Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond:

15 thoughts on “Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

  1. This was excellent. Years ago I was on staff at small mainline church. Things were going well until a new accountant was hired and she convinced leadership that they needed to treat the church as a business and not afraid to be cutthroat to increase the bottomline. Within one year of this new direction to the management of the church, the church closed its doors for the last time. The business model had run off all the people who were engaged and thriving in their faith. The business model dug the grave of a small yet thriving church. It was beyond sad.

  2. Thank you for this, Emily. This is such an essential message. I can’t wait to read “Glorify,” which I surely will now.

    Two connections come to mind: 1) Elisabeth Kimball from VA Theo. Seminary, a wise thinker about Christian Formation, who explained to me how we were pulling our leaders (clergy) from the only moderately formed population of our communities. I think that applies across denominations. 2) I’m currently working on a paper about Karl Barth’s view of preaching and ministry and his words are startling to read given my feelings that are similar to yours – but less well thought-out. This is why I think I felt pulled toward Formation & Spirituality and Leadership (especially with a spiritual approach) during my time thus far in seminary. And, yes, seminary is a crucial time of formation. The church is unlike any other human organization. It’s pretty simple. We are supposed to be different, right?

    Thanks, again!

  3. In the context of appreciation of this article overall, I humbly and respectfully but quite vigorously disagree with point four, “engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first” and want to challenge it. As a seminary professor who teaches Christian education and Practical Theology, I’m a member of the historic Religious Education Association founded in 1903, which today is interfaith and includes Christians, Jews, and Muslims, scholars and practitioners alike. We’ve discovered that we face similar problems in initiating young people into the distinctives of our respective faith traditions, without closing them off to respecting the faith of diverse others. This is an organic, not a linear process! I base this claim not only on the scholarship shared by religious education leaders in each tradition, but also on the empirical findings and extensive experience and wisdom of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), headquartered in Chicago. See:

    When I visited there, I heard firsthand testimony from an evangelical female college student standing arm-in-arm with a female Muslim college student. They testified as to how their friendship and dialogue compelled each one of them to go back and better understand their own respective tradition, so that they could be more articulate when comparing notes on similarities and differences between their traditions. Even if the church isn’t sponsoring intentional interfaith dialogue, it’s going on anyway – sometimes thoughtfully, but mostly haphazardly and unreflectively– in public schools and other pluralistc settings. And while the website of the IFYC says “pluralism starts on campus,” in today’s world it actually starts much earlier than that. Thus, the church is better off being intentional about teaching children and youth “rules” and “guidelines” for healthy interfaith dialogue at the earliest possible age, rather than operating under the illusion that there’s going to be some magic moment when they’re well-enough informed by their own tradition to be ready to engage with the diverse other. They’re already doing it.

    Moreover, given the eye-popping amount of time young people spend on social media, their heads are being filled with myths and falsehoods about Muslims. At the earliest possible age, they need for the Christian church to engage them in face-to-face encounter with the religiously diverse other in order to counteract the malformation they’re presently undergoing in our wider reactionary society. Our impression of the diverse other gets locked in at a very early age, and if we don’t comprehend this, and counteract the inculcation of prejudice, we’re being derelict as religious leaders in an ever-increasingly pluralistic world. Research indicates that “empathy” is best – and perhaps only – evoked through face-to-face encounter and dialogue.

    • There is a lot of wisdom reflected in your comment, Suzanne. My interdisciplinary education and study of developmental and cultural/social processes backs up what you are saying. If you’re not familiar with two meta-theories or systems that are very academically founded but not prominent in most academic/theological circles, I’ll mention them (for others as much as you): Integral theory (esp. integral spirituality and book by that title by Ken Wilber) and Process Theology.

      I’d expect you are quite familiar with the latter, given your involvement in Rel. Ed. Process is an important “mid way” synthesizer of sorts between traditional Christian (or Jewish, Muslim) theism or “supernaturalism” and the reductionistic strict naturalism of “Science” (upper case). As such, and already as a participant in interfaith dialog, its followers are uniquely equipped and positioned to advance this work. And also to help Christians grasp the tensions between science and religion in more clear and helpful ways, leading to better “dialog” or interactions there as well. This is where I am increasingly putting my focus, and particularly toward students and young adults.

