November 30, 2020

Evangelicalism as a Way Station

#182: Another stretch of the Camino.

I want to say something in praise of evangelicalism today. Evangelicalism has played an important role in my spiritual formation, and I know from experience that it has done the same in the lives of many others.

The graph of my spiritual history is simple: from mainline Christianity to adolescent rebellion to spiritual awakening through evangelicalism to gradual dissatisfaction with the world of evangelicalism and back home to mainline Christianity.

I have met others who have followed a similar path. Just the other day my pastor told me about a young man who had grown up in the Lutheran church, left the church as a teenager, was “converted” in an evangelical church, then became “burned out” in that church environment, and one day stumbled back into a Lutheran congregation, where he is now settling in as an adult.

Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home. Evangelicalism provides a way station where people weary of the world can stop in, find rest and refreshment, get some guidance, and then find their way home. Evangelicalism has a missional mentality and focus. It is good at attracting people, waking them up, and getting them back in touch with God. It is spiritual CPR. It’s a voice in the wilderness that gets people into the waters of Jordan to repent and believe.

But what happens then? In my opinion, evangelicalism, for reasons often discussed on this blog, works best as a mission but not as a church tradition. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.

To be sure, mainline traditions have not always grasped the importance of being that home, nor have they always been keen to support missional efforts to “seek and save the lost,” preferring rather to maintain their traditions and institutions rather than do what was necessary to reach people. Nor have the historic traditions been immune to chasing silly fads or getting distracted by political agendas — though they were certainly different ones than the revivalists, church growth practitioners, and Christian Right of evangelicalism have been running after.

Nevertheless, where liturgy has been faithfully practiced, tradition honored, and historical memory maintained, there is hope of a good foundation and solid structure in which one may leave the pilgrim life for a more permanent home.

mainline doorBack in 2007, Michael Spencer wrote that this may be the very moment when the mainlines and historic traditions have just what disaffected evangelicals are longing for:

It’s a moment that — believe it or not — some people actually want to go to something that looks like church as they remember it, see a recognizable pastor, hear a recognizable sermon, participate in the Lord’s Supper, experience some reverence and decorum, and leave feeling that, in some ways, it WAS a lot like their mom and dad’s church. It’s a moment when reinventing everything may not be as sweet an idea as we were told it was.

Perhaps it is time for evangelicals and mainline Christians to recognize what each has to offer the other and to work on creatively forging new understandings and partnerships that will allow each to do what it does best.

As for me, I am thankful for both. But only in a historic mainline tradition have I found a home.


  1. “Perhaps it is time for evangelicals and mainline Christians to recognize what each has to offer the other and to work on creatively forging new understandings and partnerships that will allow each to do what it does best.”

    I would love to see this happen, but it seems a bit too “pie-in-the-sky” to me. Evangelicalism has a lot of strengths and the historic churches also have a lot of strengths. Unfortunately each seems to be too wary of the strengths of the other (in general) in order to make this happen.

  2. Interestingly enough, the new Pope Francis has been giving signals, both in his liturgical behavior and his words, that he wishes to reach out and begin various dialogues. He is also scaring some in his own Church because his behavior is not fully predictable.

  3. you mention both the strengths and weaknesses of “evangelicals” but you only mention the strengths of “mainliners” while ignoring their many glaring weaknesses.

    Also, there are other (better?) alternatives to either mainline or evangelical such as LCMS, ACNA, etc…

    • I think I did mention mainline weaknesses. I wonder what you think their “glaring” weaknesses are.

      • lack of Biblical fidelity. Embracing sinful lifestyles.

        By the way, I’m a member of a mainline denomination.

    • @Dan Of course there are better alternatives. Just come on over to the Orthodox! (Fr. Ernesto quickly ducks before Chaplain Mike pins the 95 theses to his chest.)

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Umm…you’re thinking Chaplain Mike is ignoring the weaknesses of evangelical Christian institutions?

      Tell ya what, at the top right corner of the screen, there’s this button called “Archives.” Just bounce from post to post. Go nuts.

      • No, mainline institutions.

      • Marcus Johnson says

        Ah, my apologies. I misread.

        However, there are still some great articles on this site that directly confront the weaknesses of mainline institutions. This particular article just isn’t as focused on those weaknesses.

  4. The Lutheran evangelism is quiet. Home, vocation, and long-term. Baptize, catechize, stay engaged with the sheep when they wander. Different. I suspect it’s another of the both/ands in Christianity.

  5. I understand what you are getting at, but disagree with much of it.

    You seem to draw a sharp distinction between evangelical and mainline, as if there cannot be evangelicals in mainline churches, and as if there are no evangelical churches that practice some form of liturgy. “Evangelical” represents and set of beliefs and emphasis (Bebbington for example), but not only specific institutions.

    You also wrote: “it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.”

    Apart from the visual, do you think mainlines have done a good job passing “the faith on for generations and centuries” (especially in the past 50 years)? Not to generalize too much, but it would seem that many are barely, if at all, passing along the faith once delivered.

    • RDavid, if you have read much at IM, you know that we speak of “evangelicalism” not evangelical. Evangelicalism is the “free church” culture, especially in the U.S., that is rooted in the revivalist tradition. I am not using evangelical as an adjective but as a noun describing an entire church culture.

      And yes, despite their many weaknesses, I think the mainlines have passed on the faith. Otherwise, many of us would not be returning.

      • “…rooted in the revivalist tradition…” and committed to free market capitalism methodology…

        • oh yes…. and in some neighborhoods, circling the wagons to protect “what GOD started thru our christian forefathers…. etc…” The more you see our political/economic way of life (which I very much enjoy, BTW) as GOD’s plan, the more you will both try to spread it and defend it. And let it steer ecclesiology, I suppose.

