Mandate for the Mainline

by Gaylord Noyce

Gaylord Noyce teaches practical theology at Yale Divinity School. His most recent book is The Pastor as Moral Counselor.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 8, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


An enumeration of the crucial contributions mainline churches have to make to Christian life and an outlining of a strategy for maintaining vitality.

A fellow pastor tells of the he was sought out for counsel by a student who was about to return to college and join a religious cult. The student had been forced into the pastoral session by his mother.

After counseling with nondirective empathy for about an hour, my friend says, he got absolutely nowhere with the stubborn youth. Exasperated, he finally stood up and passionately lectured. He spoke of his own liberal church’s convictions about Scripture and its critical study, about Jesus and Christology, about God and the ways of naming God, about tolerance and prejudice, learning and science and religious truth, about racism, war, greed and service. "The whole package." The student, he says, shrank back and said, "Wow! I never heard it laid out like that in church before."

The so-called mainline churches share the experience of having a shrinking membership and a declining influence. They are moving to the edge while Catholics and conservative Protestants move toward stage center. Moreover, the demography of birth rates and the "new volunteerism," which weakens institutional loyalties, portend an acceleration of these trends.

This evolution in American Protestantism is hardly startling news to serious-minded observers. Neither should it be seen as unprecedented or unexpected by historians. H. Richard Niebuhr, in The Social Sources of Denominationalism (first published in 1929) , taught us about the rise, especially among the disinherited, of new, generally conservative, sects in the nation that virtually invented the denomination. These sects grow, gradually lose their earlier rigidities and passion, accommodate in one degree or another the dominant culture, and become churches, evolving toward the "mainline."

What is important, however, once sociologists and historians have made their observation, is how mainline church leaders react to this "postliberal" state of affairs. There has been too much fatalistic resignation in face of the statistics, as if they told an evaluative story. What is needed now is something like the conviction and passion that moved my friend, whether he used the best counseling techniques or not.

Herewith, then, are some convictions about the continuing importance and vitality of the mainline churches.

We ought not to be dismayed by the numbers so long as we know our minds. In his Attack upon ‘Christendom’ Soren Kierkegaard suggested that "the illusion of a Christian nation is due . . . to the power which number exercises over the imagination . . . It is said, that [an innkeeper] sold his beer by the bottle for a cent less than he paid for it; and when a certain man said to him, ‘How does that balance the account? That means to spend money,’ he replied, ‘No, my friend, it’s the big number that does it."’

Church growth and community influence are legitimate concerns, but of greater urgency is the message. The congregation that is a healing force for its own member and for the community and whose caring stems from Godward loyalties rehearsed in meaningful worship, will engage its world well enough to survive, be it called mainline or conservative evangelical. Its outreach will be based on a far more legitimate foundation than the concern so frequently heard, "We need a few more members to help us pay the bills." This latter concern may evoke an outreach program named evangelism, but the content will only be the worst kind of public relations, and the gain will be about as durable as the product loyalties that derive from commercial hype. Mainline preoccupation with numbers has sometimes been as questionable as that of boastful revivalists who count souls they have "saved."

Our mainline contribution has integrity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the dominant expression of Christian faith. George Lindbeck’s reflections on postliberal theology help us to adjust appreciatively to a pluralistic religious world. Classical liberal theology believed it spoke the truth and that all enlightened Christians should eventually speak the gospel in the same language, the sooner the better. Though less brittle in important ways than fundamentalism, liberalism nonetheless had a latent intolerance, albeit as sincere as anyone’s: it regarded conservative evangelicals and their kin (and, before Vatican II, the Catholics) as naive and perverse.

Lindbeck’s "postliberal" perspective knows that religious language-worlds, even within Christianity, are plural. Far from all of us sharing a common human condition and religious experience and simply expressing that experience in different degrees of adequacy, we are formed differently at a fundamental level. Each language and culture not only shapes persons within it in distinctive ways; it also creates the very "world" we perceive. Communication among various religious perspectives is more difficult than old-style liberals could ever imagine, since people aren’t even experiencing the same world. Lindbeck’s emphasis prepares the way for better understandings across the great divisions among the world religions, but it also helps liberal Christians work with conservative evangelicals, or, if those conservatives aren’t themselves ready for ecumenical cooperation, to live alongside them more fair-mindedly. The outsider can question another tradition’s language as to its inner logic, argues Lindbeck, but to understand the realities being created and affirmed by that language -- both the personal commitment and the worldview -- takes more identification with it than most of us can usually manage.

Within the mainline form of Christian faith, we hold convictions that beg for clear, impassioned witness and interpretation. Our insights are too important to be hid under a bushel, or complacently kept for our own people. Whether our testimony comes from center stage anymore or from the sociological and statistical periphery, it is needed for the sake of the church’s completeness and for the sake of the unchurched. It is also important for the evolving religious life of thousands of persons dissatisfied with the religious traditions or congregations in which they find themselves. ("Religious switching," as Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney call it, goes both ways, but aside from the drift into secularity and out of active church life, the dominant one is from the conservative toward the moderate or liberal side.)

