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Check out the Reconquista idea of Redeemed Zoomer. He's a 20-something PCUSA guy who sees their dying demography as a opening to join and retake the lost ground (including the beautiful old church buildings).

He also does interesting theological discussions...while playing video games.

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Aaron, you mention your time at the PCUSA was eye-opening, but don't really say in what ways. As someone who is barely holding on at a PCUSA church which is the only large congregation in this presbytery who stayed with the denomination*, I'd love to hear more.

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*The other two churches in our presbytery of comparable size departed to the EPC and ECO.

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Very informative reply, thanks!

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Well, I'm definitely an advocate for churches leaving the PCUSA if they can achieve gracious dismissal, I can tell you that. A few points about this church:

1. Largely evangelical in its preaching but also very socially engaged in neighborhood ministries. The rare church with a good balance.

2. A church that was an oasis in the midst of the controversies during Covid and George Floyd. I'm sure they were hearing it from people, but the session really buffered the congregation from that.

3. Wide variation of people of differing political and theological views all attending the same church.

4. The first church I attended with a truly deep legacy - 170 years old and with some members who had been there four generations.

5. Great institution builders

6. Spiritual formation for genuine community leadership.

7. In some respects a throwback to a more humane era. I'd say that the church was almost like the land that time forgot - in many good ways actually. For example, you didn't have to electronically check your kid into the nursery - you just dropped him off and picked him up.

Those are a few things I can say publicly.

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This may be glib, but it's also serious. Christian nationalism is the only potential I see for anything "mainline" and orthodox. Almost by definition, if orthodox Christianity begins to set the tone for the country or even any individual state or region, it's going to be *called* CN. But beyond that, the level compromise mainstream society demands from Christians doesn't suggest to me that it's possible to be mainstream acceptable unless you've already decided to drop your Christian faith. People can be very inconsistent but I'm not sure many can be "trans women are women and also Christ is lord" level inconsistent.

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So, is the question of whether mainline Protestantism can be rebuilt another way of asking if we can maintain a non-Catholic church in the Relevance/Christ of Culture/Christendom mode?

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I think Americas softly institutionalized generic Protestantism was its own model.

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Aug 31, 2023Liked by Aaron M. Renn

I think it is going to be tough to rebuild any version of a Mainline if it is at all tied to denominations. Ryan Burge's studies suggest that the two trends are Nones and Nons. Within Christianity the trend is going to continue to move towards non-denominational churches due to all institutions being discredited--and non-denominationalism sort of prevents a new Mainline from emerging because it would necessitate some kind of shared values and centralized structures.

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Aug 30, 2023Liked by Aaron M. Renn

I think this ultimately misses the point because it doesn't understand what "Mainline" means. It's not a marker of theological centrism, nor of a "higher" Protestantism. Mainline is a social class marker. Mainline churches are those which are populated by the bourgeoisie and the "respectable" classes of society. There is almost no real theological content to "Mainline" identity. In the book, Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers, Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens survey the characteristics of the decaying Mainline denominations in the latter half of the 20th Century, the authors find that being Mainline was primarily an identity grounded in social and class factors, but that nearly none of their subjects identified with their denomination on the basis of theology. Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, ELCA, Northern Baptists, various CoC denominations, all repeated the same results on their surveys: they did not consider theological differences to be salient between Mainline groups and scored extremely high on measures of Universalism. They identified themselves as distinct from Catholics and Evangelicals, but considered all Mainline churches essentially interchangeable. Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens find that the main causes for conversion between the various denominations are personal convenience issues like marriage to a different Mainline Protestant or driving distance to a nearer church. Mainliners who moved away from their hometown were among the most likely to convert to another Mainline denomination.

Revival of Mainline Protestantism in any form is destined to fail because being Mainline is about being the default beliefs of the respectable class of upper-middle class folks. Where did the converts come from who constituted the Mainline boom in the 1950's? As Robert Putnam and David Campbell tells us, it came from the rising income of working-class Evangelicals and Catholics. They use a clever analogy: just like these rising middle-class folks traded in their Chevy for an Oldsmobile, they also traded in their Evangelical or Catholic faith for Mainline Protestantism. It was the class, not the theology, that defined the religious identity marker of "Mainline."