    • But are Evangelicals doing any better job of that? At the Evangelical Megachurch near my house, oddly enough (not really) they are always having “new comer” classes that are quite full. Yet for all of these new comers, the total number of people in the church never seems to change. How does that work (wink, wink).

      This church is known for it’s large youth group. Yet my experience with people there seems to indicate that a quite large % of these youth walk away from the faith right after they walk across the stage to receive their diploma.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Yet for all of these new comers, the total number of people in the church never seems to change. How does that work (wink, wink).

        Disintegration booths like in that old Star Trek Episode?

        “They go in but they do not come out.”

  6. I sort of asked this question on an earlier post, but I want to ask it again; what makes a church evangelical or mainline? What denominations are considered mainline, and what does mainline even mean? I’ve heard these words most of my life without ever really hearing an explanation. Can a mainline church be an evangelica church?

    • Isaac/Obed says

      Historically, the mainline denominations in the US were primarily defined by the “seven sisters”:

      Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)
      Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA (or as they prefer nowadays, simply The Episcopal Church) – TEC
      Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)
      American Baptist Churches USA
      United Methodist Church
      United Church of Christ (UCC)
      Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

      Others, such as the Quakers, Reformed Church in America, the Moavians, etc. are sometimes considered mainlines, but not always. The more conservative/traditional breakaways from the mainlines such as PCA Presbyterians, Southern Baptist Convention, LCMS Lutherans, or the ACNA Anglicans, are not typically considered mainlines, but are often grouped with the Evangelical Churches, due to having generally Evagelical doctrines. I’m thinking Chaplain Mike was not talking about these guys in his post, though.

      As far as which churches are part of Evangelicalism as we talk about it here… that’s harder to define, in my opinion. I’d say they’re most often “non-denominational” or SBC Baptist, but certainly not exclusively. If the mainlines are contrasted with evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic groups, I’d say the the line is not so sharp between the latter three. There can be elements of fundamentalism and charismaticism within Evangelicalism, but perhaps the main difference is the focus on revivalist missions and evangelism over fundamentalism’s focus on certain theological issues (such as dispensationalism) or charismaticism’s focus on the experience of the spiritual gifts.

  7. As a member of a decidely evangelical church, yet with perennial longing for liturgy, I find this idea interesting. Actually, for an entire year I got up early on Sundays, worshiped at a very high-church Episcopal cathedral, ran home to pick up my family, and attended services at our Willow Creek-esque home church. I still miss this routine in a lot of ways.

    One thing your post doesn’t address, though, is which sort of church is more likely to be successful at developing the faith of it’s children. In my admittedly limited experience, the evangelical crowd is more likely to be consciously evangelizing the next generation, while the mainliners tend to be content with educating the children about the tradition. It’s this reason entirely that my family is staying in the evangelical stream until the kids are settled and maturing in a faith of their own.

    • I completely disagree about passing the faith on to children. Evangelicals can attract children like no one else, but the “faith” they pass on is shallow and insufficient. The mainline churches, with such resources as the Church Year, infant baptism, catechism, and confirmation, at least have the structures in place to pass on a much more solid faith. The ones I have seen do it very well.

      • I happen to agree with KC, but do agree with you about the shallowness. However, at least a seed is being planted, whereas in mainlines, there is the shell/structure for transmitting the faith, but it is empty. A small seed out of its shell is better than an empty shell.

        It would be nice to bring the 2 together.

        • Marcus Johnson says

          Actually, for the purposes of spiritual maturity, a small seed out of its shell is just as bad as an empty shell. That is the major deficiency of many church communities–mainline and evangelical–they don’t know if they’re the shelled seed or the seedless shell.

          Go on, I dare you to make sense of that analogy…

          In all seriousness, the phrase “a seed is being planted” is cold comfort if, by that term, you mean “the message presented is overwhelmingly superficial, but it provides enough of a hook to keep them coming back for more.” Truth is, the “seed” that we refer to reminds me of the mud pies that the folk in certain underdeveloped countries eat: filling, but it has no sustaining nutritional value.

      • Chaplain Mike,

        My husband I and recently returned, after 18 years in a “free church” evangelical community, to the small United Methodist Church we helped to start over 25 years ago. My own journey with Jesus began as a child in the UMC. I could have written the post above and much of your journey seems to mirror my own.

        I have been deeply involved in ministry to children in both contexts including several years on the Kids’ Ministry staff at the evangelical church. In my experience, both as one who has been deeply invested in the nurturing of kids in various faith communities as well as the mom of four adult kids, I would say that in both the mainline and the evangelical churches ( generally speaking, of course) the faith that is passed on is largely the “faith” of the parents.
        At the end of the day, what happens for two hours on Sunday mornings just can not and does not speak louder than the faith which is modeled and shared around the dinner table, in the car, in the treatment of friends, extended family and neighbors, in the choices and priorities of the family. Or by the fact that “faith” is NOT modeled, talked about at home, and has no practical impact on how the family lives outside of Sunday morning.

        I believe it is painting with way too broad a brush to say that one tradition is “shallow and insufficient” and the other passes on a more solid faith.

        Yes, I have been apart of Evangelical Kids’ events that seemed to be all about trying to ‘out Disney Disney” and attended Easter Egg Hunts where parents where “bribed” to give contact information in order for their kids’ names to get into the drawing for the free bike. I have helped to organize “Best Week in the Life of a Kid!:-VBS-es which cost more than the average household incomes of neighborhoods within 10 miles of the church.
        However, in my mainline years I have read through Sunday School lessons on the Feeding of the 5000 which presented the main point of the message to be ‘It is nice to share”. I recently heard a relative lament the decline of the UMC by pointing out that ” in my day, all the best people in town..the doctors and businessmen…always went to the Methodist Church. Only in the mainline church have I found parents who will drop their kids off at the church and go have breakfast. And not be ashamed to get caught doing it!

