Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mainline Denominations Can Have a Bright Future If They Want One

I've been speaking at many small colleges that have historical ties to the oldest mainline denominations in the US. I have been noticing something interesting: a terrific hunger for a deeper spirituality on the part of many young people who come from evangelical backgrounds like mine and also like me are looking for something outside of the right wing conservatism they come from.

I've also noticed that while some people in the so-called emergent evangelical movement are reaching out to these young people the leaders of the mainline denominations both locally and nationally often seem blind to a huge new opportunity for growth and renewal staring them in the face. That new opportunity is the scores of younger former evangelicals diving headlong out of the right wing evangelical churches.

What brings those suffering from spiritual burnout to my talks is that I've been there and done that.  I usually get invited to speak because someone at the school shares my former evangelical background and has read one of my books like Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. I'm invited as a speaker who talks about both the religious and political sector where I've been arguing against the "politics of hate," that has overtaken the far right.

The title of my talk is usually something like "Saving Faith from Politicized and Poisonous Religion." I speak about how as someone born into a leading evangelical religious family I found a deeper faith by embracing mystery and paradox. 

My college talks are thronged by young people who have gotten tired of being told they have to vote for conservative Republicans in order to be Christians. And they are tired of the false certainties not to mention the relentless gay bashing.

I'm interested by the fact that when I ask them if they go to church they either say no and are of the "spiritual not religious" persuasion, or they have hooked up with formerly evangelical groups that now have reshaped themselves as more progressive. What I don’t often hear is that they have turned to the older mainline more liberal and progressive denominations. This is a surprise since in terms of world view the older denominations should be a good fit for the progressive former evangelicals. I’ve asked many of them, “Has anyone from the mainline churches made an effort to connect with you?” Most say no.

In my talks argue that spirituality without community is hollow and self defeating. I ask "So where do you DO community?" And that question (mostly asked during the Q and A sessions) leads to discussion of options for going to church. And what amazes me is the invisibility of the mainline communities when it comes to the literally millions of former evangelicals I know are out there.

In fact most of the bright young students I talk to think that the word "Christian" means evangelical/fundamentalist. They are barely aware of any alternatives.

I don't get it. Where is everyone? Why is the “emergent” evangelical church reinventing a wheel that’s been around for centuries? And why aren’t the mainline churches letting us know they are there?

Because of the thousands of emails my books about my journey out of the evangelical right have generated, I know that there is a vast movement afoot of individuals who feel they are alone. Each one writes to me as if we’re the only people thinking “this way.” However I know of few mainline efforts to reach out to these lonely former evangelical younger folks who may feel alone but who actually number countless people.

There are some good things happening. These things are mostly the creation of a few individuals not so much the official high priority work of denominations. Here are a few great examples that might inspire others to replicate them: 

Darkwood Brew is an online program put together by Rev. Eric Elnes pastor of a United Church of Christ parish. It is a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive Christian faith and values. 

Living the Questions is not the product of a denominational workgroup or other institutional effort aimed at simply dressing up the theological status quo. Instead, it is the response to the search for a practical tool to bring together, equip, and re-educate thinking Christians. The idea for producing a program to help people wrestle with basic questions often avoided by the Church came out of the real world needs of pastors Jeff Procter-Murphy and David Felten, both of whom serve United Methodist congregations in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Wild Goose Festival. This is not a denominational effort but does involve social justice projects that tie in with most mainline churches. We (I say "we" because I'm one of the speakers) take inspiration from many places, such as Greenbelt in the UK, Burning Man, the Iona Community, SXSW, and others. The festival (June 21-24) is open to everyone; we don't censor what can be said; we invite respectful - but fearless - conversation and action for the common good.  

And then there is the wonderful chapel program at Maryville College (Maryville, TN) run by Rev. Anne McKee. Maryville College proudly claims its mainline Presbyterian heritage. While holding strongly to the Presbyterian connection, the college honors and welcomes students and church connections from a broadly diverse faith community. The chapel program has the strong support and participation of the students. Whatever Rev. Anne McKee is doing should be copied.

Why aren't the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale? The examples I mentioned here show that religion -- even “church” -- can be presented in a way that works and draws young people in. As someone once said “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35).

If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they'd be bursting at the seams. 


Peter Wallace said...

Excellent post, Frank. Check out our radio program/website Day1 at We are trying to communicate the positive, accepting, intelligent message of the mainline churches, and are starting to get some good traction among the kinds of people you're talking about.
Peter Wallace

Frank Schaeffer said...

