodoxy. They will ponder the vitality of pockets of orthodoxy that will have persisted with the Mainline. And they will appreciate the witness of new denominations that emerged from the Mainline after compromises over marriage and sexuality.

Oddly, many young clergy in the Mainline, while liberal on sex, are far more orthodox on central Christian teachings as found in the ancient creeds, not at all attracted to Bishop Spong’s materialism or even Borg’s panentheism. Perhaps they will with time realize that the orthodoxy of the universal church across time and culture provides a reliable guide to both theology and ethics.

The Church as the Body of Christ endures now and forever, and no aspect of Christian practice or tradition, whether Mainline or not, can thrive except that it is firmly planted in this Body.

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