        In both traditions you find the parents who really don’t take this God/Bible stuff all that seriously but figure it can’t hurt to have their teenagers hanging out with the “good” kids in the youth group.

        And in both traditions I have encountered people who a deep, abiding faith..the kind that brings you to your knees and makes you pray that you could find just a faction of what they have. In both traditions I have been blessed to know person whose only desire in this life is that their children would grow to love Jesus.

        Let’s be generous to our brothers and sisters of other traditions, quick to build each other up, and encourage each other as we nuture our children and seek to pass on the faith.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          ‘However, in my mainline years I have read through Sunday School lessons on the Feeding of the 5000 which presented the main point of the message to be ‘It is nice to share”.’

          This certainly strikes a chord. I have not run into this particular example, but it wouldn’t surprise me. (Appall me, yes: surprise me, no.) A characteristic trait of a bad mainline church is the substitution of the Gospel with platitudes to be nice to each other. Not that being nice isn’t a good lesson for kids–and adults for that matter–but it isn’t the Gospel. I think this is an echo of liberal theology. Not “liberal” in the sense of “voted for Obama” but “liberal theology” in the sense of taking the miraculous out of Christianity, reducing Jesus to the status of a teacher of wisdom. This is old news. Virtually no one, much less entire churches, teaches this today. After all, it is hardly reason to get out of bed on a Sunday morning. But it was a force to be reckoned with a half century or so ago, and its influence is not entirely gone. Turning the story of the fishes and the loaves into a morality tale about sharing fits right in with this pattern.

          My experience as a cradle Lutheran who has moved around the country is that it is all too easy to find this sort of thing coming from the pulpit. Those are the churches I didn’t go back to. My father was a pastor. One day a visitor to his church complimented him after the service by saying that he preached the Gospel. As a teenager I didn’t understand what he was talking about. That’s what pastors do, right? As an adult I thought back to that compliment and understood it perfectly. You can find the Gospel being preached, but you can’t assume that it will be based on the sign out front.

      • Spot on CM. I am amazed at the number of young adults I saw in my former E church, who could not articulate clearly any of the core doctrines of the faith. All they knew to do was to parrot what Piper or Driscoll said. Scary place to be. Look, if you like Piper, that’s fine. But like him because you’ve studied doctrine and you know the core doctrines of the faith and you agree with him. Don’t just like him because you think he’s cool or whatever, and thus you just repeat whatever he says.

        I too would argue that Evangelicals are better at passing on the faith. I’ve simply seen too many in their youth groups ditch the faith altogether once they finish HS.

  8. Dear friends of “mainline” Christianity,
    Having just spent an Easter weekend bouncing between mainline and evangelical churches(Maundy Thursday observance with a Seder meal, Good Friday, a funeral, the baptism of my granddaughter and Easter Sunday morning) I am compelled to offer an opinion. I would add that my current ministry role has taken me to services in the recent past that have spanned the gammet, from worship in a renovated industrial building among the marginalized folks of this world to a Sunday evening service in a sparsely attended, hymn singing, white pew adorned church. What I have found is that the Lord of the Church is working in all places – whereever His people have hearts that are open. I have found that mainline churches are still deeply enslaved to a ritual that lacks Life. I have found that evangelical churches are slaves to the “next thing”. I have found that we are still more concerned about who “does it right” than that the Gospel is preached with conviction and power, that it infests and alters our stingy ways of living, and that Jesus lives as the Risen Lord among us. Every church is, in a sense, a way station on the journey Home.

    • I have found that mainline churches are still deeply enslaved to a ritual that lacks Life.

      Only an evangelical could look straight in the face of something so richly saturated with the Word of God and say that it lacks “life.”

      • Because a lot of evangelicals equate “life” with “emotionally exciting.”

        • … or anything other than the life that is found only in the words of Christ (John 6:68).

        • Adrienne says

          +1 And I found that staying at that level all the time was exhausting. Now that I am in a “mainline liturgical church” I still sometimes feel somehow I have to be the “cheerleader” using words like great, awesome, terrific etc. To sit quietly and worship quietly is very restoring. The adjustment is welcome but gradual.

        • It is always a matter of faith. Where there is little faith on either side of the altar the mere prescence of the Word of God profits little. Mere enthusiasm is a poor substitute for life, to be sure. But when it is apparent that the all that matters is that we have performed the ritual, we have moved from faith in the God who speaks to faith in the mechanism we have created. All branches of the Church have a liturgy- it us simply what we do- week in and out- in expressing our faithin the living Lord.

          • The Word of God is what creates and sustains faith, and it delivers God’s forgiveness to our ears. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. Where God’s Word is present, there is life whether it is believed or not. His Word is living and active. The value of “going through the ritual” is entirely dependant upon the merit of the rite itself. One devoid of God’s word truly is a waste of time, imo.

      • Miguel, I have to add this story of my own to what you wrote. As a former Evangelical, I still hear from my E friends. This past Sunday, my Facebook feed just about blew up with all of them commenting how the message they heard that day was “BEST EVER!!!!” “Simply amazing!!!!”, and on and on. So, I decided to check out the link to see what this latest thing was that was so great. In a nutshell, their E pastor didn’t preach that day. With video playing behind him, he only quoted certain passages of scripture for about 30 minutes that basically told the store of the Bible in an abridged manner. some even commented, “Wow, he only used scripture, no words of his own!!” Now, I decided it was best of me not to comment and rain on their parade. But I so badly wanted to say, welcome to the party. Liturgical churches have been using large amounts of scripture in their services for centuries. Who knew that just hearing scripture could be so powerful? But even aside from that, I felt sorry for the pastor who every year feels that on Christmas and Easter he has to come up wth a new schtict to please the masses. Twice a year, he always has to one up whatever he did the previous year.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Only an evangelical could look straight in the face of something so richly saturated with the Word of God and say that it lacks “life.”

