The re-emergence of the mainline church
As I watched the #NEXTChurch2015 hashtag on Twitter last night, I was struck by a realization: We’re watching the next generation of the church take shape right now — and it is huge.
There are so many young clergy who are so passionate about their churches and so energetic to take those churches in bold new directions. Their passion and energy, as seen at NEXT Church, suggests to me the re-emergence of the mainline church.
Much has been written about the decline of the mainline church denominations that accounted for a significant percentage of American Christianity in the 20th century; a common narrative is that mainline church denominations are gradually aging into extinction.
NEXT Church is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) — one of America’s oldest and largest Protestant church denominations — whose focus is finding new mission possibilities for a denomination weighed down by the baggage of decades of infighting.
Church trends, like meteorological seasons, are lagging indicators of what’s actually going on in churches and denominations. Churches are large and complex entities within which the effects of a change can be slow to materialize and only felt gradually.
One of those significant changes is the emergence of a new generation of church leaders. This group, made up of young seminarians and clergy in their early 20s to late 30s, have a vision for different kind of churches than those they’ve inherited: Churches that are more missional, more inclusive, and more diverse.
Their identity matches this vision: There are more women, more persons of color, and more persons who identify as LGBT than at any other time in American church history. They model the love of Christ in profound new ways by opening the door to groups of persons who have never been welcomed in churches before.
A large number of these emerging church leaders associate themselves with mainline church denominations: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian — even Roman Catholic. Their interest in liturgy, worship, mission, and inclusion finds a natural home with the liturgical, sacramental, and cooperative life of historic mainline churches.
In short, the very things that conventional wisdom once held would mark the end of the mainline church are, in fact, the fuel for its reinvigoration.
But perhaps nothing speaks more clearly to the rekindling of the mainline spirit than how the voices of young and emerging church leaders are amplified when they come together. Last night, a spontaneous standing ovation took place when word of the passage of Amendment 14-F — an amendment to the PC(USA)’s Book of Order that permits same-gender marriage — swept through the auditorium. Even through the cloudy looking glass of social media, the excitement was palpable: A historic change had just occurred — one that signals a new and uncharted path for the church.
The new generation of church leaders was on hand to bear witness to this change — and they sung the doxology in response.
The future of the church looks bright.