Author Topic: Death of mainline protestantism  (Read 27482 times)

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Death of mainline protestantism
« on: July 21, 2008, 08:38:08 AM »
An excerpt from a lengthy essay in the August/ Sept issue of First Things:
The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline
by Joseph Bottum
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.
http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6254

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Intellectual community may be even more decisive. Over the past thirty years, Mainline Protestantism has crumbled at the base, as its ordinary congregants slip away to evangelicalism, on one side, or disbelief, on the other. But it has weakened at the head, too, as its most serious theologians increasingly seek community-that longed-for intellectual culture of people who speak the same vocabulary, understand the same concepts, and study the same texts-in other, stricter denominations.

All these themes appear in the open letter the elderly Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten wrote in 2005 to Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Mainline branch of Lutheranism, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is, in its way, a terribly sad document, as he notes how the Lutheran Church in which he was brought up "has become just another" Mainline church. "I must tell you," he explains to Bishop Hanson, "that I read all your episcopal letters that come across my desk. But I must also tell you that your stated convictions, punctuated by many pious sentiments, are not significantly distinguishable from those that come from the liberal Protestant leaders of other American denominations."

There used to be a distinct Lutheranism that he understood, Braaten writes. He learned it "from Nygren, Aulen, Bring, Pinomaa, Schlink, P. Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Pannenberg, Piepkorn, Quanbeck, Preus, and Lindbeck"-a roll-call of once famous Lutheran thinkers-"not to mention the pious missionary teachers from whom I learned the Bible, the Catechism, and the Christian faith." All that "is now marginalized to the point of near extinction."

Indeed, Braaten insists, the church's "brain drain"-the parade of contemporary Lutheran theologians, one after another, joining other denominations-is caused by this loss of any unique Lutheranism: "While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA. . . . They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal Protestant denomination. . . . They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed."

The letter is, in fact, a long litany of loss: disjointed, heartfelt, flailing; a bewildered catalogue of all the things Braaten thought mattered. He carefully lists his antique political credentials ("I am a life-long political liberal. . . . My wife and I opposed the unjust war against Vietnam")-as though that would give him standing. ­Educated at Harvard and Heidelberg, he records his contributions to the high theological controversies of Lutheran days gone by-as though that would save him from irrelevance. He names the long generations of his family's missionary work in Madagascar, Cameroon, and China-as though Bishop Hanson would suddenly remember the 1920s world of prestigious mission boards and halt the tumble of Lutheranism down into the miniature melting pot that is Mainline Protestantism in twenty-first-century America.

The influence of the Lutheran Chu rch was bigger back when its ambitions were smaller. While the denomination was growing from a set of German and Scandinavian immigrants' churches to a full member of the American Mainline, Lutherans typically wanted only to hold their faith, supporting the nation in general while speaking out against specific social ­failures. The civil-rights movement, for instance, showed a strong Lutheran component, although the Prohibition-era war on alcohol was not joined by many church members. Local campaigns against pornography always had high Lutheran participation, but by the 1950s the Lutheran vote in national elections was largely indistinguishable from the general voting patterns of the rest of the country. They influenced American culture mostly by being themselves: a significant stream in Tocqueville's undivided current.

Where are they now? Well into the twentieth century, Lutherans were uncomfortable with their relation to other Protestant churches. The more conservative branches of Lutheranism still maintain some of that old distance: Neither the Missouri Synod (with 2.5 million congregants) nor the Wisconsin Synod (with 400,000) are members of the National Council of Churches, for example. But about this much, Carl Braaten is right: The largest branch, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has merged itself almost entirely with the other liberal Protestant denominations.

V

Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran-the name hardly matters anymore. It's true that if you dig through the conservative manifestos and broadsides of the past thirty years, you find one distressed cry after another, each bemoaning the particular path by which this or that denomination lost its intellectual and doctrinal distinctiveness.

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An excerpt from:
The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline
by Joseph Bottum
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.
http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6254
fleur-de-lis

Dave_Poedel

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2008, 11:33:10 PM »
This is a very profound paper.  Dr Bottum is very aware of the idiosyncrasies of Protestantism and one has to wonder how this large number of saints will continue to serve faithfully.  As in any Church, there are a majority of true Believers in the mainline, as well as a very large number who are confused about the future.