        No Rock Concert or Loud Preaching or End Time Prophecy or Young Earth Creationism or Demon-Vomiting Spiritual Warfare or Shouting out Chapter-and-Verse Zip Codes or Turn or Burn or In-Your-Face Scripture Scripture Scripture…

  9. Years ago, Christianity Today asked numerous pastors/scholars to write letters to certain churches (similar to the ones found in Revelation). Will Willimon wrote a response to the “Mainline Church”

    He wrote: “The best thing about you is your past. What does that tell you? My how you loved to organize and build! You made North America into the most thoroughly Protestant Christian place in the world. Hospitals, orphanages, schools, nursing homes, printing presses. You really took love of neighbor to a new level and I’m grateful. And while I enjoyed dismantling sacred edifices rather than building them, you built some beautiful churches. Give me The Lutheran Hymnal any day over most of those tasteless “praise choruses” of some of my evangelicals. Fosdick, Hartness, Peale, Steimlie, Thurman, Achtemeier can preach for me any time they like. I wish some of them would steer a bit closer to the Scriptures, but I’ll speak to them individually about that. When you mainliners stop talking about me, your preaching tends to get moralistic and trite. I hate that. It wouldn’t kill you to get back to the Bible. You know me, I love to make the oldline new. If you will stick with me, I shall give you a future, new wineskins and all that. I am Lord of Life, not death. I shall move you from mordant decline to life. I’ve still got plans for you. You’ll be smaller, but small can be good…Get back to basics like worship, service, and witness…I think that you tend to be open-minded to a fault. Laditudinarianism is you all over. I wish you would hire some theologians with some guts for a change…One more thing. Please get out of the middle of the road! That’s where all the accidents happen, theologically speaking. Remember, I wasn’t crucified for my moderation.”

    • Willimon gives a good challenge and says many hard and necessary things here.

      You will note, however, that he himself remains in the mainline tradition and the fact that he is involved in training and overseeing pastors in that arena is one reason I continue to hope for it.

  10. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.

    These seem incompatible with most of the New Testament writers’/writings’ urgent sense of expectation of Jesus’ soon-coming return to establish his kingdom and the new heavens and the new earth. It’s the delay (a very long nearly-2000-year one, too) of such that allows for the formation and continuation of the things listed above. Because the NT was written in an “I am coming soon!” frame of mind – and thus reading and using it will continually put and push its serious readers and followers to think and act that way – while the reality of history and daily life runs counter to that expectation, I suspect there will always be conflict and tension between staid mainline-ism and urgent Evangelicalism.

    • This is an important theological issue. Evangelicalism is rooted in the revivalist tradition, which became dominated by a premillennial and often dispensationalist eschatology. This was one of the first issues that soured me on evangelicalism. It leads to the urgency you mention, as well as a world-denying posture that militates against building lasting institutions in this world.

      I happen to think this kind of eschatology has been thoroughly discredited and more than adequately answered. An eschatology like N.T. Wright’s, for example, stresses that the return of Christ and the coming of the New Creation should actually encourage us to develop solid and lasting institutions that promote faith, hope, love, justice, and peace in this age, for (to change the metaphor) the seeds we plant now will bear a harvest in the age to come.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Evangelicalism is rooted in the revivalist tradition, which became dominated by a premillennial and often dispensationalist eschatology. This was one of the first issues that soured me on evangelicalism. It leads to the urgency you mention, as well as a world-denying posture that militates against building lasting institutions in this world.

        The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay:
        “It’s All Gonna Burn… Any Minute Now… Any Minute Now… Any Minute Now…”
        and the Internet Monk Classic Hell House: an Evangelicalism Eager to Leave.

        Plus the Internet Monk Classic Wretched Urgency: the Grace of God or Hamsters on a Wheel?

        Because the combination of the two was what burned me out in the Seventies.

    • These seem incompatible with most of the New Testament writers’/writings’ urgent sense of expectation

      I would return that they are highly compatible with the words of Christ himself, who instructed his disciples to baptize and teach. It’s all about discipleship and bringing others into the way of Christ. These traditions are precisely that: faith forming communities where people go to learn the Words of Christ, come to believe them, and find themselves obeying them. That IS the mission, and not, as the revivalists would have us believe, running around screaming to make as many converts as quickly as possible. Jesus wasn’t interested in “converts.” He wanted disciples. “Take my yoke and learn” he says. However your church body serves this end IS its tradition, and I would argue that 2000 years of success is a strong track record.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Because the NT was written in an “I am coming soon!” frame of mind – and thus reading and using it will continually put and push its serious readers and followers to think and act that way…

      Which is one of the reasons Hal Lindsay and Howard Camping get so many followers and fanboys.

