Last Wednesday night I sat around a table with a group of mostly younger adults. We meet each week for my churches' "Faith on Tap" program, a spirituality discussion group held at a local pub. We were talking about a new advertising campaign that our denomination, the United Church of Christ, launched in Tampa this summer. It's message is simple: Jesus didn't reject people. Neither do we.
I had preached the previous Sunday about the bittersweet feelings I had felt seeing banners with this message in a place not so far where I grew up. I felt both hope for the LGBT youth who might see them and recognize God's love for them, and pain for the fact a church sign proclaiming that welcome was so rare that it took me by surprise.
Those gathered around the table shared their experiences, too. They shared that when peers heard they attended church, they often reacted negatively. Their friends often assumed that Christian faith meant disregard for the rights of women and LGBT people, rejection of the idea of evolution and acceptance of biblical inerrancy. It came as a surprise to many, they found, that church could be a place where both nuance and questions were welcomed.
We wondered together why the voices of fundamentalist Christians so often overshadowed those of members of moderate and progressive denominations. We finally agreed on the sad reality of the mainline church (Episcopalians, United Methodists, the UCC, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and others) in American public opinion: We have a public relations problem.
Now, let me clear that when I say that I am not reducing the Gospel to something that should be commoditized and sold like everything else in American culture. (Though heaven knows it has been.) I am instead saying that evangelism, which in the best sense of the word is not conversion but instead the proclamation of good news to those who need it the most, has by and large become associated with fundamentalists. What should be a liberating message of justice and hope and healing has instead become commonly understood as one of exclusion and small-mindedness.
This is not just the result of well-funded and energetic outreach by newer, more fundamentalist, denominations. It is also the result of our own complacency and lukewarmness. The decline of the mainline church was not brought about by the hand of American culture or growing megachurches. It was brought about by our own lack of courage and lack of humility. We were simultaneously too scared to be prophetic, and yet too sure that we were "too big to fail." It was a deadly combination.
I do not believe that the mainline is bound to die. Not yet, anyway. But I think that in many ways we are on critical care. I don't see the renewal of the mainline as a desire for a return to greater numbers. (Though I do think a radical renewal of the church would generate more people in the pews.) Instead, I see it as working for renewed vitality and relevance in a culture that is, and has been, constantly changing.
We have a ways to go. In late June I stood in the gallery of the New York Senate along with clergy from other mainline denominations and watched equal marriage become a reality. We had lobbied as clergy for this civil right because we believe our faith teaches us that God's children deserve equal rights. That night we went to a victory party in Albany where the DJ grabbed a mic and proclaimed how happy he was that the Senate had "pissed off all the Christians" that day.
At first I was angry. I had fought alongside many other clergy for this victory, and his attack felt unfair. But then I realized that the fault wasn't with the DJ. It was with those of us in the mainline who have been too reluctant to proclaim our beliefs with a voice loud enough to counter a voice of exclusion, intolerance and inerrancy coming from other churches. Right there, in the midst of great joy, I felt the painful reality of being a part of an institution that is trying to regain relevancy.
I read recently that 91 percent of young adults view the church as "anti-homosexual." I also read that 65 percent of college freshman who entered in 2010 support same-sex marriage. If this is true, why would any young adult want to join an institution that they perceive as being on the wrong side of the greatest civil rights issue of their day? And the inclusion of LGBT people is simply a lens through which to view the church's relevance on many levels.
In my ministry I often meet people who have left the churches of their upbringing. They almost invariably tell me about some past pain or rejection that they experienced in Christ's name. I realize now that there are two faults there. The first is the original action that hurt them. The second is the fact that no other church ever came along and told them that what was done to them was not God's will.
We have too often missed our call to be a place not only of welcome, but also of justice and healing. We have too often been the churches who, instead of "letting our light shine," have "hidden it under a bushel basket." We can change that, but it will mean a radical act of stepping out of our comfort zones and embracing a world where the church can no longer take its relevance for granted.
The challenge for renewing the mainline is regaining relevancy with a generation that rejects hypocrisy and intolerance and craves a place that welcomes those with questions and doubt. I've never believed that the decline of Christendom necessarily had to mean the decline of the church. If anything, this could be the birth of a new reformation in which we are freed to be truer to the Gospel than ever. And the mainline churches can lead the way. But first we are going to have to learn the art of proclamation again. Otherwise we will continue to be white noise in a world inundated with thunderously alienating religious voices.