Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mainlines Moved to the Sidelines...

In the era when I grew up, Ike was in the White House and American religion was very waspish.  That was not so much true under the surface but it was certainly the perception and the reality that your eye could see.  The churches in power and visible in our culture were the Mainlines (variously described as Congregationalist,  Dutch Reformed, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, United Brethren, American Baptist (distinguished from Southern Baptist), and some Lutheran bodies.  There were more Roman Catholics than any other brand but they were not powerful and much less visible than the Mainlines.  When Ike called the nation to prayer, that nation looked very white, very Protestant, and very Northern European (except not so ethnic).

Boy, have things changed!  The Congregationalists were absorbed into the United Church of Christ and have become the most liberal of the denominations (sort of liturgical Unitarians).  The Reformed Church in America (the second oldest continuously existing American denomination) is a blip on the radar except for the shadow of its once most famous preacher (Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral).  The Episcopalians are bleeding the red ink of members like the government is bleeding the red ink of budget deficits and are in danger of being severed from the Anglican Communion entirely (if African Anglicans have their way).  The Methodists have more congregations than anybody but they are largely empty and its method is no longer identifiable.  The stodgy old Presbyterians seem to have given up the doom and gloom of double predestination to join the ranks of the God doubters and social justice Christians.  The United Brethren got to hang the word "united" before Methodist when they were sucked up into that denomination.  The American Baptists herald their diversity while the Southern version heralds its uniformity but they are like a minnow in the Baptist pond.  And the Lutherans... well, the ELCA has hitched its wagon to the Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformed, and UCC while warming up to the social activism of the Episcopalians and they have bled tons of folks since their creation in 1988.  Missouri has remained fairly stable -- bleeding a few less people (after removing those who split off in the mid 1970s) but they are a denomination uncertain of their identity and in conflict over how it will all turn out.  Their focus is largely internal.

The Roman Catholic Church is still America's largest but some new kids have moved into town.  On one hand you have the Pentecostals who were confined to Appalachia but now are on Main Street -- well, make that a large suburban campus of buildings that dwarfs the size of the Mainlines.  On the other hand, you have the American phenomenon of the mega church non-denominational variety that is now the virtual second largest denomination on American soil.  What was not even in existence when I was a kid, has become the almost defining version of American Christianity (Saddleback, Willow Creek, Lakewood, etc.).

The term "evangelical" is not any more uniformly defined than mainline was fifty years ago but it is clearly the style and flavor of Christianity that dominates the landscape.  Presidential contenders stood  sat before Saddleback and their high priest Rick Warren before election day.  An association connected with Willow Creek includes congregations of most denominations and some consider these the movers and shakers of American style Christianity.

Move over, mainlines -- or more accurately, get out of the way... American religious identity is still vibrant but its shape is changing, its content is significantly different than before, and its spirituality embraces a host of religious expressions and is somewhat detached from notions of church and God.

So what shall we do as Missouri Synod Lutherans?  It appears to me, theology aside, that we have a good position in the marketplace of American Christianity.  Take away all theological discussions and look only at the people and places.  What you see is no one who is Word and Sacrament -- whose Word is efficacious and trustworthy and whose Sacraments bestow what they promise...  What you see is no one who glories in the liturgical and dogmatic heritage of the early Church and Reformation but within the context of a community who still believe its words and follow its practices... What you see is no one whose song tells the wonderful old story but without the nostalgia, sentiment, and melancholy and with the confidence that this is the only story that counts (of Jesus and His cross).

You might think that we are being pushed to the sidelines by the convoy of evangelicals and their look alikes but I say to stay the course, keep on the road, and honk the horn... we have something to say, something to offer, and something to give...  What say you??


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

If we hold to our heritage and identity, then we will stand out like a light on a hill. If we fall into the morass, we will be swallowed under the tide and fall into utter obscurity, because we aren't going to out baptist the baptists or out-evangelical the evangelicals.

Anonymous said...

We need to continue to do what we say we are and that is "Confess!!" We are confessional and we need to continue to "confess" that to the world!! Remember, confession is good for the soul!! Must have been a confessional Lutheran who came up with that!!

Anonymous said...

I am a recent convert to Lutheranism from over 25 years of Baptist/Calvary Chapel/Non-denom churches.

The strength of Lutheranism is LUTHERANISM. Be enthusiastic in who you/we are! There is strength and power in the liturgy and sacraments that the rest of Evangelicalism does not have. Don't try to be like them, be who we are, let them be who they are.

My years in Evangelicalism has left me tired. Tired of faking it. Tired of faking my emotions, tired of faking the strength (weakness) of my faith.

Do not take me back there.


ErnestO said...

The Lutheran church's mightiest influence is felt when she is different from the world in which she lives. Her power lies in her being different, rises with the degree in which she differs and sinks as the difference diminishes.

I love the Lutheran Church as she is for me so "old school" making the world just a little better one soul at a time.

Bill S. said...

Exactly! I'm with Rob when he says that his years in Evangelicalism left him tired.

We Lutherans have something to say, and something to share that is desperately needed today. Yes, stay the course and honk the horn!

Steve said...

Law and Gospel Pastor, Law and Gospel. Remove not the ancient landmark! Jesus Christ and Him crucified is all there is.


Janis Williams said...

Yes, the tradition (Liturgy), the confession (Concordia), and Law and Gospel (the Law preached even to the sheep, so they don't lie to themselves, so the Gospel remains the Great Suprise)!

Amen, Rob and Bill S. No more being tired because of our doing and faking from our guilt feelings (induced by Law with NO Gospel)!

Let Lutherans be just that.

Norman Teigen said...

It's all about Cross and Suffering and the Resurrection.

Angela said...

How exciting.Many churches stand for nothing these days.they can close if you ask me.

OldSouth said...

A very good analysis! I, like so many others in this part of the country, grew up as an 'old-school' Southern Baptist: conservative mainly, but classy, education mattered a lot, and reasonable differences were tolerated.

Well, that went away! I just wanted to go to church, see friends, sing hymns, learn something of value from the pulpit, go home, and live a faithful life. What I got was a church version of the WWE. Thus my wanderings began.

Long story short, I'm hunkered down in a Presbyterian congregation that has generally not forsaken that list. It was a long trip to get there.

Each of those traditions you discuss has a unique history and point of view, and has value. Except for the 'non-denominational' evangelicals. Divorced from history, and accountable to no one except the local zeitgeist, each can become its own cult. Not a good thing.

The evangelicals forget one crucial reality, imho: The church's task of catechesis and pastoral care to the flock that is must supercede the attempt to 'lead the world to Christ'. Most of the world doesn't wish to be led that direction. Time and energy are better spent nurturing families, and not trying to look like the outside world. Parishioners and families that function well tend to attract people to church, not the guy at Wal-Mart accosting shoppers to hand them tracts. Happened to me last night.

Great work as always. I just may be slipping in your back row one day soon, again. Every visit I've made, I've enjoyed. The organ and music program rock, btw. More Bach, please, always.