I truly wonder how much your average Methodist, Presbyterian, ELCA Lutheran (or even LCMS Lutheran, though not classified as mainline by most sociologists of religion) member of the local congregation know or even care what is happening in their denomination.  I know that I have a lot of trouble getting my folks to care about what happens at the District or Synod level, and I can't imagine it's much different in most congregations. And, truth be told, most of my folks are in open disagreement with practices that are "defining" of our Synod such as close communion.

Will the mainline survive because there are alive and vibrant congregations in the denomination?

Pr. Jerry Kliner

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2008, 12:48:18 PM »
Will the mainline survive because there are alive and vibrant congregations in the denomination?

That's the "million-dollar-question" now, isn't it... My guess is that the "mainline" will survive, but that individual "mainline denominations" will not...  I suspect that, as the author noted, as doctrinal "distinctiveness" continues to dissipate, and as numbers (of parishioners) continues to decline (be it through age or whatever), you will begin to see actual consolidation between denominational bodies, both out of praticalities/necessity and out of shared mission.  One could see an eventuality where segments of the ELCA and the TEC/PECUSA could one day merge to form some sort of shared ecclessial body (NO!, I am not "fear mongering" about CCM, here...) because they share so much in common and numerically need each other to maintain an ecclessial "gravity."  The same could be seen amongst some segments of the UCC and various bodies (including the ELCA...  There is historical precident for this one...).  About the only "mainline" body that could concievably remain unchanged would be the UMC (United Methodist Church) which (1) has sufficient numbers to weather the storm for an extended time, (2) has a sufficiently strong "brand" identity yet a deliberately flexible confessional identity to allow a huge diversity of membership, and (3) is still seen as the "acceptable"/default denomination of American civil life (which is what the Episcopal Church once was).  But even here, the UMC continues to threaten to "fly apart at the seams" every three years as they wrestle with issues.  In the end, I think the torch has past from the Episcopal Church to the UMC as the "standard bearer" of mainline American "Protestantism."

As to the "rest of us" (those of us within the ELCA, TEC/PECUSA, PCUSA, American Baptists, and even the UCC/Disciples of Christ who remain wedded to confessional life as opposed to a "mainline" identity),  I think we will face a rough patch where we will face ecclessial shattering and a nomadic life.  Perhaps, like the mainline, we too will consolidate: Anglo-catholics and "high Church"/Evangelical catholic Lutherans for instance.  Or maybe we will be forced to realign with other global ecclesial bodies like what is happening in the Anglican communion.  Some, doubtless, will choose the "independent" route.

But I think the "fight" for the identity of the "mainline" has largely been decided.  The question now is what lies ahead.  Perhaps I am wrong in my predictions...  Lord knows I have no academic credentials to backstop them.  But this is my best guess... 

And never let us forget: whatever the future, Christ will prevail.

Pax Christi;
Pr. Jerry Kliner, STS
 

doxtalker

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2008, 02:55:48 PM »
 The First Things article looks interesting -- I've just started reading it. My first thought, though, is whether it really makes sense to talk about "the way it is."  Maybe the author will produce proof for what he's saying. But just the beginning -- Remember, there was a time in America when there were all these sects, and they made up America.
  Where I live, these sects all seem to go on. Even the Mennonites on their farms.
 What does amaze me, though, is how little religion seems to matter to so many youngish people (20 to 50 years old) with whom I work. It seems they could care less. I wonder ... do they really find life so satisfying that they don't feel a need for God. Or are they, perhaps, as Ernest Becker says, in deep denial?

Larry

HopefulSeminarian

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #4 on: July 22, 2008, 03:44:14 PM »
I may being naive but I believe there is a beginning of a migration away from the Mega Church, charismatic, Evangelic and back to the Higher-Mass/ritual style churches. The following is mainly my opinion and thoughts.

I left the ICOC, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Churches_of_Christ, in 2000 and gave up on all organized religion. In 2003 I found a church in Minneapolis while I was attending Augsburg that had the ritual and Mass style I grew up with as a Roman Catholic but also a freedom to debate and discuss.

