It is well established that Mainline Christian denominations are shrinking. According to several prominent Christian practitioners and thinkers, the term “Mainline Christian” officially… well, sucks. That is my interpretation.
The indelible Carol Howard Merritt is one of the growing movement of folks who want to drop the “mainline” term. She writes in her Christian Century column that she refuses to use the term “mainline”. The term “mainline” truly reflect a society with specific racial, class, and cultural marks. Carol explains why would should ditch “mainline”:
It was not a term that denominational leaders came up with, but we have embraced it for many years. Now, it’s a good time to discard it. Why? It white-washes our influences… Even though we often look to the male European Reformers for much of our theology, even though a quick browse through the theology departments of most seminaries will reveal an overwhelming number of older, white men, we also know our thought for more than hundred years has been challenged by those working in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, with the civil rights movement, from subjugated women, and in the midst of immigrants’ struggles.
Perhaps what is the striking is that most new growth in established
mainline denominations comes not from hipster churches, but from ethically diverse immigrant communities. Carol rightly points out that continuing the mainline label ultimately hinders the future of churches:
Also, our labels not only define who we have been, but they call forth who we want to become. This is an important moment for our church. Things are shifting radically. In the PC(USA), immigrant churches and churches with underrepresented racial ethnic minorities are growing while many white congregations dwindle. These pockets of growth reflect our larger society. My generation is not as well-off as my parents. In my daughter’s generation, European whites will be the minority.
We American Baptists are sometimes included into the classification of “mainline” but we are not known for our elite seminaries or uppity organizations. We simply don’t have those. We don’t have the money. Carol is right to shake off the image of a tall white steeple church with it’s large organ, buildings, and mainline endowment. Many people look at a church like that and think: wealth, power, and legacy. Carol expresses this elite mindset:
…I, for one, am tired of pretending that we want to hang out at the Country Club and eat cucumber sandwiches in fancy hats. We are not some sort of upper-crust elite society. Now, it’s time to discard that tired label that ties us too closely with a particular race and class. It’s time to call forth another name.