An April 28, 2017 Washington Post editorial by Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, is calling the demise of the mainline Protestant church. Pointing to demographical and beliefs assessments of Christians that show steep downward trends, Stetzer says 2039 could be the year mainline Protestants celebrate Easter for the last time. The startling graphs in the article look like Kodak stock after the advent of the digital camera – not good. To the extent that he believes the church will figure this out before it goes over the cliff, Stetzer nonetheless raises some good points about why this is happening specifically to mainline protestant churches. “Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed ‘offensive’ to the surrounding culture: Jesus literally died for our sins and rose from the dead, the authority of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and more.” His core argument is that the reason for minimizing those beliefs was to make the church more culturally relevant and socially acceptable. In sum, if “Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers.”
His point, although conflicting (in its implicit juxtaposition of Protestant shrinkage with Evangelical gains despite the Evangelical church appealing to and looking a lot more like the world flush with cash and cafes while the mainline Protestant church is pushing back on unpopular social issues and doing the hard work of defending the “least of these”), and not the full view of the issue nor an indication of the direction the church should go, is nonetheless backed up by the data. A recent study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of worshipers from growing churches agreed with the statement ‘Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb’ compared to 67 percent of worshipers and 56 percent of clergy members from declining churches. But, isn’t the growth of the church what the mainline Protestants achieved by assenting to science replacing miracle belief and thereby becoming more culturally relevant and socially acceptable? Whether it was a mistake or not, it thrived for many generations by being “mainline.” So, if today, the mainline Protestant churches aren’t growing, perhaps something they’re doing is, in fact, less socially acceptable.
Dogmatic statements about the literalness of Jesus’ resurrection set up a false dilemma, as there are countless theologies of Christ’s resurrection that range from metaphysical to metaphorical, supernatural to preternatural. It is a sort of theological shaming. Despite the Christological, ecclesial, and hermeneutical diversity within the various branches and denominations of the Christian church, the literal, historical bodily resurrection is and has been the sine qua non for the vast majority of Christians, and the slide into metaphor is clearly Stetzer’s main beef. This does not mean, however, that his and the majority of Christians’ views are correct or the only way to see it. Take the four Gospel accounts of the Easter story – each has varying records on what transpired: who discovered the empty tomb, at what point and by what force the stone was rolled away, the mention of an earthquake, whether there was one or two men (or angels) in the tomb, the appearance of these one or two men (or angels) happening inside or outside of the tomb, what was said to the people (or person) by the one or two men (or angels), and so on. Suffice it to say, there are conflicting historical happenings going on in the four sources that report the resurrection.
The one thing they all agree upon is that Jesus appeared again, but only Luke uses the phrase “flesh and bones” to describe Jesus’ body. Further, the four accounts differ widely as to whom Christ first appeared, what he said, where he appeared a second time and to whom, and whether there were other future appearances and to whom. Only two of the Gospels account for his ascension to heaven.
The big question then is what does the death and resurrection mean? St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:14 says, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless.” Understanding what resurrection is—especially what the resurrection of Jesus is—is foundational to the Christian faith. Later in the same chapter, Paul, explains the resurrected body.
“…it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being;” the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
If flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, we would be wise to think deeply about whether it is critical that Jesus’ body (and ours) is resuscitated, or changed into a spiritual body as Paul insists here. In light of Paul’s explanation, the “flesh and bones” of Luke’s resurrection account could mean spiritual appendages (not that a spirit has flesh and bones, but the flesh and bones could be spiritual in nature, per Paul and the fact that Jesus is one with the Father and Holy Spirit in the Trinity). To be sure, any dogma that has not sorted out this difference is one we should reexamine, or at least not use as a shibboleth for whether or not someone believes.
Flexible doctrinal statements about the meaning of the death and resurrection – not whether it happened – are where I believe the solution exists. The church has shown that it can evolve and innovate on a number of core beliefs, such as the origin and nature of the Trinity, whether Jesus “is” or “is like” God (homoousion vs. homoiousios), and the nature of elements of the sacrament (do they transubstantiate or just represent the body and blood of Christ?) to name a few. The church cannot argue that it is not theologically innovative.
That goes for moral issues as well. For example, a long held belief in the Judeo-Christian church has been that homosexuality is a mortal sin, and accordingly, the broader society agreed. Until recently. The mainline Protestant church has laid their dogma and doctrine for all to debate on issues such as marriage equality, abortion, and ordaining women and LGBT individuals. They have taken on wildly unpopular and particularly “unchristian” issues and reexamined them. All while their pews continue empty. This was not a popular thing to do. It was the hard thing. As King David replied to Araunah when he tried to give the king the threshing floor and oxen for the burnt offering, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24: 24). Change is going to cost us something.
The hope for mainline Protestant churches is indeed rooted in its anti-establishment beginnings. Its 1517 dawn was literally a punky priest who had had enough of the Catholic Church’s dogma, especially the way it was “growing.” And, while a conservative refresher on the Reformation would do any mainline Protestant Christian good, a stern look at the things we’ve gotten wrong – how we’ve become like the Catholic Church of Luther’s time, abiding too much to the wider culture – and how we’re going to evolve in ministering the Gospel to the world.
In 1975, Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera. The corporate response to this innovation was “that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.” In 1988, Kodak doubled down on its core business, film, and bought Sterling Drug for $5.1B because it was “really a chemical business.” Soon after, they sold Sterling in pieces for half what they paid for it. The world was changing around them and rather than taking a hard look at innovative strategies that get the job of creating pictures done, they held on to doing things the way they’d always done them. In 2012, Kodak went bankrupt by not being able to embrace an innovation they created. The way the mainline Protestant church can save itself is by making some hard decisions about how it is going to minister the Gospel to the world. Will it continue to do it at the exclusion of women and gays? Will it do it at the reviling of scientific discovery and globalism? Surely it should lean on its Protestant and bible-based theological principles, but it should not confuse a conservative approach to innovation with a dogmatic middle-finger to anything that doesn’t do it the way we’ve always done it.
The 21st Century church must avoid building its own choking dogma by insisting that no Christian concept – even the ones we hold so dearly – is above reexamination by the professing church. This does not mean the church should adopt modern philosophies or behave like the world. Rather, Christians and the church must more earnestly seek the life of Jesus, and for our lives and institutions to reflect his life, work, death, and resurrection more authentically. As Billy Graham said, “The entire plan for the future has its key in the resurrection.” Perhaps the mainline Protestant church, with its splintered wooden pews, tattered hymnals, and baseboard heaters is in the midst of its own resurrection. While other denominations comfortably seat the homogeneous masses in air conditioned arenas with cafes, jumbotrons, and rock bands hearing sermons about financial prosperity, the corner mainline Protestant church may simply be worn out a bit from the soup kitchen, domestic violence advocacy, hosting AA meetings, and speaking truth to power on civil rights and separation of church and state for generations. From where I sit, I don’t think the mainline Protestant church has much to worry about. There is a new generation of Jesus-loving workhorses coming around the bend to preach and live out the resurrection to a world in need of it. In the meantime, I would encourage our Evangelical brothers and sisters – Stetzer included – to avoid trying to take the speck out of our eyes, because I we all know how that story ends.
Thanks to keevakase.com advisers Will Hamilton and Jeff Scholes for their input on this piece.