The Laming of the Mainline

Echo and Narcissus

As I observe the mainline Protestant churches, as represented by the statements of her leaders and committees, the word that repeatedly comes back to me is: lame. In fact, I think this is the key to understanding the decline of the mainline, and it is certainly applicable to many individual churches outside of the mainline. The mainline denominations are each losing tens of thousands every year, in net loss membership, and the reason is not simply cultural capitulation or any particular doctrinal or moral failing.

Rather, the mainline is disappearing because she is paralyzed by a decidedly aggressive weakness. This is characterized by a perpetual posing of questions and a dialogue wherein more questions are sought — and answered by even more questions. This question-mongering, of course, is often just a guise for commitment to a heterodox position, and liberal polity would not have been so successful if it were not for this tactic. No one wants to be seen as lacking an inquiring mind, with “inquiry” understood as methodological doubt, so the conservative contingent slowly but surely accepts this Cartesian modus operandi.

The result is that even the person committed to the revising of doctrinal standards is himself not able to articulate his beliefs with any force. This reminds me of a professor, a devout student of Foucault, explaining to our class, with regret, that Foucault’s consistent application of a will-to-power ethic undermines his own advocacy for norming the marginalized. The professor was thus drawn to an appropriation of modernist rationalism in order to solidify her own arguments for homosexual, transgender, and feminist acceptance. For her, the advances of postmodernism are, rightly, an extension of the modernist project, with its confident ability to ground and secure an ethic wholly within human desires and fulfillment. The mainline churches, however, are stuck in a haze of ineptitude. Lacking confidence in her moral charge, one almost wishes that an aggressive Nietzschean polemics would energize the ranks.

Instead, the mainline is dominated by compromise, not confidence. She values the “plurality of voices” and devalues the authoritative Word. This God and his Will — his Law and Word — is unknown or, at best, is a hidden noumenon slowly grasped in the aesthetic experiences of our fulfillment. The endless questioning is an attempt to undermine the surety of the conservative opposition, because there is nothing so malleable and tempted as our experiences, especially our interpretations of our experiences.

This is clearly exhibited in the blog of the current moderator of the PCUSA (mainline Presbyterians), including his most recent post on the declining membership of the PCUSA and in his posts on homosexuality. It is also seen on the website of his church. There is a premium placed on “thinking,” often tethered to experience or feeling. Words like “connectionalism” (yes, “connectionalism”!) are used, and phrases like “living the Trinity” are popular (of course, I always thought God was living the Trinity). Contrasted with the average PCA or SBC blog or church homepage, you are struck by the lack of assertiveness of God’s glory, God’s holiness, or Christ’s sacrifice. Evangelicals are not always at their best, but it cannot be said that they are characterized by an unwillingness to put Scripture, and the God of Scripture, front and center. The certainty of faith exists here, not demoted to inquiry.

Here are three closing thoughts:

1. It should go without saying that there is a fundamentalist over-reaction that silences without argument, thus demonstrating its own lack of confidence.

2. A theology and a church life built on the Word spoken and the Word received does not look to herself, where weakness, doubt, and incompetence reign.

3. The result (of #2) is that a heroic call to faith and obedience are better secured, and it is this call that energizes youth, not the lame “connectionalism” of the mainline.

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5 comments

  1. As someone just starting out on the process of being ordained in the United Methodist Church, I have to say, disheartening though it may be, that you’ve nailed it here. I do think this lameness is a sort of cultural capitulation, though, since it does assume that the processes and projects of liberal democracy ought to be carried out in the Church as well.

    For every fundamentalist that thinks the Bible was written in Jacobean English there are 10 on the other end of things that think it recommends individualism, free speech, and democracy. And in all the insistence on ‘questioning’ and ‘dialogue’ they never stop to question their own non-Biblical starting points.

  2. Austin,

    I wish you well in the UMC ministry. I agree that there is a cultural capitulation, along with doctrinal and moral failings, but I don’t want to reduce the problem to any particular failing or even an aggregate of failings. These are the result of a more fundamental problem, which I’ve characterized as “lameness.” This lame theology, of course, has received a far more serious critique by neo-orthodox and evangelical scholars. I’ve only hinted at the sources: subjectivism, emotivism, individualism/sectarianism, etc.

    Another problem with focusing only on a particular issue, like homosexuality, is that these sources have infected theology proper (doctrine of God), not just anthropology. Hence, a social Trinitarianism (“live the Trinity”), lacking metaphysics, can masquerade as an authentic expression of Nicaean orthodoxy. People are duped because it sounds orthodox, when it is just part of the faux-revival in Trinitarianism in the mainline.

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