A Perspective on the Future of
Mainstream Religious Traditions

William McKinney
Hartford Seminary

March 31, 1993

I expect to pick up Newsweek magazine one of these weeks and see that its “Conventional Wisdom” feature has awarded “mainline religion” a down arrow, probably with a clever comment in blue — blue hair, blue laws, blue noses.

Conventional wisdom has it that the traditional Protestant churches like ours along with Judaism and Catholicism-have moved from mainline to sideline. That’s a phrase that Jerry Falwell concocted. He said we’ve moved from mainline to sideline and it’s a very good thing.

I want to suggest that, as usual, Conventional Wisdom is sort-of correct. Things aren’t as they once were: the numbers are down and the denominational bureaucracies aren’t in great shape; the oldline churches are no longer “established.”

But the picture of gloom and doom is not the whole story. Today, no single religious group holds the “established” position oldline Protestantism once held. In a sense, everyone is mainline and no religious group is permanently sidelined.

The issue as we look to the future is not really “reversing the decline” of some religious traditions but “reconstructing” them. This is not just a word game; it’s a fundamental issue of perceiving where we are.

The poet Wallace Stevens was correct when he wrote that “We live in the description of a place and not in the place itself.” If we describe ourselves as living in decline, that’s exactly where we’ll continue to live. I want to describe all of mainline religion as “located” in the early years of reconstruction out of conviction that this is where we are and need to be.


The reconstruction has theological, demographic, and institutional dimensions. To see the reconstruction we have to look back at where we have been.


1. Most of American Protestantism has stood in a classical tradition, on the one hand honoring the Biblical and Reformation heritage while on the other altering their meanings in light of new knowledge and new insight.

2. Protestantism has also been inclusive, providing room for diversity and pluralism within broad limits of intellectual respectability. Its standard has been individual freedom short of the bizarre, the truly weird.

3. Its theology has been linked, often consciously, to the development of the American nation. The quest for theological self-understanding has been tied to America’s attempt to understand itself.


1. For the most part there has been clarity within most denominational traditions of who they are and whom they serve. There is a paradoxical quality to the religious freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. People were to be free to be what they choose to be, but they were not really expected to cross over to another group. The freedom was real, but so was the expectation it would be used sparingly.

Let me illustrate from the United Church of Christ traditions. Congregationalists knew themselves to be persons with Anglo-Saxon roots whose particular experience was filtered through the experience of New England. Even for “newcomers” reached through missionary efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a sense that the road to salvation, Congregational-style, passes through Boston, Cambridge, Hartford and New Haven. The Evangelical and the Reformed churches had similar clarity. To be sure, these churches reached out, but “their people” were German immigrants of the 19th century. Newcomers passed through Eastern Pennsylvania, Chicago and Saint Louis.

2. To varying degrees American churches have understood themselves to have a missionary role, especially as churches and mission societies reached out to new populations, but for most of the past two centuries the churches’ membership base has been built on two foundations: maintaining the religious loyalties of their young and, for oldline Protestants, attracting upwardly-mobile people no longer satisfied by more conservative, “less-sophisticated” Protestant churches. Churches have “grown their own” and tried to attract what the sociologists call “upwardly-mobile religious switchers.” Institutional:

American religious groups have been great institution-builders. For example, the history of American higher education, at least in the private sector, is largely a religious story. Our forebears gave shape to what we now know as the home and overseas mission boards; their patterns have been adopted by other religious groups. All over the U.S., indeed all over the world, one finds a common pattern of churches, schools, social service agencies, libraries, hospitals — institutions born out of a 19th century religious vision whose home base is Puritan New England or ethnic necessity.


Theologically, demographically, and institutionally, mainstream religious traditions are in a process of reconstruction because what we have been doesn’t fit very well anymore.

Theologically, the old consensus has broken down. In a culture that seems determined to draw sharp lines between evangelicals and liberals, it’s harder than ever to provide room for both parties in a single denomination or congregation. For a long time establishment status held things together: people might have differed theologically, but they were still “family.” A Congregationalist might think like a Southern Baptist or a Unitarian or a Pentecostal, but to leave the fold was to turn one’s back on one’s heritage. It was, after all, a fairly broad theological road that led through Boston and Cambridge, Hartford and New Haven.