Today, what is the default religion of the respectable upper-middle class? It's not going to be any kind of Reformed Christianity, for sure. Theologically serious Christianity is the most absolutely low-class thing you can espouse among our Managerial Upper-Middle Class. As I've said quite a few times, I'm of the opinion that Mainline Protestantism is alive and well in America today as the current religion of respectable Upper-Middle class folks. It's dropped its pretensions at being a theological faith, and dropped the unnecessary elements of Sunday worship and maintaining a sanctuary. But the social theology of respectable, upper-middle class religion is alive and well in the secularized jargon of mainstream center-left culture. It's no coincidence at all that the most prominent political theorist of the UMC, John Rawls, started his career studying theology.

The existence of the Mainline was a product itself of the Positive World. It was a result of the fact that those denominations were Respectable, in contrast to the working-class reputation of Evangelicism and Catholicism. There really is no such thing as a distinctive Mainline theology waiting to be restored, as well-groomed professionals with Ivy diplomas crowd the doors waiting to return to their grandparents' churches. My suspicion is that people who bemoan the collapse of Mainline denominations are doing so less because they miss the distinctive Episcopal doctrine of the Three-Legged Stool or the modernized liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and more because they don't want to be associated with dirty, white-trash, pickup-driving, ignorant fundies like me.

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That may be true but I'm not sure it's complete. We need churches to reach the UMC and elites. What mainline Protestantism had was a self-confident culture that allowed it to engage those elites and which aspiring elites wanted to assimilate to, unlike the "cultural cringe" you see even in the evangelical splinter denoms. It was also part of a larger complex of institutions that formed people in those stratums to operate in a certain way. It wasn't the only one, but like all those now lost institutions, it created, as the Social Pathologist put it, a kind of "high minded Protestant man" that we no longer see much off. His idea of mainline Protestantism as a factory of George Baileys has something to it.

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Sorry, I've been travelling this weekend so I missed this comment.

My basic problem with churches reaching to the UMC is the Matthew 19:24 problem. To enter the Kingdom is going to require UMC folks to leave behind the myth of meritocracy and the notion that their position in society is meaningful in any way to the Church as the Church. We can certainly disagree on the extent to which Upper Middle Class-ness in America is a marker of any kind of excellence, or whether it is merely credentialed flim-flam. But there is certainly the belief that UMC folks are simply better than everyone else and that their position is deserved rather than a matter of luck. Is your average UMC with a post-grad degree capable of accepting church discipline from a deacon who works as an auto mechanic? Can he sit quietly and accept discipleship from a nurse? Color me skeptical.

UMC is a culture, and in many ways it is a culture diametrically opposed to Christianity. Unfortunately for us, it already has a default religion, and it's a default religion that flatters the arrogance of those who think that diplomas are a substitute for wisdom and cash represents hard work rather than sliming up the corporate ladder. I think we're in a situation very similar to the ancient Roman Empire, and the Scribes and Disputers of This World, and their Mainline Post-Protestantism of the UMC hasn't yet met its Augustine of Hippo.

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Unfortunately, the non-UMC cultures also lack virtues, in multiple senses of that term. It's easy to talk in the abstract about submitting to someone of a lower social class - which would indeed be difficult for the UMC - but at the same time, virtuous, competent non-UMC leaders are thin on the ground. It used to be that the proletariat had a lot of very high IQ, high capacity leaders. With our modern identification, sortation, formation, and relocation system, that's much less the case. The middle and lower classes are also increasingly dysfunctional, post-religious, etc. That is a leadership failing to be sure, but it still exists.

I believe the best future course involves UMC and elite defection to a new value and status system. That's what happened in post-Constantinian Rome with folks like Ambrose or those who chose ascetic vocations. The UMC Christian has to find a way to break from the secular value systems and embrace some alternative form.

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Aug 31, 2023·edited Aug 31, 2023

First of all, a really good and informative comment. For a long time I've been thinking I'd like to find a good book that's basically "What Went Wrong with the Mainline? A History of American Religion From 1900-2015." Though I'm less firm on what year it should begin, but Obergefell and the final decisions to approve openly gay clergy seem the right place to end.

If that book doesn't exist, someone should write it. I hadn't heard of "Vanishing Boundaries", but it seems like a good place to start. We talk a lot about Evangelical churches repeating the errors of the Mainlines, but how well do people understand the dynamics of what exactly happened to the Mainline?

