I’m growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA). At every level of our system, from congregations on up to General Assembly agencies, we keep missing the big picture. We measure our success by how well we manage and deploy an increasingly small pool of resources—people, money, influence, and relevancy. The things we do with these resources are often really great, but we consistently fail to reckon with the stark realities of mainline Protestant decline. We close more churches than we open. We lose more members than we baptize. And because of this, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to serve the world, yet we continue to follow the same basic game plan developed during the zenith of mainline Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century.
I’m not claiming to fully understand the reasons for mainline decline, nor do I claim to have solutions ready to roll—but I do spend a lot of time thinking about this. It seems to me that mainline Protestants have so closely identified our understanding of the gospel and the purpose of the church with social justice agendas that we are stuck trying to serve those agendas—worthy as they are—at the peril of church growth and vitality. I’m finding it harder and harder to be proud of our mission work when our church is marching steadily toward extinction. I’ve lost patience with General Assembly statements and actions about social justice that make us feel good but don’t really register a significant impact in the world. And I wonder what good it is to update our structures if we don’t shift our priorities and rethink our purpose.
As someone born and raised in the Southern Baptist Church, I think that evangelicalism is part of my religious DNA. Of course, I’m about as far away from evangelical theology now as I possibly could be, but my desire to have and promote a gospel message that is relevant and urgent has always stuck with me. Evangelism is a bad word among progressive mainline Protestants, but this is precisely what we need right now. For the life of me, I cannot understand why mainline Protestants like the PC(USA) insist on busying ourselves with certain kinds of mission and social justice work—which I do believe are vital expressions of the gospel—while the ship we are on is sinking. We won’t even talk about it.
If we believe that mainline Protestant churches are worth saving—if we believe that these churches provide a Christian witness needed in today’s world—it seems to me that we need to divert significant time and energy away from business as usual in order to focus on rebuilding our base. But I’ve encountered reluctance to make such moves at every level of our church. We are so convinced that our increasingly small contribution to the world is indispensable that we’re turning a blind eye to the bigger picture. We refuse to address the new realities of our post-Christendom world and our ever shrinking place in it. While our fruit is still sweet, the vine is dying such that soon there won’t be any fruit left at all.
It’s time for mainline Protestants to regroup and start thinking about the long game. Otherwise, we’ll maintain our steady decline toward extinction and be left with nothing more than good intentions.