The Protestant "mainline" is a common description used to refer to churches in America that are in fellowship with the older, historic denominations rooted in early American history; e.g. Lutheran, Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed, etc. These groups are the ones that now struggle mightily for their collective soul since liberalism, and compromise with culture, has eroded their witness for many decades. I am deeply attracted to these mainline churches and to the possibility that real spiritual renewal will include some of them. I do not think these denominational entities will necessarily be renewed, at least as ecclesial structures. I do believe that hundreds, indeed thousands, of churches/congregations within these communions can, and I pray will, undergo spiritual renewal.

I was reminded of this prospect again today as I drove home from a two-day weekend ministry in a mainline congregation, Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Rockford, Illinois. Westminster is thriving spiritually. It has three morning services, includes keen and earnest people from across a wide age spectrum, and has a healthy diversity in style. The church will soon enter a beautiful new facility situated on forty acres east of the city. Westminster will, more than likely, have a very strategic ministry to the greater Rockford area for many years to come. From what I saw this weekend it is a healthy church for a number of reasons, the primary one being that it is led by two bright, visionary, and humble pastors who serve the flock well. as co-pastors. Pastors David Smazik and Bill Ward are co-pastors at Westminister and complement one another’s gifts wonderfully, showing no rivalry at all. Their commitment to servant ministry is one that very few independent evangelical churches can make work.

Why do I personally believe in renewal for the mainline? Several reasons came home to me today. First, I find evangelical mainline pastors and churches very interested in the most important things, not sectarian issues and partisan politics. The "left behind" silliness is a non-starter.

Second, people in the mainline are less inhibited people on the whole. They are historically rooted, intelligent, and serious folks (with a Christian mind). They serve without the crass pride that so often attends the separatistic spirit I have seen in many younger churches.

Third, there is a deep sense of need and spiritual hunger that is refreshing in so many mainline congregations. People do not come to church just to listen to good Bible exposition. They come to worship in spirit and in truth. Churches that major on "teaching the Bible," in certain expected ways, often become occupied with learning the Bible as an end in itself. This emphasis is frankly harmful and very often creates a censorious spirit. An emphasis on the Word, without the Spirit, destroys people and leads to division and arrogance.

Fourth, mainline churches are generally committed to both the Word and the Table, not just to the pulpit. Because of this there is real room for mystery here. This is joined with a willingness to not close one’s mind as the more independent evangelicals are prone to do.

Fifth, mainline evangelical churches have a sense of history in a very good way. They do not show the rampant Gnostic spirit that I so often see in the independent and newer churches, particularly those born in the second half of the twentieth century.

Don’t get me wrong. Mainline churches have their own particular problems. They are engaged in a great war with their hierarchies in most cases. But while official denominational leadership might be failing badly many local churches are experiencing life under good leadership and great biblical care. I saw that again today. I expect to see more of it in the years to come. I am grateful to be invited to serve churches like Westminster, who still retain their association with the mainline. I’ve learned a great deal from these churches. I believe that I am a better "catholic evangelical Christian" for working among these fine Christians.

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  1. Gene Redlin September 12, 2005 at 8:00 pm

    Sorry to dominate as a sole commenter.
    But, I have an opinion on lots of stuff.
    I wish I shared your optimism on “mainline” groups.
    That said, I’m a believer in “BIG CHURCH”. I think you can do more with significant infrastructure than you can with we few and no more.
    The house church movement so rampant will find itself running out of steam. This goes against the grain of lots of my pentecostal and charimatic brothers and sisters. They somehow believe if it’s small it’s holy.
    It can be small and holy. But, with strong effective leadership and covering can be a real force for good in the world.
    I look at what Joel Osteen, T D Jakes and Tommy Barnett (and Matthew his son) and thier combined churches of over 100,000 people and what they are doing in the Katrina relief campaign. You can’t do that with a house church very easily.
    I hope you are right and those churches can be revived. I fear that the jolt will be too much. If they do revive they will not look like the church they used to be. The old folks (I’m 60 so I qualify) will be put out by the changes as these churches minister to uncomfortable people.
    I “spamed” many large denominational churches, some pentecostal in doctrine regarding welcoming in some of the evacuees from Katrina, the mantra has been, Those people wouldn’t be comfortable here. I wonder who wouldn’t be comfortable where. If they doubted my ability to make it happen they might have been more pious. Rubber meeting the road time really brings out reality.
    God will have to break people of comfort for true renewal and revival to come.
    I want to believe he will. Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.

  2. Nathanael September 14, 2005 at 7:38 am

    I share your optimism John.
    The criticism of mainline churches for allowing themselves to be influenced by liberal theology is clearly not without grounds. And the tendency in larger denominations to allow heirarchy to interfere with biblical qualifications for leadership is also of concern.
    However the laity is not blind to these problems. The more I interact with the laity of mainline churches the more I am encouraged by their desire for true spirituality in Christ for the renewal of their churches and the larger unity of the body of Christ.

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