As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. Today I welcome David Henson as he shares his thoughts on the future of the mainline church. David is a writer who lives in Georgia and blogs at Patheos. He received his Master of Arts from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalist. He is currently a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.
I do not fear the death of the mainline church.In fact, as a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal church, it excites me, and it is the precipitous decline of the mainline that, in part, draws me to ministry.Death can be a fertile ground for the Gospel. Indeed, it has always been so. The specter of death can make people willing to do things they might otherwise be too comfortable to consider, like that a food pantry does not a social justice ministry make. And death can make people less afraid to fail and, as a result, more apt to try something new, something frivolous, something that won’t bring in moneyed people. It can make us more willing to experiment with creative ways to seek justice and the presence of God in houses outside those in which we worship. Death might just shake us up enough so that we can get out of the pews and on with the work of God!
So, when I look at the future of my tradition and my vocation within it, I am not fearful. As Christians we should know, death is not to be feared. There is no sting left in it. But I’m not an hopeless optimistic, either. I won’t deny that the future of our churches are uncertain, except to say with certainty that things will be different in the future for mainline clergy. Thankfully, the thoughtful people like Diana Butler Bass, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Bruce Reyes-Chow are putting in hard work planning and creating for that future.
Still, I find myself taken aback by the fear that often permeates the talk about dying mainline churches. These days, one can scarcely turn around in the Episcopal and other mainline churches without someone bemoaning the precipitous decline of traditional Protestantism, the death of denominationalism and the end of Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.I suspect that much of what we are mourning is less the decline of our churches and more the loss of our idols of self-importance — our storied hierarchies, bloated with committees and hours-long meetings with dry-erase boards as well as our long-saved seats at the tables of cultural power and influence we once commanded.More to the point, I find the fretful reports of declining, dying parishes odd for a faith centered on resurrection. I find the hand-wringing over the death of the mainline curious for a faith founded by a man who could scarcely manage a ragtag group of 12 followers drawn from the worst potential list of donors, poor fishermen and a treasurer who helped himself to the community purse. In a lot of ways, Jesus was the model of inefficiency as a minister. He alienated the wealthy and his catechists never seemed to grasp a single thing he taught!
Perhaps the first thing we should do as mainliners is simply to stop trying to resuscitate this corpse, to stop worrying so much, to stop mourning and start dancing. And to start living into the Gospel communities to which we are called.
But there isn’t a strong track record when it comes to death and discipleship. When Jesus dies in the Gospels, his most visible and vocal followers desert him. Fear and sorrow scatter the disciples, unwilling or unable to accept the death of their master.
It was two unlikely characters who show resolve in the face of death — Nicodemus and Joseoph of Arimathea. They courageously shepherd Jesus’ lifeless body, prepare it for burial and put it in the tomb. They set the stage for resurrection. Without them, there is no empty tomb on Sunday for Jesus’ body would have been left to rot on the cross, food for the dogs.
Perhaps these are the people we need to be in the dying mainline church, not the high-profile disciples who shrank in fear but a Nicodemus or a Joseph willing to accept the uncertainty of death no matter what it might mean. Perhaps we need to be a people willing to embrace death, even our own, rather than fear it.
Because when we embrace death, then perhaps we might more easily see the ways we are killing the world with oppression, pollution and injustice.
Because when we embrace death, we are more willing to walk among it and less likely to be content to sit in pews.
Because when we embrace death, resurrection will not be long in coming.