Blogging is not the format for careful arguments and developed strategies. It's more for letting thoughts drop out of your head and seeing how God uses it all. But this is something I've thought about for quite some time, so here's hoping it comes out clear...and begins a conversation.
My ministry is marked by two poles of emphasis. First is a faith that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord and Savior of an invisible church, unhindered by worldly boundaries. My days with YoungLife, FOCUS, the Army Chaplaincy, and even now at the Center for Christian Study have been about finding ways to realize this secret and shadowy countryside where anyone who follows Jesus is a brother and a sister. Some cringe when I call this work 'ecumenical', but I still see it as an evangelical ecumenism, an apostolic catholicity. The church of which Christ is the Lord is one church, even if we can't see that from where we sit.
The second emphasis is a desire to see the visible church in our times have the greatest possible impact on the culture, the common way of life, of our nation and community. For a number of reasons, I believe this includes Christ's deployment of the old mainline. They may be tired, lapsed, sleeping or dead, but they still have that huge sanctuary on the corner of First and Main with a steeple whose shadow tickles the courthouse steps.
So then, Five Principles for Mainline Resurgence...
One: Gospel Preaching. The dalliance with modernism is over. No more of the bloodless, appeasement preaching in which "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross," to quote Richard Niebuhr. The lay reader of the Bible must once again rise up to correct the unconverted ministers who devalue or evacuate the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This principle includes mission. Mainline churches have the longest-standing and most established inroads for the proclamation of the Gospel to the developing world. Mission brings glory to Christ, and renews the mission-sending body at the same time.
Two: Culture Making. Yes, a la Andy Crouch. His contribution is not a new idea, but a contemporary articulation of an ancient Christian mission. The downtown church is well-positioned to make something of the world in which we live; to hear the needs of the town or city and respond creatively. The church that's been there for one hundred years still has a voice on the town planning committee, the parade committee, or the commission to address crime...education...social need. Mainline churches have forgotten that they have gifts for this work, which is ironic. They were the first to do it--which leads to...
Three: Reclaiming History. That's right, this mainline church (now nearly empty) was there when the city was being formed, when the town was shaping a common way of life. The mainline church needs to reclaim this history with pride (where appropriate) and shame (where appropriate), but always with willingness to own the decades and decades of impact, and connect today's Christians with yesterday's culture founders.
Four: Ancient/Future Faith. There is strength in the church when it is tied to its prior generations. New methods emerge; new missions are defined, and mainline churches must learn to engage these tools with facility and flexibility. But the church you gather with on Sunday morning must always find a way to declare allegiance with the long line of the communion of saints in every age. How quickly the church which marries itself to the contemporary moment becomes a widow!
Five: Reunification. Stop snickering. I'm serious. Isn't it at least worth praying for (if only to repeat the prayer of Jesus in John 17)? Imagine for a moment every denomination in the United States which emerges from the teaching of John Calvin and the vision of Geneva united in one voice. PCUSA, PCA, OPC, EPC, ARP, RCA, CRC, DRC, CPC...one voice. And that's just one narrow strand of protestantism in one country. Would anyone deny that the fracturing of the church is a victory for the devil? Pray for it.
I do not wish to take anything away from the power and impact of the new churches. Powerful new networks have emerged making tremendous leaps for the Gospel. But to share my heart with you here, I want to display this vision of the resurgence of the mainline; a vision of the longest standing tree with the deepest and most enduring roots renewed and restored--and once again bearing fruit.