One thing that seems missing in that account though: in my experience, people care about liturgy, a LOT. This is especially true of unregenerate churchgoers (for whom the liturgy effectively IS the religion), but it applies to everyone. If I recall, Aaron has argued, and I agree, that Mainline liturgy is optimized not even for Boomers, but WW2 or Silent Gens (i.e. those actually doing the converting in the 1950s boom). The Mainline denominations, due to their bureaucratization and lack of conviction and dynamism, were never really able to convincingly update their liturgy, while Evangelicals (for better or worse) have continued to do so.

BUT the liturgy is still the most important and salient difference between, say, PCUSA and TEC. If you've been going to PCUSA churches for your whole life, I would think a TEC service would be somewhat uncomfortable for you, and comfort is largely what Mainline attendance is about. Liturgy is also the reason why many older people, increasingly uncomfortable with Mainline teaching, still won't leave those churches.

All that said, I'm not sure if you're fully hearing the idea. Which might be easy if you personally dislike Meador, but as I said in another comment, I think he's worth listening to, even if a lot of his ideas are bad. As I understand it, this isn't a conversation about how to Make PCUSA Great Again -- it's a conversation about what comes next. Evangelicalism isn't currently configured well for what comes next, and at least part of the question is whether there some ideas within the Mainline -- at least as it existed some decades ago -- that are worth preserving. Not necessarily theological ideas, but organizational ideas, structural ideas, ideas about how to relate to politics and culture.

Again, with the state of Mainline teaching in 2023, it's easy to dismiss everything about Mainline churches. But I think this is a mistake, and we should all be able to find SOME things to admire about them.

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There are lots of books that contain part of what you're looking at, from Brown's The Death of Christian Britain to the old standby, Kelley's Why Conservative Churches are Growing, written in 72 and updated in 86. I've gotten a lot of good information from secular writers in the field of Sociology of Religion as well. Obviously, the big names in that area are Putnam and Campbell.

No, I certainly agree that we need to talk about what comes next, and I think Aaron is so important because he's one of the few guys willing to say that what comes next is not going to be the same as what came before, or what we might even recognize. But here's my basic questions:

1. Why is it necessary to build something "new" that is explicitly anti-Evangelical? It's the inverse of the question I posed at Noll, as to why he's trying to build an Evangelicism that is explicitly anti-traditional-Protestant. What relevance do these arbitrary, historically-contingent markers have to do with the project of saving God's Church in North America from mass apostasy?

2. Why is it that the "new" always has to be a recreation of the old? I remember reading something in Neibuhr's Kingdom of God in America where he says that there is not really any overlap between the mindset and symbolic meaning-complexes of Christianity and that of Burkean Conservativism. There can be Christians who are temperamentally conservative, and there can be conservatives who are sentimentally attached to Christianity, but a faith whose central symbol is Revival is going to have problems with a worldview whose central concern is curation of the past. Sure, I am more than willing to admit that without an irruption of the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, there is no revival. But I question whether that receptivity to the Spirit is there if we're constantly staring backwards, wistfully, at what no longer exists.

I'm of the opinion that the Christians who may (or may not) remain in North America in 100 years will be living within institutions and modes of faith that are not recognizable to us at all. I think they will look at our obsession with denominational boundaries and social class marker-labels with the same kind of confusion that we would have if we were faced with a medieval peasant. I have a feeling that the faith communities that survive the next few decades will be those who center their identity on being a living community in Christ rather than out-grouping other Christian sects over theological contentions. The key issue is going to be the boundary between the Christian and the secular, not between Christians and Christians, and those of us who are willing to overlook error and work together on shared projects with an orthodox Methodist-splinter or a Pentacostal congregation will survive. It's going to be about building a distinctly Christian identity, with high walls and strict buy-in for the secular outsiders, but blurrier lines on the inside.

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I think a sense of anti-evangelicalism arises from the fact that, like political conservatism, evangelicalism is something of a failed project. At a minimum, it has many negative characteristics and deficiencies. I argue that trying to get a grip on these - and understanding the parallel developments in the mainline is part of that - is important to creating any future. Or we'll just repeat the exact same mistakes. For example, as I've said many times, today's populism is little more than a recapitulation of early 90s populism, though without the keen intellects writing in that era.

But I do believe we'll never recreate mainline Protestantism or anything else as it existed in the past. The ship has long since sailed on that. Though I do think there's still tremendous legacy value (not least of which is real estate) that adheres to the mainline and we shouldn't be so quick to write that off.

