In the Church tradition I was raised in, the nooks and back alleyways of Reformed Presbyterianism, the common view of “mainline” denominations was that they were apostate. Hopelessly compromised. Run completely off the road. Rife with unbelief. I’m sure those back alleyways still think this way, though I no longer frequent them very often (still Reformed, just outside the narrow confines in terms of readership and participation).
As my love for ecumenism has grown, I have gradually reached out and been reached out to by people of diverse faith-traditions. As always, I am grateful and blessed by them. So when I began attending a UMC (United Methodist Church), I was surprised by what I found. I found that there are faithful still there, even among the pastors and teachers and theologians. In a very illuminating conversation with the pastor of this church, I was told that when he was getting ordained, all the ministerial candidates were asking questions like “Do we really have to believe in a virgin birth and a resurrection from the dead?” Today, he said, more and more people in these mainline denominations are answering that question with, “Yes, you really have to believe in a virgin birth and resurrection from the dead.”
What I found in the mainline churches is mostly what I found in the supposedly more faithful evangelical churches. And in the mainlines, however, there has been a good deal more generosity. The radical forms of hospitality displayed by the pastor of this Methodist church and his wife is nothing short of astonishing–and humbling. If “by their fruits you will know them,” then a lot of evangelicals should probably take a closer look at the mainlines. We might disagree about a lot of adiaphora issues, but in the essentials there is still life to be found there. If we really believe that the gospel is more than theological precision and finicking, the way we demonstrate this is to look at more than just where we differ theologically.
In short, the story of mainlines losing their vitality is true, but only half the story. That other half is lesser known because it hasn’t finished yet. The story of their regaining their vitality.