    • Merton had some piquant remarks on this subject. From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander;

      “Thy Kingdom Come.”
      The question of the Parousia remains the great question of Christianity: and of course in itself it is no question at all. The Kingdom is already established, but not yet definitively manifest—we remain in a time of development, of choice, and of preparation.
      We remain in a time of decision. A Christian is, or should be, one who has “decided for” the Parousia, for the final coining of the Kingdom. His life is oriented by this decision. His existence has meaning in so far as the Parousia is crucial to him.
      But the Parousia is, it seems, indefinitely delayed. This is no accident either. It must be taken as part of the question. The Parousia by itself is no question. The delay of the Parousia is not the whole question. This delay raises the question.
      The question is as follows.
      As Christians we are men who have based all our hopes on the Kingdom of Christ, to be definitively manifest by final victory in the Parousia—this is the final victory of life over death.
      The Parousia having been “delayed,” we have been for two thousand years left to construct for ourselves in the world a kind of kingdom, a cultural-religious-political Christendom, which is admittedly not all one would have looked for, but which has its advantages.
      Now the question is—if the Parousia means the end and destruction of this provisional structure, indeed its judgment, should we really desire the Parousia? Should we not in all earnestness pray for the Parousia to be delayed indefinitely, and indeed, with all the power given to us over the will of God, by prayer, should we not rather attempt to change His plan, and forget the whole business?
      Should we not rather make it our duty to ask Him to let us build the Kingdom in our own way, a kingdom consistent with what we have begun, a Kingdom of God that is at once a sacred enclave in the world and also politically in collaboration with the world?
      Should we not insist that the Parousia should simply be regarded as our social, cultural, religious, and political triumph in the world, so that we are no longer an enclave, but have finally succeeded in taking it all over? We tried it once, beginning in the eighth century and going on through the Middle Ages—it was a good attempt, but some important points were overlooked. Can we not get ourselves into a position to make a better try? And this time to succeed?
      Thus we find ourselves, in effect, deciding against the Parousia. “Thy Kingdom come”—but not now, not in that distressing way—but in our time and our way. Thus the Christian has learned to pray against judgment, and for an eternity that is an indefinite prolongation of time, because time is what we need: time to try it over and over again.
      Suggested emendation in the Lord’s Prayer: Take out “Thy Kingdom come” and substitute “Give us time!”
      But then what? What are we going to do with “time?” Make deductions from past history, devise a system—a Christian system—and put it to work? Or rather consider carefully the systems devised by others and baptize their systems, making them suddenly Christian, and discovering in them the unexpected Kingdom?


  11. Interesting post CM. I’m still figuring this out….I’ve been slowly wading into the water. I heard talks about evil, sex, singleness, and creation that have given me some hope. But after my last experience I am still treading carefully. The last thing I want to do is get into some “wretched urgency” situation where I disagree, or a small group where my outlook is so different that it’s hard to bridge the gaps.

    Into terms of evangelicalism I think it kind of varies from church to church. I hit some bad ones early on, and I’m hopeful that this one will be different. So far the vibes are encouraging. Just last Sunday as I was sitting in my Honda I was thinking about the gut feeling that I had in my stomach. My gut feeling told me that this was a safe place. First time I had that feeling in years and I no longer walk into church nervous or sacred.

    I will be attending a men’s group next. I’ll see what happens. If it’s this discussion or environment of quick change or picture perfect people then I am screwed in many ways. The way many evangelicals view change is that of one of instant change. In many cases this is a form of spiritual pornography and for many evangelicals this is tooooooooo tempting to resist. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. I’ll see…

    • ‘Spiritual pornography’ – that’s one worth remembering. And it hits a lot of what is talked about on the bulls eye. I can’t imagine the reaction that would get if mentioned in a church setting ‘How dare you ….!’

      Eagle, sometimes these groups are the best place to air your concerns. It took me a year with the group I am with before I felt comfortable enough really push, but by this time we had developed relationships and trust that makes it possible. The wagons still circle but there are time when there is someone else standing with me tossing stones into the circle trying to encourage guys to engage their minds rather than just re-affirm and regurgitate the latest words of encouragement. Be gentle and genuine and you may just find your role; oh sorry, must use christianese, your calling.

      • I forbid Christianese!I am not going down that path of a third language known only to a select few in the tribe. Nope….not going to do that.

        • Funny thing that third language. When you take the third language words away and use normal language you find that many use the third language as a safe harbor, without the ‘special’ words they are lost.

  12. BTW…forgive me for asking but who is Mike Bell? Is he a regular poster? I’m banging my brain trying to remember.

    • Yes, Eagle. He’s our brother in Canada.

    • Knock, knock.

      Who’s there?


      Mike who?

      What, have you forgotten me already?

      I used to write semi-regularly for Internet Monk both before and after Michael Spencer’s passing. Since then life and family issues have gotten in the way. I still comment regularly. My big project which you will hear a lot more about soon is that I am working on compiling Michael Spencer’s notes and sermons on the Gospel of Mark into a book. I have nearly 1000 pages of source material.

      On the family note, we did get some bad news yesterday… but not enough detail yet to share it. Please keep praying.


  13. It’s interesting because in my experience with mainline churches, there is a dichotomy when it comes to honoring tradition. Sure they will sing traditional hymns and they will use a traditional liturgy, but when you talk to many of the congregants, the tradition they seem to most be honoring is the Enlightenment. It’s not that I’m against rational thought, but I do think that it can lead to a feeling in churches that’s something like, “we’re going to have the service whether God shows up or not”. Of course, “God showing up” is open for interpretation.

    But I think there’s a fine line to walk for churches as far as being overly-intellectual and anti-intellectual. To be honest, the traditions that seem to do this the best are Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Because they do maintain a strong adherence to tradition, but yet, they actually do affirm (at least the possibility) that God is working in miraculous ways today. This is more than many mainline Protestants will do (I know I’m painting with a broad brush, and it’s not my intention to pigeon-hole anyone). So in an odd way, this affirmation of the miraculous actually puts Pentecostals closer to these groups than other cessationalist Protestants.

