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Can Mainline Protestantism Be Rebuilt?
A proposal for a new approach to church in America's fourth republic.
Jake Meador wrote a recent interesting piece on a topic of great interest to me, namely about a call to attempt to create a new Protestant mainline. He says:
So to bring the discussion to reformed catholicity and what reformed catholic churches can do in our current context, here it is: The old Mainline is dead. American Catholicism is likely terminal as well, even prior to the plausible turmoil to come under Pope Francis’s successor. American Evangelicalism is now encountering its own dechurching crisis and loss of influence. The Christian movement in America is thus at a crossroads. Something new will need to be built. But I do not think we should build a new evangelicalism; I think we should build a new mainline.
That mainline should be centered around the EPC, PCA, and ACNA with room for the possible addition of Lutheran, Methodist, or Baptist denominations, should denominations interested in this project emerge from those streams. The old mainline encompassed Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists. We currently have Presbyterian and Anglican communions that might plausibly grow into the “continuing church” vision once articulated at the PCA’s founding. It remains to be seen if the Global Methodists can join this movement, let alone if the LCMS can stave off its own demographic collapse or if a strengthened Baptist commujnion can emerge from the chaos and corruption currently vexing the SBC. These are the institutional pieces to watch, then: the PCA, EPC, ACNA, Global Methodists, LCMS, maybe WELS, and SBC.
I agree that America lost a lot with the decline of the mainline denominations. Attempts to at least salvage or reclaim some of that is of great interest to me, and also others as well. I think you can see Tim Keller’s plan for the renewal of the American church through this lens, and I might be collaborating on an article about that in the future.
Lind’s Four American Republics
Before digging in, however, I thought it was interesting to see Meador lay out a “four Americas” framework from Michael Lind that was very similar to my own version. I did not draw from Lind, though had heard he had something like this. But I think this sort of division of American history is one very obvious way to do it, so I’m sure it has recurred many times.
Where I differ from the framework Meador gives is that I see the “fourth republic” or “America 4.0” as less emerged than he does (or at least that’s my impression). I see us as in a liminal period where we can’t yet see the contours of what the future system will look like, just as those in the Depression didn’t know what postwar America would be like. The old is passing away but the new has not yet been born. Hence we should be cautious about over fitting solutions to the present movement.
Through Catholic Eyes
Meador is also influenced by Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, which I actually read after I saw him make a previous reference to it. It’s an interesting book in which Bottum makes the common argument that contemporary elite morality and culture is a form of secularized mainline Protestantism (a view with some degree of truth). In his telling, Catholics (with evangelicals in a supporting role as public mouthpiece for Catholic natural law arguments) were the would be replacement for the mainline role in society, but that project failed because America ended up being too Protestant to submit to a Catholicism that was weakened at the time by internal issues.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Bottum himself is a staunch Catholic. That is, like 90% of the people I read who center America’s problems in mainline Protestantism, he himself is not a Protestant. Invariably in these readings, any role Ellis Islanders (like my family) might have played in contemporary America’s failings is minimized or avoided altogether. Just once I’d like to see a Catholic writer say something like, “The WASPs handed over the keys, but we ran the car into a ditch.”
This is one reason I have been arguing that Protestants must stop outsourcing their thinking to Catholic intellectuals. Invariably this leads to us repeating essentially Catholic serving talking points, as Bottum himself basically says in his book (e.g., of George W. Bush).
Meador’s Mainline Restoration Project
With those preliminaries, what does Meador’s mainline restoration project look like?
Institutionally, he sees it centered in the conservative “shadow denominations” of the mainline, mostly splinter groups (EPC, PCA) but some which are not (LCMS). He goes on to say:
Sociologically and theologically speaking, the new Mainline needs to be a missional center-right movement. By “center-right” I mean robustly committed to the biblical witness on sex and gender (here the PCA sexuality report and ACNA’s pastoral statement should be treated as a kind of consensus position of the new mainline), deep in the catholic tradition (and therefore slow to embrace new ideas and intellectual trends and always testing everything by its fidelity first to Scripture and second to catholic tradition), and defined by a kind of dispositional conservatism that favors slowness, custom, and traditional Christian habits and practices.
By “missional”, I mean “committed to pursuing missionary encounters with our non-Christian neighbors,” which will require actually living amongst our neighbors and being conversant enough in their ways of thinking and living that we can be genuinely present in their lives and speak sensibly to their particular questions and struggles.
Ultimately, we are seeking on a political level to build back to being the third leg of the stool, in Bottum’s illustration.
On a church level, I think reformational catholic congregations need to be thinking about very practical ways of cultivating a thick common life that will address the individual spiritual crisis of our moment centered around loneliness, anxiety, depression, and despair.
