Mainline decline! Sounds catchy, don’t ya think? Slogan-like. Something you might see on the side of a bus. It even rhymes.
On my shelf I have two kinds of books. 1) those that proclaim mainline decline as divine tough love. 2) those who say the death of mainline churches is greatly exaggerated.
I think they’re both right.
I used to be all about the numbers. Actually, I still am. Sort of. I’ve been suspicious of convenient - Righteous Remnant – theology that lets Christians off the evangelistic hook. In fact, I’ve heard one person say, “If your church is growing then you need to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.”
I wonder what mistake the Apostles were making in the Book of Acts.
However, I’m equally suspicious of growth-at-any-cost evangelism. I’ve read 30 or 40 church growth books (really!) and some are better than others. But none of them ask important questions. Well, questions I ask.
Most say that the church needs to engage culture, to use the tools of the culture to make the gospel “relevant” (a buzzword that just won’t die). We need to speak the culture’s language, they say. Otherwise the uninitiated won’t understand Jesus’ message.
But I wonder, at what point do we go from using culture as a tool, to changing culture, transforming the world. To being swallowed whole by it. Is culture sinful? If so, how? If not, then how far does sin extend into the world.
I’ve always felt queasy about too many trappings of culture in churches. Multi-media, theatre lighting, cool websites, Passion of the Christ showings. Does the medium commandeer the message? Do cultural trappings merely say to the world: see, we’re not so different? Come and join us and you won’t be asked to change. Except for your sex life. Maybe.
Or are we simply baptizing consumer culture, and Christianity becomes just another commodity, an accessory, an add-on, one more thing to do?
I lie awake worrying about this. If we truly follow the poor, homeless rabbi from the sticks, then shouldn’t our lives reflect the one whose name we bear? Maybe we should be meeting in parks instead of palaces, homes instead of holy-mansions. In the backrooms of bars. At Starbucks.
(I write this just as my church will looking to raise a million dollars for a new building. This makes me a first-class hypocrite. So, what else is new?)
If mainline Protestantism is in decline, then maybe God is culling the herd, clearing the deadwood, knocking us down a couple pegs. Maybe God is asking us to do more with less. The whole loaves and fishes thing.
After all, look what the disciples were able to do without cathedrals or PowerPoint. Look what Jesus was able to do with only his message - and the gift of himself.