    My wife and I actually joke that we’re something like “Ortho-costal”. In many ways we feel drawn to the EO church, but because of our experience with our Pentecostal tradition, we feel can’t embrace it completely.

    • I had to chuckle when I read “we’re going to have this service whether God shows up or not.” Truthfully, there are many churches who believe God can actually be absent in their worship. But with the mainlines, it depends on whether their roots are in the reformed/rationalism community or the Lutheran/sacramental community. The sacramental churches believe God is ALWAYS present because he can not be separated from his Word. If the sacrament is celebrated, Christ himself is truly, bodily present, and thus fully encountered in a higher reality than we may even be able to perceive. I find this to be very comforting, because there is consistency and hope in it. With my quasi-pentecostal upbringing, I had come to look for God to be “found” in church services through things that were very inconsistent and not really mentioned in Scripture. I left church disappointed countless times because I didn’t feel the presence of God had been experienced. But now, since I know where God has promised to be found, I don’t leave church feeling empty anymore, because I believe I have met with Christ whether I feel like it or not. And in a way, knowing where to find him nourishes hope and calms my internal despair. It may not be the ecstatic excitement of my cradle tradition, it is more of a whisper than an earthquake, but He never fails to meet us when his children gather around His Word and sacraments.

      • This brings up an whole other issue which IM has tackled before – namely, the difference between the sacramental tradition and the intellectual tradition. In a lot of ways, I see the “mainline vs evangelical” as about values, but not necessarily about theology. It is when we start talking about the way we understand our faith that differences come out. The “me and my Bible” movement, coupled with an intellectual, rather than sacramental, view, has led to a great many evangelical churches which are places to acquire knowledge – and also to worship together and serve one another, to be fair. But I do believe this is a major contributing factor to the “rise of the nones”. Actually going to church is the least efficient means of acquiring Christian knowledge in our digital world.

        • Wow. Great point.

        • Great point. I often wonder why my E friend even attend church anymore? I mean, you can listen/watch the “service” online, you can give money on their website, you can even serve yourself the crackers and grape juice, so given all of that, why bother to attend?

      • I had a feeling that line would get a reaction, and I had a feeling it might be from you… lol!

        I understand what you’re saying. Certainly many Evangelicals (Pentecostals in particular) could rightly be accused of acting like they can conjure God up by singing with “more feeling” or praying harder, etc. But I’ve also been around people from mainline traditions, and it seems like the church seem like little more than a country club with religious underpinnings. I often wonder, for example, how comfortable a single mother from a trailer park would feel attending a church where most of the cars in the parking lot are BMWs and Lexuses. I think this is one reason, actually, why you see still see Pentecostal churches skewed more towards the lower income brackets.

        I guess in my mind one mental block I have against mainline churches is that I tend to see them as simply the “socially acceptable” churches. They don’t demand a lot from their congregants, and even non-Christians see them as fulfilling a sort of public good. It seems often what many mainlines end up promoting is a sort of civic religion rather than a historic, orthodox faith. Again, it’s not all of them. It’s just the stereotype that exists, and, unfortunately, it does still ring true with a lot of them I’ve encountered.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          “I guess in my mind one mental block I have against mainline churches is that I tend to see them as simply the “socially acceptable” churches.”

          This is hardly confined to mainlines. Yes, a century ago a family climbing up the social ladder showed it had finally arrived by converting to Episcopalianism. But those days are long past. Nowadays, depending on what part of the country and where on the urban-to-rural gradient you live, that respectable church might well be a Evangelical megachurch.

          This is the old problem of the church that goes back at least to Constantine. If membership in a church can bring worldly benefits (social prestige, business contacts, etc.), then some fraction of the membership are going to be there for those benefits rather than out of any religious conviction. Even in its most benign form this will tend to distort the church: the wealthy donor will, due to our fallen human nature, have a louder voice than the pauper member. At its worst the church turns into a great place for the wolves to prey on the sheep.

          I think this is a silver lining for the cloud of reduced numbers in the mainlines. No one joins my Lutheran congregation for the prestige it brings. Yes, the congregation is small for the size of the building, but the people who are there are, for the most part, there for pretty good reasons.

    • Dana Ames says


      if you haven’t already read it, you and your wife might take a look at Fr Meletios Webber’s book, “Bread, Water, Wine and Oil.” To me, the first few chapters are worth the price of the book, but I go back to all of it a lot, and I don’t revisit very many books.

      In terms of “the miraculous,” Orthodoxy has it – it’s just not part of O. sensibility to go broadcasting “miracles” beyond one’s own parish. O. also has an integrated way to meet and live with suffering, which I think is more important, since that’s where most people are, in different ways and for varying amounts of time. Also, it’s hard for Protestants to deal with the reality that such things happen in answer to the prayers of our departed “big brothers and sisters” – the saints – or in connection with relics and icons; their theology just doesn’t allow for that, and so much of what happens in that regard is, frankly, derided as not of God at all.

      Since the time I began regularly attending O. liturgy more than 4 years ago, there has not been one Sunday that it seemed to me that I had not worshiped God. The Liturgy is the same every Sunday; we don’t have “special music” or even instruments. Some days I attend and I’m sleepy or otherwise less “present” than I could be – but my experience of worship is never a matter of subjectively determining whether or not “God shows up.” *I* show up, be as present as I can be (there are many helps in the Liturgy for this), and the gathered church worships God at this appointed time – period. God is everywhere present and filling all things, and even more so at Liturgy, whether we apprehend that in an emotional way or not. (There are times when hearing certain words in the Liturgy or of the seasonal hymnography does evoke an emotional reaction in me – this is inconvenient, as my reaction tends to be crying, and I sing in the choir… But this is not looked upon as a big deal – nobody is disturbed, not least the choirmaster, who is also Italian 🙂 I just take a moment to feel it and thank God, and bring that emotion back to the whole of my being – then I blow my nose and clear my voice and continue singing.)

