And Ye Shall Be Changed: The Resurrection of the Mainline Church

By Reverend Janet Edwards, Ph.D. 

Forty years ago this fall, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordained me to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. In 1977, the handwriting was definitely on the wall that the mainline church—traditional American Protestant denominations like the PCUSA, UCC, UMC, ELCA, EPC—had already begun what is still seen by many now as a death spiral into the bin of history. But I didn’t see it then.

When I was growing up, there seemed to me to be a Presbyterian Church on every corner in Pittsburgh. It is the heritage of my parents’ families reaching back to 17th century Puritans on one side and to Scotch-Irish emigrants to Western Pennsylvania in the first half of the 19th century on the other. Back then, many knew the American Revolution as the Presbyterian War because of the Church’s enthusiasm for independence.

The primacy of the mainline denominations to direct American morality, both private and public, seemed fixed when I was growing up. But the fact is, for a long while before I was born it had been eroding from within. And a concentrated effort to destroy it from without accelerated through my youth after World War II.

The mainline church suffered within from its own failure to live by Jesus’ clear teaching of justice and equality.

These Protestant traditions were ambiguous regarding slavery and they did not stand up against the Jim Crow entrenchment of oppression that followed Reconstruction. Likewise, they did not speak truth to the power of emerging industrial capitalists who exploited their workers during the week then sat in mainline pews on Sunday. The Church happily took their tithe.

At the same time, those very industrialists understood the threat Jesus posed to them. After World War II, several Presbyterians in Pittsburgh, led by J. Howard Pew of Sunoco, began a long strategic effort to undermine mainline church influence by empowering independent, conservative Christianity. This included support for Billy Graham and the founding of Christianity Today. When Ronald Reagan intentionally included conservative Christians in his successful run for the White House, the eclipse of the mainline by evangelicals was well on its way.

The wave of effective TV and radio ministry by conservative Christians drowned out any other Christian voice. Well-funded and politically effective conservative wings succeeded in keeping the mainline denominations roiling with division, primarily over the place of women and, later, LGBTQ people, in God’s heart and in the church. The silence of the mainline in the public square and steadily declining membership are seen as ringing its death knell.

But Christianity is a faith of resurrection. And out of our present national trauma, something must rise to lead our country to a moral ground upon which we can build institutions worthy of our trust. Along with the traditional denominations, government, the press, Wall Street—you name the societal pillar—are all hollowed out right now. They all suffer from losing a moral underpinning that the institution of religion provides. The remnant of the mainline is poised to offer faithful leadership in a way we have never seen before.

The evangelical Christian church may aspire to be that leader, but its craven support of Donald Trump for President in 2016 destroyed any claim it might make to integrity in the eyes of the world.

A friend commented to me recently that the American conservative church is unmistakably a political movement masquerading as religion.

Yes. And it may have been that for a good while, though it has, perhaps, hidden (until now) behind filled seats in mega-churches or deep financial pockets. But Robert Jones’ 2016 book, The End of White Christian America, documents that the membership loss experienced by the mainline is now underway in the evangelical church as well. Surveys show that this is being driven by young people abandoning the American conservative congregations they grew up in. A political movement cannot meet spiritual, moral needs.

The other debilitating weakness of the evangelical church is its theological insistence on being the one and only true faith. This simply cannot stand in a world of 7 billion people and a host of different understandings of God. When Jesus said, “No one gets to the Father but by me,” it did not necessarily mean that every person needs to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. It could mean that we all come to Jesus by living by the Commandments he named: loving God and loving our neighbor as our self.

This is a lesson the mainline has learned. Its missionaries are partners with others in ministry to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the prisoner. Having had experience in handling differences among themselves, the traditional denominations are ready to join the interfaith alliances that honor differences among faithful people, even as we find the common ground we share on which justice for all can be built. This is the ethical foundation upon which our national institutions can rise to a greatness we have not yet known.

As I look back on my forty years of ministry, I think the most important lesson I have learned is humility. My beloved PCUSA seems to have learned this, too.

The central element of this humility is what I heard called recently “decentering whiteness,” though not just whiteness—cis-gender, straight maleness, too. This is on astonishing display in the present holders of the four traditional offices of leadership in the PCUSA. They are two women, an African American man and a Hispanic gay man. I hope this indicates that we are on our way to decentering white patriarchy, to trying something new.

And new is what resurrection is.

It is new for the old guard like me to follow. Of course, it is not easy for us or for me. We are accustomed to being in charge. I was in a meeting of faith folk involved in advocacy recently. Hispanic and Black participants insisted that the whites in the room sit back, deferring to others. I confess, I stewed in my back seat, pondering in my heart what was required of me.

This became very clear: The way to life for the church is to humbly follow those whom we have shunned or hurt or oppressed in the past. Micah 6:8 is still fundamental: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” When we get these right, then we qualify to lead our nation to a renewed morality that can revitalize all our institutions.

Most likely, the PCUSA—the American mainline church as a whole—will look radically different from what we were. There is a good chance my ancestors would not recognize what is coming. No matter, they will cheer us on if we follow Jesus. John commented, “It is not yet clear what we shall be,” and Paul assured the faithful, “We shall be changed.”

Indeed.

Rev. Janet Edwards is a Presbyterian pastor, writer and activist.

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