He sees the church accomplishing the last part by “re-parenting the lost,” “overcoming distance” (such as by having church member live near each other), and “overcoming distraction” (such as by limiting technology in our communities).
He concludes by writing:
I think the core idea running through it is something like this: We live in a society that has mostly forgotten what people are. And this has enormous ramifications on our politics and common life, but also on the individual experiences of the people coming into our churches every week. If we are to have a missionary encounter with such a world, then often I think it will begin by simply reminding humans what it means to be human by modeling normal, healthy, sane human life together in our communities. This needn’t mean anything fancy or grandiose; I am mostly thinking of sharing meals together, forgiving and being forgiven, speaking candidly about our desires and weaknesses, and making ourselves available to one another as needed.
Is This Mainline Protestantism?
I classify Jake Meador as a neo-Tocquevillian. That is, he believes in bottom up, small scale solutions to today’s social problems. I think the idea of the “Front Porch Republic” (for which Meador has written) sums up this idea well. He’s also very influenced by Anabaptist thinking, and is an admirer of groups like the Bruderhof. This proposal to me seems very in line with this Anabaptist inflected neo-Tocquevillian approach. Physically close communities that limit technology sounds very similar to Anabaptist approaches, for example.
Let’s situate this within a map of church approaches. In his book Center Church, Tim Keller uses H. Richard Neibuhr’s five-fold “Christ and culture” model to come up with four typologies of contemporary church: transformationalist, relevance, counterculture, and two-kingdoms. The bulk of evangelicalism falls into transformationalist or relevance models.
Counterculture is Keller’s label for Niebuhr’s “Christ against culture” model, in which the role of the church is to separate from culture, that is “the world” as described in 1 John. Anabaptist and neo-Anabaptists sects fall into this counterculture model. I see Meador’s project as along this counterculture lines. It calls on the church to create a different type of community that operates on different principles from the world in order to mitigate the corroding influences of aspects of the fourth republic, such as technology and social atomization. This is also in line with Meador’s admiration for Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri (translation: shelter). This counterculture, to be clear, is not a separatist sect. It is a missional community. But there’s clearly an intentionality towards cultural distinctness.
While I probably would not describe things the same as he does, I would argue that evangelicalism does need to make a shift in emphasis away from transformation and relevance, and toward being a counterculture in the negative world. (Let me stress, however, that this is a shift in emphasis rather than a pursuit of a pure counterculture). So in that respect, I fully endorse Meador’s idea. I think he’s getting at a very important type of thinking about the way we should live now. (Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option was another, different way of exploring the same territory).
However, this is not mainline Protestantism. Keller classifies mainline churches as part of the relevance approach, probably mapping to Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” model. The one thing mainline Protestantism most surely was not was countercultural. It practically defined the cultural mainstream.
This is one conundrum facing those of us who would like to find a way to retain and rebuild some of the best of mainline Protestantism. The negative world is almost defined by institutional incompatibility or hostility to historical Protestantism. This necessitates a countercultural approach and bars the door to a mainline relationship of the church to culture. I think there are some ways to try to square this circle that I may write about in a future newsletter, but for now let’s just note that this is a serious problem.
As it happens, we attended a mainline PCUSA church for about 18 months after we moved back to Indiana from New York City. It was truly an eye opening experience, one that I found both informative and valuable. I have a long list of positive things to say about that church. It also prompted me to watch a number of mainline services online. And I try to visit mainline churches when I can (although that’s not often).
I noted a large number of attributes of mainline churches as I both studied and experienced them. One of those is a strong institutionalism, for example. Based on my experience, the elements of Meador’s proposal are not themes that I see in mainline Protestantism either. The distinctives of his new mainline are not the ones of the old mainline. “Re-parenting the lost” is not something you associate with Episcopalianism, for example.
He can correct me if I’m wrong, but I strikes me that he uses the term “mainline” because he wants to create something that can replace the role that the mainline played in America in Bottum’s telling, which is to supply what some critics called “moral ballast” to society. I don’t think Meador aspires to be this for all of society in the near term, which isn’t realistic today, but rather for a subset of it (i.e., a counterculture). But I don’t think Bottum is complete here. I think he defines the mainline role in society the way he does in part because he wants to create a container that Catholicism could plausibly have filled.
But while it may not be mainline, Meador’s idea of creating a church counterculture is on point. You don’t have to share all of his sensibilities to see that reparenting the lost has to be part of an effective Christian mission in the future, for example. We need to see much more like this, of people thinking about the way church models need to change for today’s social realities.
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Cover image credit: By Wikimedia Commons/Farragutful - CC BY-SA 3.0