In a much commented-upon article by Ed Stetzer, he warns that, absent some kind of resurrection, statistical trends indicate that Mainline Protestantism’s days are – literally – numbered. His analysis suggests that the Mainline has about 23 years left. Stetzer goes on to argue that Mainline survival, at minimum, will need some serious changes in ethos to mount a comeback:
My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.
The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.
These kinds of reflections often induce histrionics in some (mostly Mainline) pastors and blogging types. They smell a boogeyman here, who is also their scapegoat for all things bad in the church: the evangelical Christian. [Cue ominous tones.] In fact, in some circles, all you have to do is associate phenomenon x with evangelicals and x automatically becomes an evil second only to Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin. It’s a hackish formula, but a ubiquitous one nonetheless.
The argument, rather predictably, usually goes something like a) “Evangelicals who insist on orthodoxy are really just bigots and use doctrine as a cover for their racist/sexist/homophobic policies,” or b) “Insisting on doctrine is a kind of legalism like that of the Pharisees, when what really matters is ethical behavior toward others.” The first is pure conspiracy, the second is a false dichotomy.
What these apoplectic reactions miss is something that even the most evangel-y of evangelicals will admit: orthodox doctrine (at a minimum, say, the witness of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds) is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient of church vitality. Of course there are churches with solid doctrine that are spiritually dead (that’s how the Methodist movement got it’s start, for John’s sake). But to take this as a reason to downplay or jettison basic doctrine is a total non-sequiter.
Nowhere is this more clear, biblically and historically, than the resurrection of Christ. Modern and postmodern theologies too enamored of their own wisdom to believe in ancient dogmas like the physical resurrection of Christ are hopeless from the ground floor. Are there congregations with vital ministries and kind hearts where the pastor and many, if not most, of the congregants reject the supernatural in the biblical narrative? Certainly. Are there growing religious congregations that reject Easter in favor of some kind of spiritual or psycho-social “resurrection?” I’m sure. But the success of these only makes their error that much more tragic, because what they are succeeding in is not what the apostles, saints, and martyrs could recognize as the Bride of Christ.
St. Paul is crystal clear about this with his flock in Corinth:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, NRSV)
As the Apostle makes so clear, the point of the resurrection is not to grow churches, but to give real hope that the oldest enemy of humanity, the grave, does not win in the end. A cold piece of paper with the doctrine of the resurrection scribbled upon it does not create vitality, of course. However, a church committed to resurrection as God’s victory in Christ not as a dead letter, but as a way of life and ministry, can transform hearts, families, and communities. Without the basic truth of the resurrection, though – if Christ’s bones are in a Jerusalem hillside – than even the most active, loving, and inclusive of churches are little more than quaint country clubs or social service agencies.
In short, there is no resurrection of the Mainline that is worth a tinker’s damn unless the resurrection of Jesus is front and center in our life and proclamation. With it, a world of possibilities – nothing less than the New Creation itself – is open to us. Without it, “we are of all people to be pitied.”
I’ll give Ed Stetzer the last word:
If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.
I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.