What distinctive mainline contributions are still important once we give up the assumptions that we somehow deserve cultural hegemony because we had it in the past? I would list the following precepts:

1. No Christian body has a corner on religious truth. Ecumenism is founded upon deeper conviction than that, for it believes the will of Christ to be greater Christian unity than we know and show. But at the very least, this conviction is implicit in interchurch cooperation. The mainline approach requires religious humility and the ability to deal with religious paradox in ways that run counter to the fundamentalist quest for certainty in everything sacred and profane. It gives witness to what it has seen, heard, thought and believed, but it can also listen. It does not boast or insist on its own way. "It is not arrogant or rude." It affirms the neighbor, as, it believes, God does. In its better moments, it thinks inclusively in terms of one, holy, catholic church, rather than of "us" against "them."

2. Human reason and culture are God-given parts of creation not to be rejected out of hand. Fallen they may be, but the Christian does more than dismiss them straightway. This mainline conviction is particularly evident in our appreciation for historical-critical method. The Bible mediates to us the word of God, but it is also a human document. Like any traditional or classic text, it overflows with meanings that vary in considerable measure with the interpreter. Monolithic readings diminish and pinch the text. Everything we can learn about the text’s original setting and its subsequent interpretation in the church is legitimate knowledge for serious-minded reflection by the Christian community.

This conviction also allows for the conscious use of social science and contemporary experience to increase our understanding of the faith. I say conscious because no such understanding has ever been purely derived from some primal revelation, even when claims to that effect are made. While this position opens the way for wide differences of theological and moral conviction, we prefer that to the straitjacket of uncontestable dicta from some official interpreter.

3. In Christian understanding the human person is both uniquely individual and a social creation. Therefore the church concerns itself with all manner of affairs that affect persons -- from family life to disarmament, from schooling to Third World debt. We do not think primarily of "saving" people out of the world in sect fashion, corrupt and corrupting as the world may be. We have a lover’s quarrel with the social world, for its sake and for God’s sake. Social engagement is not peculiar to the main-line churches by any means. But, among Protestants, up to the present at least, it is far more theologically necessary and historically typical on the mainline side.

4. The mainline church concerns itself not only with the non-Christian and the merely nominal Christian in the homeland, but also with the non-Christian world abroad. So too do evangelicals, of course. But there is a difference of style and theological conviction in this case as well. Mainline mission statistics have declined in part because we celebrate the partnership that has replaced subservience on the part of the former mission churches. They have achieved their own indigenous integrity, which we want to avoid patronizing. They recruit their own leaders. These churches now have messages for us. This mission style shows respect for other cultures and religions while testifying to our faith.

This brief list is enough to suggest our mandate for making a distinctive contribution to the Christian enterprise. It is, in fact, urgent that this witness be heard and embodied alongside the emphases made by Catholics and conservative Protestants. With both groups, of course, we share a great deal in common -- perspectives and practices more important than the differences I have listed. We worship God in the name of Christ, we read the same Bible, we employ much of the same music, theological language and church polity. We enjoy the same free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and participate, even if from different points of view, in debate on Christian morality and public policy.

The list ought to be supplemented by a similar catalog of what, from our point of view, are the gifts conservative Protestants bring to the church. I will cite two for starters.

Faith calls for passionate choice. It is not a matter for rational detachment. Kierkegaard showed that faith is a far more profound reality than looking at Christ’s way aesthetically, or even morally. It demands an either/or. The gospel texts on choosing for or against need no repetition here. For the conservative evangelical, this choosing is dramatically expressed in an emphasis on a time- and place-specific conversion, a "decision for Christ." The mainline ethos allows for a broader range of experience in coming to God. But we can learn from the conservative’s Christian self-awareness. An articulated decision fosters the sense of Christian identity, something we need to enhance. We need to enhance the sense of our baptism and call. We can do it, let us hope, with a humility that still loves and relates well to the doubters who, for many valid as well as invalid reasons, sit in the back pews or do not even darken the church’s doorway.

Christian identity is a personal component in something that characterizes every Christian tradition at its best -- the sense of tension with the present order. Both mainline and evangelical have sold out to culture in many and various ways. Each usually does better at seeing the speck in the other’s eye than the log in its own. But, as James Cone says in Speaking the Truth, "Inherent in the Christian gospel is the refusal to accept the things that are as the things that ought to be. This ‘great refusal’ is what makes Christianity what it is and thus infuses in its very nature a radicality that can never accept the world as it is."

Another gift that conservatives bring us is a sense of the holy in the Word. The language of the Christian community needs to be formed by its Scripture, even as the community ponders issues raised up by a postbiblical world. Widespread biblical illiteracy undermines mainline strength and witness in an appalling way. Liturgical innovation and church school curricula have often abandoned biblical language and instruction in counterproductive attempts at relevancy.

Hermeneutic style will vary with mainline and evangelical, just as it does with the liberationist, feminist or process theologian, but the biblical underpinnings are essential. Rubbing shoulders with our conservative siblings may actually help us keep that footing.

An awareness of these principles and these gifts from our Christian compatriots ought to undergird our witness in today’s religious marketplace. This kind of thinking and believing is not all that subtle. It can be preached and taught by mainline Christian leaders with both vigor and clarity. Far too often the normal churchgoer, speaking of friends from conservative Christian groups, will say to the pastor, "They know so clearly what they believe. What is our position?" Confronted with a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon at the door, he or she quails in confusion, instead of saying, "But you see, I am a Christian already, and my conviction about the matter is different from yours. It goes like this.

The mainline’s contributions are not obscure or befuddled. They can be made just as clear as the announcements of exclusivist Christians who believe biblical truth can be packaged for Federal Express. If taught well, they can ground a new courage of conviction and deepen the spirituality of our people. And they can serve the whole church in indispensable ways.