Thanks Peter, I'll check that out now. Interview me sometime about this! Best, Frank Contact me at

Steve K. said...

Frank, great thoughts! I work with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- one of those mainline Protestant denominations you're talking about (the first one founded on U.S. soil, BTW) -- and I just want to say to all those former evangelicals (like myself): Hey, I'd love to meet and talk with you!

I'd love to meet and talk with evangelicals too, and liberals/progressives (and ... and ... the list goes on). But, as a former evangelical myself, I can definitely relate to what you're talking about here. I'm fortunate to have found a home within the Disciples of Christ tribe, and I love being able to introduce others to the exciting openness and opportunity there is within this denominational network and space. And we'll be at Wild Goose Festival again this year for anyone who wants to meetup and hang out there!

Frank Schaeffer said...

Steve thanks so much for the great comment. Introduce me to your church sometime! F

Elizabeth said...

As someone who has shared a tiny bit of this same journey, I have to say that what I find refreshing about my new spiritual home--an Episcopal church--is that it doesn't have an effort to "reach" new recruits, at least not in the way that evangelical churches do. My church rings the bells in the bell tower, letting the town know know we are worshipping. Whether or not anyone joins us is completely up to the individual. The families of the church-supported daycare are invited to participate, etc. A few do. Those who are led to us will find us easily.

There are many mainline churches out there doing meaningful work in subtle ways that may not seem like evangelism, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. When I hear talk of "reaching out" I get very nervous. Whether it's true or not, the idea of Jewish rabbis turning away converts three times before accepting them is appealing to me at this point in my life.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Frank. I pastor a small, gentle flock of Presbyterians in Eastern North Carolina, where mainliners are in the minority. This congregation has the potential to be a wonderful place of healing for others who have been hurt by the church or who simply long for grace. We are struggling to find ways to meet them and connect with them and point them to the God who loves them more than words can express. This God delights to be loved with the mind and heart together. Hope to see you at Wild Goose. Blessings, Mary Harris Todd

Frank Schaeffer said...

Mary come on over and say HI if you are at the WG festival! F

bini said...

I wonder if the WCC has entertained any ideas. Maybe some of us who have already found our mainline demon should inquire and get the ball rolling. What excellent thoughts!

Frank Schaeffer said...

Bini, good point. If anyone in the WCC wants to talk about this let me know! F

Frank Schaeffer said...

You all make a good point. I'd like to add this: I think that the aggressive "evangelism" by right wing politicized evangelicals and fundamentalists has turned off so many people that reasonable progressive and kind people who are religious have become scared of even talking about faith honestly. That is too bad. I think that needs to change. Progressive inclusive faith has much to offer at this time, in fact may be the only way to save religion from the dustbin of history. It is time to speak up and not just about the positive but to draw sharp distinctions between actual faith and the hate politics that -- for instance -- wants to deny women the medical coverage they need or deny gay men and women their rights. We have to say what we are NOT not just what we are. A hard edge to progressive faith sounds counter-intuitive. But when it comes to denouncing the evil (yes that's the word) of the hijacking of the teaching of Jesus by the hard right we need to speak clearly then bind the wounds of those who stagger damaged for life from the Evangelical/fundamentalist/conservative right wing "Catholic" holocaust of the spirit.

Bill said...

Thanks for this great post. Unless the mainline denominations (and the rest of American Christianity for that matter)finds a way to attract the young folks you're talking about, then they're doomed to extinction. We no longer qualify as young (early 50's), but we are fundagelical refugees of sorts. We've found a safe comfortable place in a house church where most of the folks are 20-30 years younger than us.

Looking forward to seeing you again this year at Wild Goose.

Frank Schaeffer said...

Good morning Bill, see you soon at WG, meanwhile share more about the house church re what brings and keeps younger people there. Best, F

Bill said...

I think what is most attractive about it is that it is a safe place to have dangerous conversations(to borrow a WG tagline). We put no emphasis on "conversions." Instead we're hoping to become better disciples. There is no overhead, so 100% of whatever we collect in donations goes directly to serve the poor in our community. Once a week we have dinner together and the doors are open to all. Over half of those who come to eat are homeless or near homeless. Here's something I wrote a few months ago after we discovered the group:

This is such an important conversation to be having. Thanks for putting it out there.


Lisa said...

I just read Dancing Alone after stumbling upon some of your interviews on youTube. Sounds like you've changed your tune quite a bit!