A Church Without Churches
Does Mainline Protestantism care about the local church?
The following is adapted from an article I wrote in 2012.
I’ve been what could be considered a Mainline Protestant for 30 years. In those 30 years, I’ve learned something about mainliners:
We really suck at planting churches.
Let me back up a moment. I started attending Calvary Baptist Church in located in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC in the fall of 1992. It was and is an American Baptist congregation and like many mainline churches was active in the community. Since I darkened the doors of Calvary, I’ve been part of Mainline Protestantism. I moved to Minneapolis and joined a Disciples of Christ congregation which became my denominational home. I’ve pastored Mainline Protestant congregations and worked in communications at churches and other religious bodies. So, yeah, I’m a Mainline Protestant.
If there’s a theme that has been running in the background all these years, it’s the one about liberal Protestants being in decline. All of the major Mainline Protestant denominations keep experiencing decline, with more and more churches closing and the surviving congregations growing grayer and grayer.
I’ve been around enough to see how we deal with this issue. Sometimes we ignore it and talk about the potential problems with evangelicals, sometimes we talk about “transformation” and about changing the church (but never seem to make any real changes), and sometimes we seek to blame someone or something for the decline.
A few years ago, I wrote an article on Medium reflecting on the closure of a local congregation and the lack of mission within Mainline Protestant churches. Some people really liked it, but I also received criticism that caused me to make the article less public. The anger it produced made me shy away from writing anything critical about Mainline Protestantism.
What we don’t do, or don’t do very well is planting new churches (or maintaining existing churches). All of the mainline churches have some kind of new church planting movement to get local judicatories and congregations to get involved in new churches. While I don’t think they are absolute failures, they aren’t always astounding successes. New churches get planted, but not at the rate that we are closing churches.