Mainline churches may be poised for recovery

Published June 1, 2000

FRESH WINDS are blowing across the mainline churches of this land. Many recent books from North American publishers show local congregations seriously engaged in an identity and mission quest, in self-assessment and discernment of God’s spirit. Six recent ones are discussed here, viewing renewal in the historic cultural tradition of the Canadian church.

Reclaiming the Church, though published in 1997, is a seminal introduction to any study of mainline transformation. The author, John B. Cobb, Jr., professor emeritus at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that the “mainline” churches have become “oldline” and marginal. He describes how other religious expressions and secularism have displaced that former dominant influence in American life.

Cobb is nonetheless hopeful. The day of the old mainline church need not be over; repentance is possible for past errors and lukewarm faithlessness. Dying churches can be resurrected. Many of them lack clarity about identity and purpose. To experience renewal, however, they must recover the classic truths upon which they were originally founded and express that in contemporary ways.

Cobb asserts that people still desire to come together for community, healing, inspiration, reflection, and service -applying their faith to daily issues both personal and social. Rejuvenated communities assume new identities, develop a sense of meaning, worth, and restored vision. This revitalizes inner lives and serves the common good. Newcomers catch the spirit and experience personal transformation.

Beyond Maintenance to Mission offers a practical primer, theologically well-grounded, for leaders of mainline congregations. The author, Craig Nessan, is a Lutheran pastor who teaches contextual theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He expands on two of Cobb’s pivotal themes and shows how congregational identity is cultivated through worship, education, fellowship and stewardship. A congregation’s mission is realized through evangelism, global connections, social ministry, and ecumenism. A living parish is one where each of these ministries is identifiable in its own right, yet functions interactively with the others.

Local congregations who know who they are and possess a vision of what they are about are uniquely situated as centres for mission, says Nessan. For Anglicans interested in accessible Lutheran theology, addressed to an ecumenical readership, this book serves as a recommended resource, even though no case studies are included.

Biblical images suggest characteristics of the next two books, which for greatest benefit should be read together.

Dying Church, Living God, reflects Matthew 9:7 “New wine is put into new wineskins.” Author Chuck Meyer advocates a radical reconstruction of the church. The church we knew is dying; it needs radical change; the Spirit cannot be contained and fresh expressions of life will invariably burst forth. There are now clear indicators that we are living not in the twilight of faith but on the eve of its renewal. He offers few examples of how things will materialize but his future church is characterized by interdependency, intellectual and intuitive honesty, divine mystery, inclusivity, social justice and cyberfunctionality.

Alive Again is amplified through Matthew 9:17 “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed … the smallest of all … but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs.” Reginald Stackhouse, principal emeritus of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, fills his study with wise insights about what church vitality actually means. Chapter headings guide the reader to a better awareness of why, at a time of declining denominations, there are many concrete examples of growing churches.

[pullquote]Challenging those who are satisfied with the status quo on the one hand or those who see little in current Christianity worth saving, the author intimates that out of the existing church a new one will evolve.

Vital churches are those who “think growth” even though there is no set formula applying to all. Growth depends more on style than content but sustained growth comes not through gimmicks but quality.

Stackhouse surveys Canada from coast to coast, providing a plethora of case studies, visited personally, to back up his principles and predictions. His findings rebut those Canadians who complain that “the examples presented are from the U.S.A. and don’t apply here.”

Jacob’s Blessing utilizes biblical and contemporary images in an investigation of “blessings” that are currently available to God’s people in the midst of change and transition in church and society.

Authors Donna Sinclair and Christopher White are frequent contributors to the United Church Observer.

This book challenges both “faithful remnant” and the “megachurch” models of church life – the former because there is no reason to believe God is confined to that remnant, however, faithful, or in the case of the latter, that popular marketing principles are the only means of attracting contemporary spiritual seekers.

The authors propose an “organismic” rather than an “organizational” way of viewing the congregation. Identity and purpose arise from its essentials and not out of how it is structured. They ground their vision in a biblical hopefulness that something new is being born out of the difficult wilderness sojourn through which many Christians and their communities are currently travelling. This is not so much a theological reflection as a harbinger and celebration of renewal enhanced by practical experience.

Seeking the Seekers introduces the term “historic-cultural churches” as a substitute for “mainline.”

Authors are Paul Maclean, Anglican priest and director of Potentials, a Canadian ecumenical centre for development of ministry and congregations, and Michael Thompson, incumbent of St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church, Toronto. For them, historic-cultural churches are those having a track record of identifying with and serving the people of this land.

They have conducted two important studies. Old Churches New Christians looks at how four Anglican parishes in transformational situations are currently re-visioning and re-tooling for the future.

Their Discovery Project sought, among other things, to understand the elusive subject of spirituality and what it means to churchgoers as well as to those who choose not to affiliate with organized religion.

Historic-cultural churches can make a difference when they focus on service: helping people to grow spiritually through “threshold” or transitional experiences in their lives and proposing an alternative vision to the society’s gospel of rampant consumerism.

Together, these books offer a practical vision of how the mainline church is indeed poised for recovery.

Rev. Wayne Holst is a lecturer at the University of Calgary. He was a pastor, missionary, and church executive for 25 years.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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