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That makes me think of something that Richard Neibuhr said - that Protestantism itself is a failed movement, constantly trying to escape the fact that it has become what it was meant to overcome. And until we confront that fact, the Protestant Movement will never be Born Again to new life in Christ Jesus.

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Sep 1, 2023·edited Sep 1, 2023

Thanks, enjoy the thoughts, and I can agree with a lot of them.

I've added Kelley and Brown to my list for future reading. One thing I'm noticing is that this is generally a hostile audience (to Evangelicalism). In a review on Amazon I couldn't help but chuckle at the absurdity of this line from Brown:

"Brown is not unhappy about the death of Christian Britain. On the contrary, he argues that 'relativism is a moral good of enormous proportions'"

Hollinger (whom Aaron cites) also did an interview with The Nation that made clear he holds Evangelicalism in contempt and laments the fact that liberal Protestantism's awful theological arguments had failed to keep Evangelicalism in check:

https://www.thenation.com/article/society/qa-david-hollinger-religous-right/

Again, it's interesting that there's not much of a comprehensive Evangelical perspective on what happened to the Mainline, only a self-diagnosis by those lamenting the Mainline's failures. Evangelicals just don't care to understand it or think about it too much.

I see examples of this also in the fact that the various figures militating for Evangelicalism to shift left nonetheless never even acknowledge the possibility of personally converting to Mainline. They never seem to criticize the Mainline, or so much as say, "Look, of COURSE the Mainline is bad for reasons X, Y, and Z, we don't want that, we just want some minor liberalizing reforms." I'd honestly probably trust them a little more if they would do this.

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The beat bet for a partial explanation is probably the "colonizing heresy" theory in Smith and Denton's Soul Searching. But it's necessarily incomplete and needs to be supplemented with sociological and historical evidence.

And yes, I agree that there's not really any interest on the part of moderates or mainliners in understanding what happened. I presented some research and pointed this fact out, and the only response I got from the audience is that maybe understanding the collapse of the religious left would help explain why "atheistic BLM" is extreme and violent while the "Mainline CRM" was peaceful and nonviolent. Sometimes I wonder what world some of these people even live in.

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You might look at After Cloven Tongues of Fire: https://www.amazon.com/After-Cloven-Tongues-Fire-Protestant/dp/0691166633

I haven't read the book, but I did read an academic paper of the thesis that was probably the basis for the book. It's interesting.

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I was surprised to see Meador describe this new mainline as "center-right" because from what I know of him, possibly outside of abortion and some of the gender insanity, he isn't on the right in any meaningful way. In the Gospel Coalition Good Faith Debate he was in, he got stomped while repeating glib progressive environmental rhetoric. The biggest denominations he mentions are already having major struggles with trying to stop members from dragging them to the left on core doctrinal issues. Hard to believe advice and leadership from someone like Meador would keep them from chasing the latest secular progressive fads just the like previously mainline churches did and continue to do.

In his conclusion which you quote, he talks about building strong local communities. What does he think these communities are going to be built around? These groups have major theological differences and he staunchly opposes any kind of immigration restriction to allow communities to keep any kind of homogeneous nature. As Stephen Wolfe points out in this review of his book, Meador blames whites for every problem he identifies in the West. Does he seriously think he can persuade the people he needs to be the backbone of a rebuilt Mainline with this kind rhetoric?

https://sovereignnations.com/2022/03/02/unhelpful-review-what-are-christians-for/

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I think to be at all orthodox, to think holding true to the unadulterated tenets of a millennia-old religion is something even worth aspiring to, is to be conservative in some sense of the word, and that's the sense I take it in here. The vast majority of left-leaning nominal Christians don't really do this. There are very, very few people who even claim to believe both the Five Solas and Trans Women are Women.

As for Meador more broadly, I'd say take the good and leave the bad. He's a brother in Christ who's thoughtful, offers a fairly unique perspective, has some good ideas, so I'm glad that someone like Aaron engages with him to develop those ideas. He also has some very bad ideas which probably aren't going to go away, which means you can't exactly take his whole worldview and do much of anything useful with it.

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What is the good? From what I am reading his idea is:

1. Focus much more on what is happening locally (Good as far as that goes)

2. Get together regularly for meals and invite non Christians in your vicinity

3. Develop civic relationships around what exactly, your shared love of consumer culture and ethnic food?

Every one of these proposal I read ends up being a literal call for bread and circuses to be what binds American communities together. If you go any deeper than that, your shared meal is going to get uncomfortable quickly because these people have almost nothing in common.

