Revisioning the Future of Oldline Protestantism

by William McKinney

William McKinney is dean and professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 8, 1989, pp. 1014-1016. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


In the light of oldline Protestant churches’ losses of membership and influence, William McKinney briefly traces their "disestablishment," and suggests if these churches are to have hope of reversing the trend, they will need to address five issues, including mission agencies, funding of programs, support of congregations, understanding denominational culture and sharing methods of coping.

The two questions have been asked most often since American Mainline Religion was published are, "Are you hopeful about the future of the oldline churches?" and "What can be done to turn things around?" I hesitate to make predictions, but I'll risk this one: a major mission funding crisis is on the horizon, the result of individuals wanting greater say in how their contributions are spent. This is the institutional counterpart of what Wade Clark Roof and I call the new religious voluntarism. In much the same way that denominations can no longer assume that people will take on the religious loyalties of their parents, they can no longer assume that today's church leaders will continue the funding patterns of previous generations.

Other reasons for the funding crisis include rising costs. For the most part, local churches have done a remarkable job of keeping up with inflation, and with increased local mission needs resulting from government cutbacks. Lurking beneath the surface, however, is the problem of deferred maintenance. My own 400-member church in Hartford, Connecticut, just spent over $300,000 to repair a boiler, downspouts and a third of a roof. We barely raised the money we needed. Next time it will be more difficult -- and there will be a next time.

Membership decline will also hurt mission funds. A couple of oldline denominations are about to observe the 25th straight year of declining membership. Such churches cannot expect forever to cover costs by asking fewer people to dig even deeper.

The short-term future will bring even more talk of what the corporate world calls "downsizing," through staff cuts, closing offices and discontinuing programs. It's a tough time to be a national church executive, and the situation may well get worse.

However, the more interesting question about mainline Protestantism relates not to size but to the impulse that brought its institutions into being. Sidney E. Mead was among the first to note that for the most part, American denominational organizations came into being not so much to maintain the integrity of church doctrine or ecclesiastical procedures as to achieve specific goals, to get things done. They were purposive organizations born out of an activist impulse. It's an important point to keep in mind -- perhaps some of those purposes have been met.

We need also to remember that the institutions were created by people who had a pretty clear sense of who they were and where they fit in the culture. And they did fit in the culture. Most of the major oldline Protestant institutions we know today were founded in a period when Protestantism still enjoyed established status. They may have seemed almost invisible, but they had the power to influence society in a significant way. The people who built liberal Protestant institutions such as national mission agencies, local churches, colleges, universities, social reform agencies and public libraries in the rural heartland were people secure in their social position who assumed a leadership role in society and whose sense of social responsibility was born of religious conviction.

The impulse out of which oldline Protestantism's key institutions arose was nicely captured in the words of a New Yorker editor describing Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1970s. Though writing about a town and a university, he captured something important about oldline Protestantism's past. Noting a "certain tone," a "certain mood," he observed that the completeness of the mood "suggests a 19th-century belief in an innate hierarchy in which social values, values of taste, moral values and intellectual values all combine in a self-evident pattern. It's a 19th-century feeling of being right and open-minded at the same time, of being at once well-bred and progressive." During the time of the oldline churches' greatest cultural influence, a sense of tone, a mood and an ethos, combined with a sense of activism born of confidence in one's intellectual and moral righteousness, powerfully shaped the religious and mission institutions that remain.

That impulse is not dead. When President Bush talks of a "kinder and gentler" America, he is hearkening back to that complex hierarchy of social, moral and intellectual values and symbols that were once very powerful in this culture, particularly in the churches. That impulse belonged not to Protestantism alone, although those churches were its principal guardians and custodians. In preserving and protecting the intellectual and moral hierarchy, oldline Protestantism found a sense of special identity and mission. This role gave legitimacy to Protestantism's special place in the culture, even after it lost much of its formal power.

Oldline Protestantism is not dead, but it is being disestablished. This is occurring not because the churches are weaker than they once were, but because a pluralistic society cannot and will not tolerate a single religious establishment. Corporate America won't accept that. Jerry Falwell won't accept that. Feminists won't accept that. Blacks won't accept that. And even liberal Protestants won't accept that anymore, having recognized how easily their own sense of mission can be translated into the idolatry of race, class and nation, and how the transmission of a particular cultural tradition can be equated with the extension of God's realm.

The social and cultural matrix out of which oldline Protestant institutions arose was different from what we experience today. Oldline Protestantism is no longer established, culturally or institutionally, in the way it once was. We would not today found an interchurch organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches and call it the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America -- at least, not without a certain sense of irony.

This past, however, leaves Protestantism with certain difficulties. For most of their history, the oldline churches were spared the difficult task of defining themselves theologically or justifying their place in the culture. That they knew what they stood for and that they belonged could be assumed. Today, that's not enough. Suddenly the oldline churches must learn how to think and act as one religious tradition among many. How can they maintain institutions and programs that were born out of an establishmentarian impulse when they no longer enjoy the dominant position in culture and society? Am I hopeful about the future of liberal Protestantism? Yes, but for hopes to be realized we need to rethink the way we look at our identity and mission. The problems are deeper than institutional; changing personnel or moving headquarters will not solve them.