  4. 6). Condemning conversionary efforts in other parts of the world such as India, Nepal, and Asia. Conversion is an act of violence against other traditions and their adherents, especially if it involves coercian in the way of food, money, and shelter in exchange for giving up one’s former identity. Missionary efforts in many countries after disasters has earned a weighty name by local commentors in the region, where they are referred to as “soul vultures.” This describes a behavior of taking advantage of a weakened populace to gain converts. Many are asked to change both their first and last names, and completely sever ties with their families. In this way, Sivanathan Pillai’s become “John Zachariahs.” This also happens in Africa.

  5. All this talk of churches always reminds me of the Lord’s true words over the grand temples and their associated wealth in Matthew Chapter 6 vs 5-6

    “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
    But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

  6. Thanks for both the great thoughts and the data on what’s happening. I agree with about all of it, as to what both leaders and laity need to be doing. Currently, I have particular interest in the college/young adult needs you wrote about.

    I’m in a UCC church in SoCal, not far from Cal State U. San Marcos (newer but quite large now). With a large community college nearby also, it’s amazing to me that I can find little evidence that ANY church or organization (“parachurch”) seems to have much going for spiritual interests and needs of this demographic… post grads, young career as well as college students. So I’m working with my church to begin a kind of guided discussion time along lines of “Socratic dialog”. Though I’m waaaay out of that age bracket, I can relate to them, and have pertinent knowledge and skills. I’m hoping it will launch and grow well, as I’d love to share experiences and ideas broadly, both in the UCC and beyond, about what works well and what the results are.

    A further thought: I love what you’re saying about spiritual formation. I’m into developmental stage theories… not any one rigidly, but find many of the concepts and perspectives quite important and potentially helpful. That is, if understood by leaders and older adults and used to better guide young adults and teach them at least the basics of growth stages and issues. Disappointing to me that Fowler’s work, with others, has largely been set aside, from all I can see… as if interesting but not important.

  7. I am an online CTS student. I have both community that stretches around the world and sacrifices made. It is taking me 6 years because I’m also a primary caregiver. But I am answering a call in love just as you did. Chicago Theological Seminary has the same rigorous academic standards for all students, f2f or cyber connected. And our community is real. Check it out before criticizing it. And don’t judge my reasons for doing it this way.

  8. I’d like to respectfully disagree with Emily and agree with Gingerdog that the cybercommunity is profound, real and very, very deep. I too am a primary 24/7 caregiver to my profoundly disabled husband, and the mother of absolutely amazing twins. Those things in themselves can be theologically formative, as context so often is. However, a formal theological education would not be possible for me without the online options offered by CTS and other fine seminaries.

    Online education is here to stay and I’m heartened to see so many seminaries embracing it. It is not for everyone, and many people must overcome their reluctance to engage in this form of education. Those who take the risk may find that a combination of cutting edge theory, a diverse classroom, and an unconventional delivery platform will form them as surely as a bricks-and-mortar community, and perhaps familiarize them with the technology so vital to gospel proclamation today.

    The professor recedes in prominence and functions more as a guide and mentor in the online environment. The primary learning happens between students as they engage rigorous material in the form of webcasts, lectures and textbooks. Because people get to know each other primarily through postings, each post must be well-thought-out and as deep as one can make it. It’s like writing a paper twice or three times a week, not to mention the required responses to others. A level of safe intimacy in sacred space is thereby achieved that I believe to be unique to that community.

    I am privileged to be a Licensed Minister in the UCC, serving a small rural congregation. My faith formation comes about every week as I study the Bible, preach the best sermon I can muster, visit the sick, minister to the dying and their families, advocate for justice in our community, serve throughout the wider expressions of the church, and meet regularly with my ecumenical lectionary study group. Online education forms me academically and spiritually, and makes it possible for me to serve my call without causing my family undue hardship.

    I whole-heartedly recommend it! Many thanks for reading.

  9. I agree with every point except #5. I don’t want seminaries dismantled, and I think there will always be a place for full time, M-Div educated clergy, as leaders of large parishes and as bishops or their equivalents. But Christianity in the United States has declined to the point that all our denominations will need a class of tentmaker clergy as well. Furthermore, a MDiv educated minister must be a full time minister. There are not many full time churches left, in most mainline denominations, and they tend to call young straight married men. So we will either end up saddling people with debits they can never pay off or discriminating against people who have a call to ordination but don’t fit the mold the remaining large mainline churches are looking for.

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