Q & R: emerging christians in mainline churches?
Here's the Q:
I hope you are well. As you might have picked up on already, there is
a lot of talk around the Interwebs about some blogger who suggested
that emerging Christians should just join mainline churches. Now we
all know that emergent does not automatically equal mainline, but is
it possible to find oneself gravitating from an evangelical church to
a mainline church in the process?
I've been attending an LCMS church for the past six years. I love the
Lutheran tradition, especially its emphasis on grace. However, with
the past year I find my own personal beliefs more in line with the
ECLA; I believe in ordaining women, full inclusion of LGBT people, and
that the Bible should be interpreted based on historical context.
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the LCMS. Far from it!
It's more about how some of my own views have changed throughout the
past year or two.
Now one thing that I keep getting confused about is this: What
exactly defines a church as either "evangelical" or "mainline?" It
seems to me like evangelicals and mainliners are mostly defined by
stereotypes: evangelicals automatically believe in X, while
mainliners automatically believe in Y. For example, for years
mainliners have been defined as being more focused on social justice
than evangelicals. Well that's certainly changed in the past ten
Here's the R:
Great questions. I've spent more time than most people in both evangelical and mainline settings, and the differences within evangelicalism and within traditional protestantism are every bit as big as the differences between the two groups. Here's how I'd define the stereotype from the outsiders' perspective of both emergent Christians and nonChristians who are seeking life to the full ...
Evangelicals are weighed down in outmoded doctrinal baggage (along with an unholy alliance with reactionary right-wing politics).
Mainliners are weighed down in outmoded institutional baggage (and lack clarity on their actual beliefs and mission).
On the fringes of evangelicalism, there are signs of some leaders and churches opening up. (More on this in a few days.) But my inbox is way too full of stories like this one (some details changed) from an Evangelical/Charismatic pastor:
Like I said above, you have helped shape and transform me and my way of thinking, believing and "being" a Christian. Since I first read "A New Kind of Christian," I have undergone a significant transformation in my theology. I could make a long list of how you've impacted me in my thinking in different areas, but for this email I'll limit it to what has recently impacted my life a great deal.
On the topic and issue of homosexuality, you have been a strong voice in challenging my views and beliefs, as well as my posture towards the GLBT community. Over recent years, I have journeyed with Jesus (and I truly believe it was HE who took me on this journey, and placed these convictions in my heart. I did not ask for them or seek them out) and undergone a shift in my beliefs about people being born gay (versus merely "choosing), God's posture towards such people, their inherent right to love, the beauty in their loving, committed, monogamous relationships, etc.
No longer do I believe it is a sin to be gay. And my heart and soul hurts at the rampant discrimination towards the GLBT community all around the world.
For a long time he didn't say a word about his change in views, not wanting to cause division in his church. But when he let one telltale comment slip, word spread and some vigilant members of his church barraged the leadership team with complaints. The leaders acted quickly, calling him in for a formal interview. Although the church had no formal policy on the subject, and although this pastor agreed with the church's stated doctrinal statement, when he admitted that his views on human sexuality had changed, he was fired ... just a few days after the comment.
What's a gifted pastor like this to do? Where will he be welcome? Maybe five (or fifty) years from now there will be more gay-affirming evangelical churches, but at the moment, the list is short.
The list is also short for people like a college student I spoke with yesterday.She recently became a Christian. At first, she was ecstatic in her new-found faith, leading her entire family to Christ and quickly becoming a leader in her evangelical campus fellowship and a youth leader in her evangelical church. But then she started feeling "the fine print" - her experience was right out of the script of Dave Kinnaman's new book, "You Lost Me." Her evangelical communities were losing her - no, driving her away - because they required her to believe everyone except Evangelical Christians was going to hell, God has no place for gay people, evolution and climate change are unacceptable for Christians to accept, etc., etc.
The good news is that increasing numbers of mainline leaders realize that by welcoming in evangelical pastors and emerging Christian leaders like these folks, they gain youth, vitality, energy, and more ... and these pastors and Christians gain a more safe environment to think, rethink, and grow.
Many of these mainline leaders realize that unless they can create some creative zones for these folks - zones that aren't tied up in internal politics and weighed down by policy and procedure manuals (not to mention all the unwritten protocols) - they'll lose them too. So they're finding ways to fast-track folks in, help them stay marginal (in relation to internal politics), and yet provide practical support - mentoring, a sense of belonging, professional peers, access to health care, maybe even financial support for new church development, and so on.
So, back to your (first) question: I expect two things to happen.
1. I expect many traditional Protestant denominations to create safe space for emerging Christians - safe from both doctrinal and bureaucratic entanglements. Both sides can benefit from this arrangement.
2. I also expect more evangelical churches to simply stop caring what evangelical gatekeepers think. They may simply leave the evangelical label behind, or try to hold on to it in some way, but they'll simply move on. (If this happens, I would expect some evangelical gatekeepers to create alliances that will allow them to practice boundary maintenance - to make sure they are distanced from these "free range evangelicals.") We may see a new category emerge - nondenominational post-evangelical/mainline churches - as a result.