What Ails the Liberal Church? (Part 1)

The following thoughts are those of an outsider. I’m pretty steeped in the evangelical culture and mindset, and I haven’t regularly attended a mainline church since I was five years old. That being said, I do really care about the mainline church. My granddad has worked in the United Methodist Church for more than 25 years, and I owe a lot to the wonderful people in that denomination. I’d love to see it thrive again.

People have been asking if the Mainline churches can be saved for a while. This particular round of discussion started with Ross Douthat, then continued with contributions from Diana Butler Bass, then Douthat again, followed by Scot McKnight and Tony Jones.

Wow, with all this discussion, there’s one thing that’s indisputable. The traditional liberal church is in steep decline, and it will take a miracle to change their trajectory. From an outsider’s perspective, here are some things that strike me as issues in the mainline church. Before I dive in, however, even though I have theological differences with most mainline churches, I’m going to focus on some of the organizational and communication issues that have hindered many of their churches. Here goes.

First off, many mainline denominations have what can only be described as an excessive amount of bureaucracy. It seems like there’s been a steady stream of negative publicity coming out of the general sessions of various denominations. There’s this one from the PC(USA) session from this summer, this bit of fun from the Methodist Church (with one more example to boot).

All of these point to a simple truth: Mainline churches need to undergo radical change. Serving in a non-denominational church has shown me just how complex of an endeavor it is to create change in the context of a congregation. Take those challenges and magnify them by several thousand congregations, while also taking into account the challenges of socio-economic differences, cultural differences and financial realities, and you have a glimpse of the gargantuan challenge that some of these denominations face in creating system-wide change.

Additionally, it just seems to me that denominations seem more likely to hide behind red-tape than to cut through it. It all adds up to the reality that the levels of entrenchment and bureaucracy makes the process of large-scale change nearly insurmountable in their current denominational structure. If these denominations are to halt their decline, a willingness to move boldly and quickly is needed, and the highly bureaucratic and centralized structure of many denominations makes this very a difficult endeavor.

Second, despite the individual friendliness that exists almost without fail in mainline churches, I’d say that the liturgy and traditions often create a barrier to feeling welcome and included if you are not a long time attender of such a church. I want to make something clear – the people in most mainline churches are exceptionally welcoming. They care deeply about the people who walk through their doors, as well as the people outside of them.

That being said, I’ve often felt lost in the liturgy in their churches. I struggle to find the hymns in the hymnals, I struggle to sing along with the cadence and the pipe organ (which is probably a good thing because I’m a terrible singer). Sometimes the whole congregations stands up and recites the Lord’s Prayer or sings the doxology without warning. And remember, I’m a church kid! I often think it must be downright intimidating for unchurched people to partake in many mainline worship services. If progressive churches want to make a comeback, they’ll need to re-examine their services with the visitor experience in mind. (This doesn’t mean ditching hymns or buying a Neal Peart drum set, but it means taking the time to explain the liturgy, invite people to partake and tweak where necessary).

The fact of the matter is that a sense of welcome is not just communicated verbally, it’s also communicated through cues that come in every part of a service. Sadly, I believe many mainline churches have allowed their beautiful traditions to become barriers to feeling comfortable and welcome.

For a great deal of people in their teens, 20’s 30’s and 40’s, religious experiences have been exceedingly rare. The experience of walking into a moderately or highly-liturgical service is akin to reading Homer in Greek – it can be extremely intimidating and confusing. The fact of the matter is that for these people the difficulty of transitioning from unchurched to fitting into a liturgical setting has never been greater. This means that for many mainline churches, some soul searching about the purpose and practice of liturgy is needed if they hope to become places where unchurched people can feel welcome.

When it comes to the struggles of these wonderful churches, there are more factors than I could ever touch on. However, on Friday I’m planning on discussing one more factor that I believe plays a part in this topic. I hope you’ll check it out then!


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