I see five tough issues oldline leaders will have to face in the 1990s. First, they need to consider what kinds of denominational and ecumenical mission agencies they really want and need at the. national level. Personally, I don't lose a lot of sleep worrying about the future of such agencies. Churches can, after all, survive without large national bureaucracies. The Roman Catholic Church does fine without one. The black churches do OK with very lean national structures. Most of the evangelical denominations -- the Southern Baptists are an exception -- get along pretty well without elaborate national and international bureaucracies.

Questioning the structure of existing agencies is risky. Hartford Seminary took that chance 20 years ago when it decided it could be a theological seminary without full-time residential students preparing for ordained ministry in Protestant churches. We are still learning what that project means. Though we have made strides, weekly someone pulls me aside to say, "I can remember when Hartford Seminary was a real seminary" or to mourn the fact that "Hartford Seminary had to close." Hartford Seminary is different, but it is very much alive: our programs of research and continuing education make an impact on our hometown and around the world.

Church leaders must ask what kind of programs they really need and want. Does every regional judicatory need its own camping program, for instance? Can denominations afford to provide free consulting services in education, stewardship, evangelism, conflict resolution and pastoral placement? Can they continue to provide chaplains for hospitals and college campuses? How many local churches can a denomination support with mission funds, and for how long? How many large national meetings does a denomination or ecumenical agency need? Denominational leaders must face these tough questions, even at the risk of upsetting some of their constituents.

A second issue is how churches are going to pay their bills. It seems heretical even to suggest it, but it may be time to return to the earlier, essentially free-market model of mission support -- encouraging individuals and churches to support the specific mission efforts they choose. While funding of regional, national and international mission activity varies among denominations, most rely heavily on asking individuals to set aside a portion of their income for their congregation, which in turn is encouraged to forward a portion to the denomination's mission fund.

Unified mission funding was designed to bring order to the proliferation of mission agencies with independent fund-raising appeals and to express the conviction that, while it takes various forms in different settings, there is one mission. It also shifted attention from the church's missions to its mission; it carried with it the implication that Christian giving is more an expression of moral commitment than of calculation. In an earlier era, denominations emphasized the efficiency and effectiveness of their work; now they stress the continuity between the individual's commitment to God and to the church as God's principal agent in the world.

But local church participation in unified funding is faltering. Individuals and congregations are shifting resources from "basic support" of the denomination's general mission fund to "designated giving"–funding specific denominational activities or church-related or independent agencies. Denominations have responded by increasing their efforts to link Christian commitment to local church and denominational support, but also by developing all-church offerings, planned giving and special capital campaigns. The first approach assumes that members give because they are committed; the second assumes they give because they are convinced.

It is increasingly clear that even committed people want to be convinced. It may be time again to encourage individuals and congregations to support the mission efforts they believe in. That's what they are doing now anyway, and it is unlikely that denominational-level actions will change that.

Third, oldine denominations must identify creative ways to support congregations in their ministry. Flawed and impossible though they may be at times, congregations are the most powerful antidote we have to the radical individualism that pervades American secular and religious culture.

I am not arguing for more programs to help local churches grow, worship, serve, spend or teach more efficiently. Instead leaders should assert the central role of the gathered community in the life of faith and the church. At a minimum, taking congregations seriously means asking what will be the impact of a denominational action (or inaction) on local churches. It also means rethinking key denominational programs. For example, when planning for theological education, denominational leaders should ask what kind of leaders -- lay and clergy -- churches need. When developing Christian education to help us transmit the Christian faith across generations, planners should examine how communities learn. When promoting evangelism programs to assimilate new members, denominations should consider how to create new communities that blend the interests of old and new members.

A fourth step is to pay more attention to denominational culture. Denominations exist as both a scandal and a promise. They are a scandal because they witness, in H. Richard Niebuhr's words, to the "ethical failure of a divided Christendom." They offer promise because being a people of God takes diverse forms among different groups in different places and times. We learn something about the nature of God when we take seriously the cultures that take shape in God's name.

To take denominational cultures seriously is to look beyond what denominations do, how they are organized, what their demographics are or even what they say they believe, to what members take for granted together. When regional and national assemblies meet to establish budgets, elect officers and vote on pronouncements, they are also doing something far more important: they are reasserting (and reinterpreting) their denominational culture. These and other gatherings, including summer camps, youth rallies and special-interest caucuses, tell the world who these churches are and how they define the boundaries between themselves and the wider culture. Cultures persist over time not because they are especially well managed but because they have a sense of identity and can generate the moral and symbolic energy that maintains a sense of peoplehood. Church leaders must help the church discover and articulate a sense of peoplehood, to see, touch, taste and feel the things we take for granted.

Fifth, the churches should take a serious look at the ways other oldline institutions are coping with the loss of establishment status. The future of liberal Protestantism is inseparable from the future of liberal arts colleges and private caregiving institutions. It's time to find common ground.

All these issues need the attention of oldline Protestant decision-makers. But resolving them won't turn things around. Restoration is not in the cards, and it shouldn't be.

A few years ago, a major in the Salvation Army described his congregation's move from an old building on the edge of town to a new building at the town's center. The congregation processed into the new building singing a song written for the occasion:

Up on Main Street, Up on Main Street,

Up on Main Street we will be.

And the whole world will see.

Oh yes! Oh yes! The world will see,

'Cause it's up on Main Street we will be.

The oldline churches were up on Main Street for a long time, and they know what that little Salvation Army congregation will discover or may have already discovered: that Main Street is not all it's cracked up to be. The greatest challenge for us is to give up the dream of returning, and to ask what it means to be faithful people of God a block or two from the center of town.