Recently, I’ve done some research about the mainline churches of America. Having mainly attended non-denominational churches, there were some things that interested me about these more traditional churches:
• More tradition. While tradition doesn’t save us and tradition for the sake of tradition is just vain repetition, it might be nice to go to a church that does have a bit of tradition. I really like old hymns and honestly don’t mind liturgy. Many churches try too hard to impress people with cool advertising, events, flashy media, etc. Sometimes simple is better. Give me old ladies and sewing circles any day.
• More separation between politics and the church. I tend to have a mix of views on politics. I can take any political ideology test and I usually fall pretty squarely in the middle. That is usually how I tend to vote. For me it really isn’t about voting the ticket. I don’t believe any of the current political parties in US politics have a right to claim to be the Christian or the more righteous of the two parties. Prior to Pat Robertson and the Moral Majority movement during the Regan election, Christians used to be split pretty evenly between the two parties. Carter is, afterall, a Christian too. I think both parties have their successes and shortcomings when it comes to issues the church should care about. So, I don’t understand why it is often implied or suggested that voting for one party or another is the more moral/right/Christian/etc. thing to do. And I really don’t understand when the church takes positions on issues that don’t concern the church.
• Acknowledgement and accurate teaching of both church and US history. Newer denominations don’t tend to connect themselves with church history the way the mainline churches do and because of this, sometimes things seem out of context. Newer churches also don’t tend to find strong roots in US history. Since joining the church in high school, I’ve often been told by fellow Christians that the US was started as and always meant to be a Christian nation. When I explained what I learned all throughout elementary, junior high and high school is contrary to that position, I was told that my teachers and history books were wrong or biased to the liberal side of the political spectrum. However, when I read historical documents and find that the revolution was started by a bunch of rebels that got drunk together and torched English government officials’ houses, I have to question this position. I understand that there were many devout Christians amongst our Founding Fathers, but we’ve never had a Christian state and I think the Constitution makes it very clear that we were never meant to have such a state in the First Amendment when it says that “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of a religion…” I think this is a good thing. Is there a single brand or denomination of Christianity that we can all agree on? Can you imagine living in a place like China where attending a non-government sanctioned church can get you thrown into prison?
• Valuing and not putting down education. Many non-denominational churches tend to place more of an emphasis on being called to served and tend to undervalue education. Whereas in mainline churches, education is emphasised as being very important. I’ve often heard the statement from mainline church friends that, “The world will still be there to save after you get your degree in divinity.”
• Preservation of church history, art, teachings, liturgy, music, etc. for centuries. To me, there is just something really deep about singing a song that perhaps millions of other Christians before me have sung for hundreds of years. Or looking at a beautiful sculpture, painting, piece of stained glass, etc. that was inspired by a great Biblical event and has been preserved for generations of people to marvel at and reconnect with that event.
• Positions on social issues easily accessible. It is difficult to find statements of belief on non-denominational church websites. In contrast, here is an example of a widely available position from the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) on capital punishment. Because there is no unified source of documentation, the views among the pastoral staff at a single church can vary greatly within a non-denominational sect. So, you can go to one congregation and hear/experience one thing, and go to another of the same type and get something totally different depending on the views of the pastoral staff there (though most attendees will try to tell you this isn’t the case).
Unfortunately, many of these mainline churches seem to be in huge amounts of turmoil right now over the aforementioned social issues. Many have recently split (Episcopals), or are on the verge of/threatening a split (Lutherans, Presbyterians) as they consider legislation pertaining to social issues like openly homosexual clergy.
For example, this week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is having their big conference to vote on a variety of things. One of the biggest and most controversial pieces of legislation they are voting on is whether to allow openly and practicing homosexual clergy to serve in the church. Yesterday they decided to repeal the 2/3 majority required for changing the rules on this issue in favor of a simple majority. They voted on this issue at their last conference and the vote was very, very close. I think the fact that they are changing the voting requirements is a huge compromise and one that will result in the legislation getting passed. I also think statements like these from Rev. Peter Strommen who chairs the ELCA’s Task Force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality, give us a further glimpse as to where the ELCA is headed on this issue:
“When a great deal of traffic flows on a critical social issue, the church inevitably finds itself wrestling with how to best understand, teach and articulate the meeting of faith and life’s realities, which undergirds a response.”
“We can no longer assume that people in our society, or even many in the church for that matter, hold a shared understanding of Christianity’s core beliefs, let alone those of Lutheran ethics.”
Personally, I find it disheartening that these mainline churches have managed to be a fortress of faith preserving history, art, teachings, liturgy, music, etc. for centuries only to have their mighty walls crumble to the pervailing culture in the last 50 years or so. Many are seriously hemmoraging members and I think in part that is due to the flock of people to the post-modern appeal of many modern non-denominational churches. Choosing to ignore what Scripture says, they are compromising their long-standing positions in an effort to bring back the people and the culture to their buildings.
There are many things I find appealing about non-denominational churches too and I pray that they embrace some of the strengths of the mainline churches instead of tending to focus on the next big thing. Maybe there can be a happy medium between tradition and new movements.