The historic Protestant churches in America are often called the “mainline” churches. Some have said the mainline is now the “old line” and others have declared that the “old line” is simply dead. And if the mainline is not dead then it soon will be dead once the endowments run out and the party is finally over.
The term mainline seems to have evolved from the traditional aristocratic community located just outside Philadelphia. This community was once served by the main line of the former Pennsylvania Railroad. The Oxford Dictionary says the first use of the term came in 1841 and adds that the first use of the term to describe churches did not come until 1972. The term appears to have emerged from within the 1960s youth culture as the counterculture responded negatively to the historic churches and called them the mainline.
It is not perfectly clear what the term “mainline churches” means today. For some it only refers to those churches associated with convention and conventionality, thus churches like the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians in particular. To these, however, most historians have added older groups like the American Baptists, the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, the Lutherans (ELCA), the Reformed (RCA) and several others. Some broader definitions of the mainline even include Roman Catholics as a part of the mainline, thus stressing the historical continuity of these religious bodies.
Martin Marty has even called these mainline churches the “old dominion” denominations. In 1973 Marty called these churches “standard brand religion” and “the traditional, inherited, normative, or median style of American spirituality and organization” over against the “marginal” and/or “fringe groups.” By 1987 Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney used this term to describe “those religious groups that contribute to society’s core values.” If this idea is accepted then the definition of the mainline turns on whether a church body accepts or challenges the core values of American culture. This is why Mennonites, for example, are not mainline even though they have been here a long time.
The problem with all of this is that mainline churches are often defined as distinct from evangelical or fundamentalist churches. Mainline, in this instance, refers to “historical denominations having membership reflecting greater diversity” and being involved in some way in the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. I believe this latter idea is closest to the best way to define the mainline. If this is true then within the mainline there are both liberal and evangelical elements, even some very conservative elements still. The difference between mainline churches and non-mainline churches may have more to do with social agendas than anything else. But increasingly evangelical non-mainline churches are engaging social issues as actively as any mainline church. In the abortion debate mainline churches may stress “choice” while more evangelical churches stress “life” but both are involved in the social issue of abortion, to give just one example.
One thing is clear. Since the 1980s the mainline churches have been in decline, some much more than others. These churches also have less and less influence in the culture. Could it be that what once passed as non-mainline churches, or more evangelical churches, are now becoming the new mainline and thus include the socially prominent elite of a bygone era? Yes and no. But one thing is sure: the mainline is not what is was just after World War II.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church in Tennessee. I knew other churches and Christians but this was what I knew best and until high school I wondered, like most children, why others who professed faith were not more like us? When I came to Wheaton College in 1969 I met the mainline for the first time. While the majority of Wheaton students did not come from mainline churches quite a few did. I thus had my first real experience of Christian dialogue with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians. (All of these were present in my small southern town but none were as prominent, or dominant, as the Baptists!)
Eventually I concluded that the mainline churches were almost all quite liberal and wondered if anything good could come from such churches? At the time I could not have imagined myself ever becoming a minister in the mainline but then my life has always been lived with a desire to follow Christ where I felt he led me. The old Baptist invitation hymn has often played in my mind: “Wherever he leads I’ll go, wherever he leads I’ll go, I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so, wherever he leads I’ll go.”
So today I am a member and minister in the Protestant mainline. I am a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and attend, as an associate member, a Lutheran mainline church in the ELCA. There is much to cause me some heartache in the mainline. But there is a lot to like as well. I feel like I belong to neither side in many debates. I am not an old line liberal nor an advocate for the Christian Right. I do not fit emotionally or spiritually in many evangelical churches yet I love them and many of my best friends serve in such churches with great freedom and joy. Many of these friends wonder how in the world I can be in the mainline and I wonder how they can suffer some of the liturgical nonsense that passes for worship in the non-mainline churches. One thing I am sure about: God has a faithful people who love his son in every church. “The Lord knows those who are his.”