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To be clear, I'm not saying that book is any good at all. Haven't read it, don't know, sounds pretty bad based on that review, and it's not the sort of book I'd be inclined to read anyway.

My only point is that I think there are good ideas to pull from Meador more generally -- to wit, this essay that Aaron just wrote in response to something Meador wrote, all of which is basically unrelated to the book review you cited. But I'm not complaining that you pointed out the inconsistencies in the man's thinking. I'm just suggesting that it's easy to get into this mode of criticizing and closing our minds to someone's insights based on a friend/enemy distinction, and I think it's wise to try to keep an open mind with Meador.

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Aug 30, 2023Liked by Aaron M. Renn

Thanks, love this discussion, hope to see it continue to evolve.

The "liminal" framing strikes me as about right. We're seeing a lot of institutions break down, to lose everyone's trust and confidence, but not many that are managing to build any new trust or confidence.

When that dynamic starts to flip, we'll know we're passing into something new, and it will be easier to see what that thing is.

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Well the hopeful part of me says that this is possible. The SBC reversed course from going liberal haywire back in early 80s I think, yet here we are again and I think the SBC is in for a drastic culling as they move in a liberal / progressive direction.

Is rebuilding or tunneling underground the correct thinking though? I see more a Benedict Option future for all true churches until the persecution of end times becomes more direct and intense.

Aaron perhaps is more hopeful than I, though I know that God's church is unstoppable.

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Off-topic: This tribute to Tim Keller / critique of the "Three Worlds" seems quite misguided in a number of ways (but still worth reading)

https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/tim-keller-issue/tim-keller-church-pastor-media-suffering.html

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Slowly,

Any chance you could elaborate on what you think the misguided parts are?

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I won't speak for Aaron Renn, but my main reaction is:

1. I understand the 'three worlds' model to be descriptive of America as a whole. I.e., in 2023, mainstream American culture is now as broadly hostile to orthodox Christianity as progressive Manhattan (etc.) was in 1993. So, I don't think it rebuts the "three worlds" model to say that urban church planters encountered deep hostility in NYC etc. in 1993.

2. I find almost no criticism of Keller in the "three worlds" piece - in fact, the one sentence most specifically about Keller in that piece (approvingly) contrasts Keller's decision to 'stay the course with a traditional approach' with the broader group of engagers who want to "bring secular cultural movements to the church."

3. Cosper's essay seems more addressed to James Wood (whom he does not name) than to Renn. Wood is also quite complimentary of Keller[*]. In any case, both R & W engage the question: If American culture has changed in significant ways from what it was during the years of Redeemer's heyday, does that imply that American Christians need to have a different strategy than they did in those years? Cosper obviously disagrees with their diagnosis & prescriptions there, but I think that Cosper takes the debate as much more of an "attack on Keller" than it really is.

[*] https://americanreformer.org/2022/05/this-article-is-not-about-tim-keller/

That is why I say Cosper is "misguided." I think his testimony to Keller's work is powerful, but he gets so caught up in defending Keller against a (partly imagined) attack that he doesn't engage with the main thrust of Wood & Renn: Has the culture changed, and if so, what does that imply.

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Thanks for the quick and helpful reply!

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It's difficult to overstate the extent to which Keller has been almost worshipped as a demigod who can do no wrong. This stuff isn't just on account of his death, but was the status quo ante prior to the 2016 election when he started to get more criticism. I remember making some innocuous comment about Keller at my church in 2015. I wish I could remember exactly what I said, but it wasn't even really a criticism, just less than effusive praise. I remember being surprised by the reaction, which wasn't that I was doing anything bad, but that I'd said something incredibly audacious.

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Thanks - I plan to include in this week's digest.

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Recommend spelling out the denominational acronyms at some point in these posts. I realize this is largely insider stuff, but some of us outsiders would like to at least pretend we’re part of the conversation!

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ACNA-Anglican Church in North America -

LCMS-Lutheran Missouri Synod

WELS-Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

PCA-Presbyterian Church in America

EPC-Evangelical Presbyterian Church

SBC-Southern Baptist Convention

Some are much bigger than others, LCMS and SBC both have ten times the membership of the breakaway Anglicans and EPC.

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Thanks — knew some but not all!

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