Mainline churches: You have a HUGE opportunity here.
It is staring you right in the face.
And a lot of you are letting it slip away.
There are an awful lot of post-evangelicals running around out there. Many have left evangelicalism altogether but many are still in evangelical churches, perhaps hoping that they can use such influence as they may have to change things for the better or perhaps because they just don’t know where to go next. They are weary of the incessant shallowness that they see in evangelicalism–the high-intensity praise bands with crazy light shows that play nothing but the latest CCM, the pastors who spend every waking moment attempting (and failing miserably) to be fashionally relevant with people who were still in diapers when they finished seminary, the increasing prevalence of “Biblical preaching” that is really all about whatever political/moral/theological bone your pastor may have to pick with the world at large or principles for better dating/parenting/marriage/finances/life, the persistent marginalization of the sacraments and especially the Eucharist in favor of such preaching–I could keep going here but I think you get the idea. They want desperately to connect with something that is more ancient and historical, where preaching and engagement with theological issues are at a much greater depth, where the sacraments and especially the Eucharist are valued rightly, where the traditions and practices of the historical Church down through the centuries are valued rightly.
Mainlines: You have SO MANY of these things. If you could figure out a way to reach out to these post-evangelicals, your churches would all be bursting at the seams right now.
But this won’t just happen of its own accord. They won’t just show up on your doorstep on their own. You will have to want them, and to do some things differently in order to meet them at least partway.
–First, you will have to show that you take the Bible seriously.
This one is very important, so I am going to pause here and go off on a rant. And I am going to push pretty hard, so be warned.
A lot of evangelicals and post-evangelicals, myself included, were initially drawn to evangelicalism because it takes the Bible seriously–or at least talks a very good game about taking the Bible seriously. We believe that the Bible is true and real, not just a collection of feel-good devotional sayings for use on Hallmark cards but rather something to be heard, believed, and obeyed. We very strongly feel the force of passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:17-20:
If Christ has not been raised [the death and resurrection of Christ is the central theme to which all of Scripture points], your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
We cannot and will not accept that Jesus Christ was just a good moral teacher who said some good things that will make the world a better place if people pay attention to them. We will not accept that the Resurrection is nothing more than something that happens in our hearts or that it is symbolism for how the spirit of Jesus’ teachings lives on. We believe that the Resurrection is something that actually happened. If it didn’t happen, why give money away to help those who are less fortunate? Why stay in a difficult marriage–or even be married at all? Why be ethical in the workplace? Why not just say “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”?
The Bible has many difficult and problematic parts. You may have trouble accepting that Jonah really got swallowed up by a whale or that a loving God approved the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians by the Israelites. Lots of Christians have struggled with these issues and many others down through the centuries of church history. There are many possible ways to think through these issues. You may struggle with these issues and never get any resolution for as long as you live, and that’s okay too. But the one thing you must NOT do is say “The Bible doesn’t REALLY say that. Those people are primitives who didn’t know what they were talking about. They wrote this stuff down hundreds and in some cases thousands of years after the events they were describing, so who knows if this is really what it is supposed to say?” That option is not open to you.
You mainlines have a longstanding reputation among us for dismissing the supernatural and miraculous elements of our faith and reducing the Bible to something that is not worth anything except as a collection of sentimental, devotional sayings for use on Hallmark cards. A lot of this is due to stereotypes formed by rants about “those godless liberal” mainlines, but unfortunately there are many places where this reputation is richly deserved.
You will have to show us that the stereotypes are wrong. You will have to show us that you value the Bible as something more than just a book full of sentimental Hallmark-card sayings. You will have to show us that you value the Resurrection more than the latest pronouncement from the Jesus Seminar gang or the latest Discovery Channel special showing that the Resurrection is just a fabrication and there is nothing more to Jesus than just a few nice sayings and a box of bones somewhere (we don’t know where but by God we’ll find it one of these days).
Okay. End of rant.
–Your emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness is one of your strong points. But you will have to show that this extends to people who hold theologically and politically conservative viewpoints. In many places you have made it known that those on the left are very welcome in your churches, those on the right…uh, not so much.
We aren’t all the intolerant pricks you have made us out to be, though some of us may hold views that you find intolerable. I know there are a lot of negative stereotypes about those who hold conservative viewpoints, and in many instances those stereotypes are extremely well-deserved. But if you will just reach out and listen to us and figure out ways to have an actual conversation, I think you may find that a lot of us will be willing to at least listen to you. And who knows, you may even win some of us over.
–You will have to show that you are intentional about missions, outreach, and evangelism. These things are very strong priorities in evangelicalism.
We feel very strongly that the Christian message has implications for every person on the face of the earth, and that all people need to hear it. Our means of getting the Christian message out there aren’t always the best. In many places evangelicalism has committed itself to methods that dilute, cheapen, misrepresent, and/or distort the Christian message horribly. But that does not in any way alter the reality that all people need to hear the Christian message. We want to know that you share our sense of urgency about this and are willing to partner with us in this.
–Whatever you do, do NOT fall into the trap of trying to grow your churches by becoming imitators of the worst aspects of evangelical culture for the sake of “relevance”.
Mainlines: You have an opportunity here. Please do not let it pass you by.
Frank Schaeffer, the son of iconic evangelical activist Francis Schaeffer who left his family’s evangelicalism, echoes many of these sentiments. He offers examples of mainline churches that are doing creative things to reach out to post-evangelicals and wonders why their efforts aren’t being replicated on a larger scale. Read “Missing the ‘Mainline’ Protestant Opportunity”
Michael Spencer echoed similar sentiments in a piece he did a few years back. Read what he has to say