      Some of the best years of my Evangelical life were spent in a reasonably healthy Vineyard church – I had plenty of good experiences there, “supernaturally natural” and otherwise – I’m not comparing with the worst of the Charismatic Evangelicals, but rather the best. It’s all there in Orthodoxy – it’s just different and approached differently.

      Just some food for your thought.


      • Dana Ames says

        Also, one of our priests is a former Assemblies of God pastor.


      • To be honest, one of the things that I feel keeps me from converting is the whole issue of music. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the music of the divine liturgy, but the way I learned to play music has always been in the church. One of the ways I feel most connected to the Holy Spirit is through performing music during a worship service. There’s really no outlet for that within Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s not that I want the church to be an outlet for my personal creativity – I have other outlets for that. But I just think that there are so many musical expressions that can rightly be used in worship, that it would be very difficult for me to go down the route of leaving those behind.

        • From:


          A Talk given at the Orthodox Pilgrimage to Felixstowe in August 2001

          “… There is only one criterion for entering the Orthodox Church and that is because you are convinced that it is for your personal salvation, for your spiritual survival, because it is God’s Will for you, because you know that this is your spiritual home and that, whatever the cost, you can never be anything else…. What will you remember from this talk? I hope the following; We come to the Church and we remain in the Church in order to save our souls, and nothing else.”

          • Dana Ames says

            Eric, thanks for putting that up. I have found it to be reality.


          • Thanks for the link, Eric. I probably should have said, “one of the things, among others” in my prior comment. But, yeah, I think if that’s truly the criteria, I’m far from being there.

          • Phil M.:

            After my decades in non-denominational and/or charismatic Evangelicalism (though I had started in a Disciples of Christ church), study of church history, and experience of the Orthodox Church and its worship, I had concluded and become convinced of the need to become Orthodox per many of the “right” reasons this article states – i.e., it was THE church, and for me to be a Christian, to be saved, to be being and becoming saved, I had to be in the Church.

            But when I knew I could no longer affirm and confess the Orthodox Church’s claims for itself and its practices and beliefs, I could no longer stay. So unless you indeed come to believe, whether before you enter the Orthodox Church or after you in fact enter it, the things the author says, if you’re like me you may find it not to be a marriage made in heaven and/or the end of your search. Granted, there were people I met in the Orthodox Church, including converts, who felt that the Orthodox Church was “most true” or “faithful” to the original faith without fully believing or perhaps even caring if or that it was indeed the True Church, or without accepting all the things the Church claimed for itself or said believers should believe, and that was good enough for them. I.e., it was better than whatever else was out there.

            But if you can’t affirm the priesthood, the change of the bread and wine, the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, the sacramental and salvific natures of baptism and chrismation, and lesser issues like the superiority of the LXX text to the Masoretic, the heretical nature of most all other forms of Christianity, the importance of the filioque, the inability to take communion with other Christians or even to be in prayer or Bible study meetings with them, etc., etc., then you may not be able to be comfortable in the Orthodox Church even if you become satisfied with what you can do there musically.

            YMMV and my prayers are for your discernment.

          • Eric,
            Again, thanks for your reply. I can resonate with a lot of what you say regarding why you couldn’t stay in Orthodoxy. Those are all things that concern me, and ultimately, I think that’s why I don’t really see myself converting. I do know several very kind and gracious Orthodox Christians, but I think my problem is that I know a lot of other Christians who are genuine also. I have a Orthodox friends on Facebook and whenever a new convert joins their church, they say something about another person “coming home”. I understand what they’re saying, but to me that implies that they believe that before a person converted to Orthodoxy they were some sort of lesser Christian or not a complete Christian in some way. It is kind of analogous to what I experience growing up Pentecostal where some people seemed to create a separation between that who had experienced “Spirit baptism” and those who had not.

            So from my perspective, converting to Orthodoxy would not only make a statement about what I believe for myself, but it would also mean I’m rejecting a bunch of Christians God has used to impact me along the way. That’s what I can’t see myself doing. It just seems like such a very hurtful thing to do to those people to me. Do I believe, for example, that my 92 year old grandfather who was an AoG pastor was any less of a Christian because he didn’t believe in transubstantiation? No, I don’t. I believe he knows God in a more intimate way than most people on earth.

            I guess what I really believe is that no Christian group can rightly claim to be the true Church. I believe God is at work in all sorts of churches, and most of the time this is despite of what these churches are doing, not because of it. It’s only because God is exceedingly gracious to us that any of us are still here.

        • Dana Ames says

          I know, Phil. That was something I had to work through; I’ve been on worship teams of one sort or another most of my life since my teenage years. The thing I came to is that the Liturgy is not about “personal expression” – it’s the expression of the whole people of God, of which I’m part. My uniqueness is not shmooshed into everyone else’s; that remains distinct, and God loves me and sees me as a distinct Person. And all of us Persons are gathered to be the People of God, the Body of Christ, in worship. I realize that theologically that may not be where you are.

          Every once in a while, I do miss the whole “worship team” experience at its best. In my last years as a Protestant, I used to write blurbs for the monthly church newsletter about integration of expression in worship of emotions, mind and body. I hear you, friend. I find it really interesting that I sense that I am *more* integrated in O. worship. All those aspects are connected, but in the “car” of worship the front seat is occupied by the Holy Spirit as the driver and the Liturgy as the steering wheel, along with the deepest part of my being where I encounter God (nous) in the passenger seat. Emotions and intellect are along for the ride, but they’re in the back seat. Everything feels more balanced, and even more connected to the Holy Spirit. It’s a different approach, for sure.

