I've been what could be considered a Mainline Protestant for 20 years. In those 20 years, I've learned something about mainliners:
We really suck at planting churches.
Let me back up a moment. I started attending Calvary Baptist Church in located in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC in the fall of 1992. It was and is an American Baptist congregation and like many mainline churches was active in the community. Since I darkened the doors of Calvary, I've been part of Mainline Protestantism. I moved to Minneapolis and joined a Disciples of Christ congregation which became my denominational home. Today, I work full-time as a communications specialist for the local presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and part time as the Associate Pastor of a local Disciples of Christ congregation. So, yeah, I'm a Mainline Protestant.
If there's a theme that has been running in the background all these years, it's the one about liberal Protestants being in decline. All of the major Mainline Protestant denominations keep experiencing decline, with more and more churches closing and the surviving congregations growing grayer and grayer.
I've been around enough to see how we deal with this issue. Sometimes we ignore it and talk about the potential problems with evangelicals, sometimes we talk about "transformation" and about changing the church (but never seem to make any real changes), and sometimes we seek to blame someone or something for the decline.
What we don't do, or don't do very well is planting new churches. All of the mainline churches have some kind of new church planting movement to get local judicatories and congregations to get involved in new churches. While I don't think they are absolute failures, they aren't always astounding successes. New churches get planted, but not at the rate that we are closing churches.
Why is this the case? Why do we suck at planting new communities of faith?
I think it comes down to one word: eccesiology, the understand of who and what is the church. Wikipedia describes ecclesiology as such:
The problem here is that we have lost the sense of what the church is and how it related to Jesus and to God. If we don't know why we have churches, then why in God's name would we plant any?
What does it mean to be a church? Why should people belong to a faith community? How does that congregation relate to the community around it?
These are questions we need to be asking, but in many cases haven't.
Since we don't have a language to describe church, other things fill the void which frankly do a bad job. In writing on the future of the Mainline Church, James Wellman notes that the emphasis on social justice might actually be harming mainline churches more than helping them:
The ‘former' Protestant mainline churches show no signs of stopping their decline. The emphasis on an educated clergy has created an elaborate system of bureaucracy that tends to repel entrepreneurial personalities and attract introspective intellectual types that are more comfortable in the classroom than in the pulpit. Moreover, the growing movement to ordain gay and lesbian men and women, while noble from a liberal and progressive perspective, tends to shift the focus of attention away from family ministries. Without an emphasis on families, churches tend to decline rapidly. Liberal Protestantism, statistically, does not keep their children and youth in their churches. The aging of these churches is also well known.
These churches focus most of their energies on ministries of social justice, particularly on meeting the needs of the homeless. This group tends to advocate inclusiveness and tolerance, making clear what they reject, but they are often unclear as to what they support religiously. As a small subculture, they will continue, but no longer, in any sense, as a mainline. Ironically enough, in some ways, their marginalization is a function of their success in ministries of justice. Most of their causes are already a part of the American mainstream, for example: women's rights, abortion rights, and even, to some extent, gay rights. Many Americans ask, then, why even go to these churches? (emphasis mine)
Contrast this with how Evangelicals see the church:
The future for Evangelicals appears to be more open and perhaps expansive. Evangelicals, again broadly speaking, tend to see the Bible as inerrant; they counsel conversion and look to Jesus' blood atonement as the requirement for salvation. They also tend, stylistically, to be much more deliberate in using modern and contemporary methods of music, worship, and, more broadly, communication. Some have argued that they are accommodated to the culture, but when interviewed, Evangelicals argue, "No, we use modern methods to reach out to those who are lost in order to share the love and salvation of Jesus Christ." That is, Evangelicals argue that they are "less" accommodated then what they call "liberal or progressive Christians."
In general, however, Evangelicals rarely talk about the ‘former' mainline; they talk much more about how to reach those who are unchurched and who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. In large part, because they are so structurally decentralized, they have become fragmented and entrepreneurial. Because of this ethic and ethos, young leaders with entrepreneurial personalities are drawn to this kind of Christianity, which ensures, in part, that their dynamism will continue. As to whether Evangelicals are now the mainline is simply a question they don't ask. They are far less interested in dominating economic or political institutions then in evangelizing young people. Indeed, Evangelical youth are much more likely to stay in the church than those in the liberal or ‘former' mainline churches. The growth of Evangelical churches, at least from their present state, seems to be assured.
The Lutherans have this phrase that sums up what it means to be a Christian and what the church is for: called, gathered and sent. Evangelicals know they are called by God to spread the gospel. They get it. We don't really know if we are called, don't know why we gather or why we are sent. We've lost that language and replaced it with talk of justice. I'm not saying that we should all become conservative churches and drop issues like gay rights or poverty. But those aren't the reasons we are church. As Wellman notes, as society becomes more accepting of gays, why go to church. If I can get all that I want from a Democratic caucus meeting on poverty or the environment, why the hell plant a church?
If Mainliners want to grow again, then we need to go back to basics: we need to know why we are church. We need to be develop again the sense of being called by God, gathering together for common fellowship and prayer and being sent to preach the good news of Jesus. When we can actually name why we want to plant churches, hell why we are church, then maybe we will stop our decline into irrelevance.