By Deb Conklin
Fundamentalist Christians have for some time insisted that the decline in the traditional Mainline Churches – (United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran (ELCA), to name a few – is due to the ‘liberal’ leanings of those churches; to our lack of commitment to biblical fundamentals. I have contended for some time that it is, in fact, the fundamentalist churches and the publicity that they receive that is killing the traditional Mainline Churches. I am no longer a voice crying in the wilderness on this point.
The news media repeatedly report on anti-gay, anti-choice, judgmental actions and statements of “Christians” without making any distinction between fundamentalists and traditional congregations. And so those who are put off by such actions refuse to consider any Christian tradition as a resource for exploring their spirituality. Those who agree with such positions are not put off by what they read or hear, and find a fundamentalist church where they fit without too much effort. So the publicity only hurts the traditional churches.
Sometimes the harm is more specific and direct. Last Christmas Eve, my United Methodist congregation shared our service with the other congregation that meets in our building. The other pastor and I had agreed that we would sing the Christmas hymns, read the Christmas story from Scripture, celebrate Communion (in the form of their practices and led by their pastor because there would be more people from his congregation than from mine), and close by singing Silent Night by candle light.
I did not realize until we got there on Christmas Eve that he intended to lead the whole service – no greeting by me as the host pastor; no lighting candles on the altar; no Christ candle. And he would both read the text and preside at Communion. Even the parts of the service that came out of my congregation’s traditions, he took the lead on. That night is when I realized that women are not allowed to lead in worship in this congregation.
If those had been the only problems, I’d have called it difficult, but not worth fussing about. But those were just the smallest parts.
In spite of an explicit agreement that the service did not include a message, he editorialized during the Scripture reading, making a point of lecturing us on the literal ‘truth’ of the text. Not a position that we insist on in our tradition.
Before he began the communion service, he gave us a lecture on the fact that the elements did not have any special significance – they were simply reminders that Jesus had shared bread and wine during his last meal with his disciples. A direct contradiction of my UM understanding of and teachings on Communion.
In the middle of the Communion ritual – after serving the bread and before the juice – he suddenly did an altar call. First, he just invited people to raise their hands. One person did – the grandchild visitor of one of my parishioners. Then she was directed to stand up in front of everyone and answer questions, followed by reciting the widely used conversion prayer about giving my life to Christ. Finally, she was allowed to sit back down and the communion ritual was completed.
By the end of the service, most of my congregation was deeply upset, some on the verge of tears. When I tried to talk to the other pastor about his behavior, he accused me of picking at trivial details instead of celebrating the person who ‘gave their life to Christ’ that night. The problem is that the person he believed that HE had somehow brought to Christ is, in fact, someone who for personal reasons answers EVERY altar call in any service she attends. It was not her first, nor will it be her last. And there WAS someone who came to that service who had been reluctant to attend church because she has heard about some of the very things done in this service. A family from my congregation convinced her to come, reassuring her we did not do those things. After this experience, this woman will NEVER again cross the threshold of a church. So, rather than saving a lost soul, this pastor’s conduct repelled someone who had come to the service open to possibilities.
And for the last year or more, we have watched the travesty of ‘Christian’ leaders endorsing Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, in spite of his repeatedly offensive remarks and behavior that are in direct contradiction of the teachings of Jesus. This is simply the most egregious example of politicians misusing ‘Christian’ credentials when there is nothing Christ like in their platform or their values. This publicity continues to damage the image of Christianity in the eyes of those who are not part of any tradition.
But hope is on the horizon. Religion News Service recently published the commentary, “Why a Stout Theological Creed is Not Saving Evangelical Churches” by Tom Krattenmaker. The commentary begins with the statement, “It’s time to bury the myth that liberal theology is causing the decline of mainline churches in America — and with it, the twin falsehood that because of their conservative creed evangelicals will own Christianity’s future.” I hope that we do bury this myth in time for traditional Mainline Churches to have the opportunity to reach the young adults who are looking for a spiritual home that nurtures their souls and introduces them to a Jesus who loves them. Of course, the traditional churches need to take responsibility for our silence on many important issues of our day. We need to courageously reclaim the prophetic voice that once brought people together to work on the hard justice and moral issues of our lives.
If we do not restore the traditional mainline churches, the Christian tradition may be doomed to extinction.