I am now a Seminary and MA student, hence my login name, though not currently going for ordination. The ELCA has given me much and I am grateful.

One of my area's of personnel study deals with church migration and the factors that lead to this event. In my research on this potential shift, I do not have enough hard data yet to start quoting but I’m working on it, I have found more and more people are seeking to return to a “Higher style of service” and to a church that does have a tradition but still deals with the world.

Is the ELCA dealing with many different issues? Yes but at least the are addressing them and allowing for study and debate.

I believe, and I know I may be an idealist, and pray that the ELCA will grow with more of the faithful and even unfaithful who wish to come know the salvation given by Jesus Christ.

Just my two cents and my opinion

Edward Arrindell

E. Swensson

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #5 on: July 22, 2008, 04:14:41 PM »
Yes, it is a sad trend, a sad paper, and of course, we are in the midst of a trend (so many sad papers). Since there is no hope for the faith of a generic denomination, perhaps we can preach resurrection to its members. That is, Lutheranism was once known for teaching of a lively faith. Can we not be born again?

I was just at another lecture on sociology. I am being convinced that sociology can only count corpses, not bring any to life.

"But, oh, faith, it is a living thing, sharp and active as any two-edged sword."

Charles_Austin

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #6 on: July 22, 2008, 04:37:23 PM »
The article does not say why it was "good" having Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. in distinctive denominations.

Kevin Palmer

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #7 on: July 22, 2008, 05:13:44 PM »

Perhaps, like the mainline, we too will consolidate: Anglo-catholics and "high Church"/Evangelical catholic Lutherans for instance.  Or maybe we will be forced to realign with other global ecclesial bodies like what is happening in the Anglican communion.  Some, doubtless, will choose the "independent" route.


I actually find it a rather appealing prospect to think that perhaps in the not so distant future, evangelical catholics of various stripes would join together and bring all of us one step closer to reunion with Rome.  But that's probably just wishful thinking...   :)

Paul L. Knudson

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #8 on: July 22, 2008, 10:34:01 PM »
I for one hope those of you who dream of some cross denominational coming together of Evangelical Catholics with an eventual return to Rome might consider a slightly different path.  I would hope that you could see you have more in common with Word Alone types than you may think.  Go back to Braaten and Jenson's two volume work on Dogmatics, and you will find a major chapter on the atonement by Gerhard Forde.

We who treasure our confessional routes not for nostalgia sake but for impelling our witness and service do differ in our ecclesiological understandings.  I hope our working together, however, is not short lived and that we then split into our more pure camps.  In the immediate future we are needed to bring common voice.  Some of us believe we need each other long term also.  I believe Steven Tibbits and I could actually enjoy some good times over some good beer, German or domestic, and the Kingdom would be extended by both of us being in the same communion.

bajaye

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #9 on: July 22, 2008, 10:41:18 PM »
For some reason I picture Pastor Tibbetts as solely a German beer kind of a guy.  And the Kingdom is already extended by the both of you.

Brian
« Last Edit: July 22, 2008, 10:55:11 PM by bajaye »

deaconbob

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #10 on: July 22, 2008, 11:24:13 PM »
Maybe its me,but I don't see WA and Evangelical Catholic's under one roof. However, having said that,I pray for the continued witness of each to the Gospel of Our Lord and Savior. And yes, I can see some sizable segment of the PECUSA (TEC) and the ELCA "merge", especially as 2009 Assembly and The Primates Gathering fall-out/ discernment begins to evolve. Suspious of "foreign oversight" an American expression of these two Traditions may emerge ( Although I would insist that the Episcopalians acknowledge there were Calvinists and didn't invent incense/miters/bells). As the UMC re-discovers the Sacraments, it is most encouraging, but perhaps we need to admit, that we lutheran's aren't Protestants, but reformed Roman Catholic's and have a witness to offer a sinning and conflicted world. It has been spoken of before, but a via-media LC-MS and the ELCA. And perhaps, GOD is bringing us to our knees , because we and not His angels have started to seperate wheat from weeds, and mixing it all up, yet again.

