WASHINGTON — Who are the mainline Protestants today? Vintage Protestants? The VPCC – Vanishing Progressive Christian Church? The Legacy Church?
Half a century ago, the denominations under the mainline umbrella dominated the American faith landscape. Now, after decades of declining numbers, only about one in five U.S. adults identifies with a mainline denomination such as United Methodists, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA) and American Baptists.
Could replacing the “mainline” name help stem the slide? The challenge came from scholar and Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt. Writing in the venerable Christian Century magazine, she called for a new brand that conveys her view of the mainline’s rising diversity and social justice leadership.
“The image of an all-white, elitist church is not going to fly for generations to come,” said Merritt, an author and speaker who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. “‘Mainline’ was a good historic marker but the future needs to reflect who we are now.”
(Tradition holds that the term “mainline” was born in the tony suburbs just outside Philadelphia, along the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, that defined the mostly white, mostly affluent churches in the area.)
Religion News Service took up the challenge, inviting votes and comments in an informal survey. More than 200 people voted, many posting comments that ranged from theological to historical, serious to snarky:
— “Liberal Church” led with 24 percent of the votes. But the word carried a double whammy. Some liked the social and political connotation. Others used “Liberal” as a slam on a church they thought was too loose on doctrines of sin and salvation. Merritt said Monday she preferred a different spin: “Liberationist Church,” she said, “because it taps into the good news that our beliefs lead us to seek liberation for all the oppressed, to expand freedom for all.”
— Next, at 17 percent, were those who said labels just don’t work for religious distinctions anymore. National surveys find growing numbers just want to call themselves “Christian.”
— “Grandma’s Church” drew only 3 percent of votes despite its ring of truth: It has the greatest percentage of members age 65 and older of any Christian tradition. “Old Line” drew 6 percent.
Most folks – a plurality, or 46 percent – preferred their own picks.
Fans of the mainline highlighted historical faith and social gospel activism:
— “The Refined Church” came from Carlton E. Allen. “The term plays off of “Reformed” but suggests a church that has been “through the fire: … tried and tested and resistant to fads.”
— Social scientist and blogger Mark Silk would stick with “mainline” because “it identifies a social location in American communities – a religious tradition that takes a broad view of its responsibilities to the community at large – that continues to serve as meaningful shorthand.” And Alicia Lowry Walker wrote that the old name worked fine to attract her to a mainline congregation that is growing “primarily due to young families from evangelical backgrounds like mine.”
— John McGrath called for “Forward Christians” because, he says, “These denominations generally move forward as the meaning of Scripture unfolds through better scholarship, translation, and prayerful reflection on the essential humaneness of Christ.”
Critics, however, skewered the mainline as a theological washout:
— Shawne Rantlett called them “The Churches Formerly Known as Christian. Or, The Syncretist Churches.”
— Ken Peters suggested “The Unorthodox Churches. Their Liberalized doctrines should be noted as unorthodox.”
— Steven Hunter said names – new or old – wouldn’t matter. “People didn’t leave these churches because of marketing or branding, and they won’t come back for it either. Sorry. But you can’t water down a faith until it’s essentially meaningless and then expect to still draw people.”
Deb Geelsdottir suggested refocusing the conversation on “Jesus first, last, and always” with the name “Red Letter Christian Church,” which draws on a Bible publishing practice that highlights Jesus’ words in red.
Martha Carlson has another twist. “Since the evangelicals are now claiming majority, we should start calling them Mainline! They could then bear the weight of being ‘established,’ ‘establishment,’ or at least all being tarred by the same brush when it comes to popular opinion that all the members of a group think alike.”
Mainline scholar Diana Butler Bass, an Episcopalian, offered her own critique on Twitter: “We’ll change ours if `evangelicals’ change theirs.”
John Leech offered “Legacy Denominations” because, he wrote, they are “like legacy airlines, carrying a lot of baggage from the past … But wait! I still have lots of miles to redeem!”
Merritt ultimately came up with her own first choice : “Social Justice Christian.”
To her, it conveys “the exciting and vibrant thought that has come out of our tradition in the last hundred years or so (to) . proclaim the good news that leads us to liberation and salvation.”