          But I also have to say that in my parish there are lots of outlets for expressions of my – and others’ – personal creativity in terms of music, especially when we have music/poetry nights, or otherwise party. And we do party hearty… And O. certainly has vastly much more room for participation in the arts in general than some strains of E’ism, both in worship and in the rest of life. In Orthodoxy there’s no “upper story” of “the Spiritual” and “lower story” of “the Worldly”; reality is One Thing. There is a sense that there are spheres of appropriateness, though, especially with worship. I found I didn’t really leave that creativity behind; it just got transferred to a different room (the hall rather than the church building), and is also every bit as appreciated there.

          Best to you-

        • Hunh!

          How interesting that Phil feels he would have to surrender something musically to join the Orthodox, whereas I discovered I could make a contribution in the Orthodox Church I never could have made in a “praise ‘n’ worship” church. In that kind of church. they are usually looking for professional musicians, or at least roadhouse/bar band level musicians. Yeah, they have “special music”, but the bar of musicianship is still pretty high.

          I just sing, and I don’t have a world-stopping voice, but it sounds pretty good if you blend it with a few others. Joining the choir at my little parish has allowed me to use my very modest musical gifts and worship the Lord that would have been impossible for me down at the Hallelujah Barn. This is true of the Presbyterian church I grew up in as well.

          Not to mention I am very, very, very chary of the “Christian” music industry with its headquarters in Nashville. Who writes this stuff? I swear, sometimes I feel ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ single-handedly drove me out of Evangelicalism into the EOC

    • Isaac/Obed says

      “It’s interesting because in my experience with mainline churches, there is a dichotomy when it comes to honoring tradition.” – Phil M.

      This isn’t where you seemed to be going with this, but one of my frustrations as someone who loves old-school, traditional Anglican liturgy is that for much of mainline Protestantism, “tradition” was kind of abandoned for a Vatican II-inspired ecumenical liturgical buffet about 40 years ago. What that means is that most of our current priests and bishops have almost no understanding of our unique traditions beyond what got moved over and added to the Vatican II-inspired changes in the 70’s. I’m still not clear as to why the mainline Protestants were looking to what the Catholics were doing for their cues, but that’s how it went. As an Anglican, we’ve got an amazingly RICH liturgical heritage with really gorgeous poetry and really profound theology. . . but all anyone knows is what’s gone on since 1979. And, ironically, in their most recent liturgical changes, the Catholics look more like we did before 1979, and we look more like the initial stuff that came out of Vatican II.

  14. The church are the sheep that hear the Lord Jesus voice.( John 10:27)

    We are Jew and Gentile ONE in the oilve tree. The Wild olive were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree (Romans 11)
    We are part of a whole tree that is Messiah HImself. He died to make us one and we “fight” over what church to go to? Church is the people/sheep under the great Shepherd. Why don’t we see that?

    It is OK to worship with people that worship like you. I like to dance, sing, shout and be nosiy in my worship. I would not “fit” with people that want to be quiet. BUT personaly I can be with both because if we are woship Messiah then we are worshiping.

    We are called to be one. (Jonh 17) Jesus prayed that we would be ONE.

  15. I would love to try a mainline church. My wife and kids, however, seem to be benefiting from the Calvary Chapel church we belong to. Maybe someday hopefully. Until then, I will try to keep being “excited” for what we are “doing for God”.

    • btw, thanks for these posts CM. I argued against your view of evangelicalism when I first started reading IM. But I get it now. I may not ever have a chance to join a mainline, but at least we have Internet Monk. 🙂

  16. I liked this:

    “Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home.”

    That was my experience, and still is. I am a procrastinator at heart. I ignore “calls” and drag my feet when I sense God wants me to do something. I am Jonah. So I have needed and still need the periodic kick in the pants. That is why I have defended and will continue to defend folks like Francis Chan, who try to get lethargic Christians like me up and out of the pew and to respond to what God might be asking them to do.

    That said, this can go too far. When “trying to motivate” becomes guilt-fueled “you aren’t doing enough,” then it’s drifted into the unhealthy, and certainly evangelicals and evangelicalism has a tendency to do that. Tricky balance, for sure.

  17. Thanks Chaplin Mike for this post. This explains a lot about my current spiritual walk. I grew in the Presbyterian Denomination but for some 25 plus years I have been part of a few different Charismatic churches. I am now a Pastor with the Foursquare Denomination. I have noticed that we have strayed from the really deep teaching that I have been hungry for. I am praying for ways that I can bring this back into my current church. Thank you for all your posts

  18. I have found that the problems evangelicals think they see in mainline denominations do not have much intersection with the problems mainline folks would point to themselves. Yes, we mainliners do have a lot of problems, and many of these problems are either directly or indirectly responsible for our decline… but they’re not necessarily the problems evangelicals think we have.

    Example: In the UMC, one of the biggest problems is the wide gap between the agenda (often social) the ecclesiastical hierarchy concerns itself with, and the everyday reality of life in the majority of its churches. The hierarchy wonders why the local churches don’t get with the program, and the local churches wonder why the hierarchy has the time to be concerned with everything but the health of its churches.

    Example: Mainline churches in general do a terrible job with getting their message out. Yes, “colorful” evangelical personalities do tend to make for easy and controversial media coverage, so much so that when most of the country thinks “Christian,” they actually think “evangelical.” Mainliners wring their hands—-but they have never been able to come up with a compelling way to tell folks who THEY are. Maybe it’s harder when you don’t have many outsized celebrity personalities. But most of the time it seems mainliners don’t even try.