Pr. Jerry Kliner

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #11 on: July 22, 2008, 11:35:44 PM »
I for one hope those of you who dream of some cross denominational coming together of Evangelical Catholics with an eventual return to Rome might consider a slightly different path.  I would hope that you could see you have more in common with Word Alone types than you may think.  Go back to Braaten and Jenson's two volume work on Dogmatics, and you will find a major chapter on the atonement by Gerhard Forde.

We who treasure our confessional routes not for nostalgia sake but for impelling our witness and service do differ in our ecclesiological understandings.  I hope our working together, however, is not short lived and that we then split into our more pure camps.  In the immediate future we are needed to bring common voice.  Some of us believe we need each other long term also.  I believe Steven Tibbits and I could actually enjoy some good times over some good beer, German or domestic, and the Kingdom would be extended by both of us being in the same communion.

Don't forget, Paul, that that question runs both ways...  So far, WA has been mostly an attempt at getting out from under one roof with us nasty Romish evangelical catholics.  When the major attempt at producing a worship book is underwritten with the principle of "reclaiming" the liturgy from the encroachment of "Roman" influence, it cannot help but make this evangelical catholic wonder why in the world I would be "wanted" or "want" to be in that ecclesial body?

Or more precisely, WA would need to stop seeing us as the enemy at the same time as EC's needing to "warm" to WA... 

But that being said, I have never said that there are not things that WA and EC's can not work on together or that we cannot share a good beer together.  ;D

Pax Christi;
Pr. Jerry Kliner, STS

Paul L. Knudson

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #12 on: July 23, 2008, 09:16:50 AM »
I would readily admit that WA types have had and still do chafe at ecclesiological questions around ministry issues.  Maybe in the end, as a personal Evangelical Catholic friend said to me, these issues will send us in different directions.  She could not abide the Reclaim folk.

So I may be naive.  What I believe unites us is our sacramental understandings.  Aside from arguments over the eucharistic prayer, I see us both holding to God's coming to us in gracious ways through the Lord's Supper.  Pietism is not the defining understanding of WA.  We see the Triune God working through the Word to restore us to faith.  This saving activity of God centered in Jesus Christ is sacramental in its very nature.  It comes to us through proclamation, baptism, and the Lord's Supper.  God holds the important action for us.  The canonical Word is authoritative for us.

Yes, we may be uncomfortable with one another, but I am hopeful that folks working together on CORE issues will discover that this is a coming together that is not only pragmatic but of the Holy Spirit.  Maybe some of feel this tent is too broad, and that goes both ways.  I believe our commonalities overwhelm our differences.

I do not believe the majority in the ELCA would identify themselves as liberal protestant.  The levers of power do seem to be held by those forces.  We do not necessarily need to separate ourselves from them.  If we are to be leaven in this dough and have any chance of making a difference and staying as one, then some of us have to stick together.  Even if leaving some day becomes the alternative, I still see merit in being together.  I acknowledge not all agree.

Kevin Palmer

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #13 on: July 23, 2008, 12:04:36 PM »
As an outsider looking in, there are certainly some positive things about Word Alone.  But I think it more likely for evangelical catholics to merge together, given a greater ground of commonality.  I can't imagine many EC's (myself included) being willing to toss out the beauty and depth of the full liturgy because WA feels some is too Romanish.  As an LCMS pastor, one of my long-standing problems with my own church body has been its stubborn (and wrong-headed) opposition to eucharistic prayers.  If a move were made in the future for a via media between LCMS and ELCA, it would be unthinkable to me to go back to arguments over eucharistic prayer and other liturgical issues as a church body.

But having a good theological discussion/argument over some beer (or ale...I prefer Guiness)?  I'll do that anytime!

deaconbob

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Re: Death of mainline protestantism
« Reply #14 on: July 23, 2008, 09:50:09 PM »
Beer is a good start. I do believe that there would be a keen interest to discern a via-media between the LC-MS and the ELCA (EV's). And no, as I stated above, WA would not fit. But then again, we are no about 'fashioning" a Church to reflect us, but Christ. And if we, by the grace of GOD, discern that in faithfulness we can no longer belong to either church tradition because of grevious doubts about their theology and practice, are we not called to reform, or day say, leave? Then we assemble, around Word and Sacrament, with other fellow believers.