And tying the theological task to American self-understanding has come under fire from a variety of sources. “Crisis theology” and neo-orthodoxy struck the first blow, but the social and theological challenges of the 1960’s broke the relationship.

Demographically, all of the mainline churches face real challenges. They no longer hold the religious loyalties of their own young as they once did. The fastest growing religious group in America today is not the Assemblies of God; it’s the alumni association of traditional Protestant confirmation classes. Baby boomers feel very free to adopt a religious affiliation very different from their parents — or to choose no religious affiliation at all. And, just as important, the flow of persons from more conservative, lower status groups to older Protestant denominations has slowed down. To present even further challenges demographically, the new census reminds us of the dramatic change in the shape of our national population. For African-Americans, for Hispanics, for Asians and Pacific Islanders — the growing segments of our population — a religious road that has to pass through Boston and Cambridge, Hartford and New Haven seems awfully narrow.

Institutionally, those wonderful products of the 19th century seem strangely anachronistic. To put it bluntly, the churches can’t pay for the institutions they created and lack the resources needed to create the institutions we’ll need for the 21st century. One need only look at denominational bureaucracies, ecumenical organizations and mission agencies to see evidence of the current difficulties of the institutions hatched in the parish halls of Boston and Cambridge, Hartford and New Haven a century ago.


We don’t know, or more precisely, I don’t know what the results of the theological, demographic and institutional reconstruction of mainstream religion will be. My sense is that just as the so-called decline took a long time, the reconstruction will take a while, perhaps a couple of generations or more.

I have a hunch — and frankly, a hope — that the future will be built from the group up, that the place to look for hints about the future shape of religion is in local congregations. Over the long term, San Antonio, Newark, DesMoines and Guilford are every bit as important as New York or Chicago or Cleveland — or Rome-in our theological, demographic and institutional reconstruction.

With all of this as background, let me turn to the question: what can we do to renew and reconstruct mainstream American religious traditions? I have five concrete suggestions.

First, we Protestants have to face up to a serious “attitude” problem. The fact is, many people don’t like the changes that have taken place in American religion and wish we could go back to the days when people looked instinctively to a small number of churches for leadership.

A few years ago I visited with an ecumenical leader in a Midwestern city as part of a team involved in the study of a local church. About 15 minutes into the conversation he leaned back in his chair and said, “You have to recognize that this neighborhood has undergone some severe population changes in the past half-century. It began in the late forties and early fifties when the whites moved out and the Irish Catholics moved in.”

It took me a few days to figure out what was going on in his statement. I was forced to reach back to what Mrs. Hart, the third grade teacher in my hometown of Saugus, Massachusetts had told us was the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism.

The first step toward reconstruction is acceptance of the fact that we can’t go back. Oldline Protestantism is no longer in charge; it has been disestablished and it is time to reconstruct. But we’ve got to deal with our attitude problem.

Second, we need to affirm the power and importance of congregating. I’m almost tempted to go to a T-shirt factory and order a couple of dozen shirts that say “Congregate”~with an exclamation point!

There is nothing more important — or overlooked — in our historical tradition than the conviction that when free people gather around the word of God in the presence of the Holy Spirit something very special happens. That special “something” is what calls you to ministry. It is what makes you different from a neighbor who listens for God’s word in the isolation of the mountaintop experience or who understands the church to be the special possession of a religious hierarchy.

In a social and religious climate that makes the isolated individual the final arbiter of religious and moral truth, simply to congregate is to make a powerful statement about who you are and the God you worship.

Third, we need to cultivate the ability to hold two ideas in our heads at the same time.

Respect for individual freedom and commitment to care for and to be open to correction from the community of faith

Recognition that religion is fundamentally personal and fundamentally public

To be unapologetically Christian or Jewish or Muslim and radically open to the insights of other living faith traditions

To think globally and to act locally, but also to act globally and to think locally. The bumper sticker is wrong (or incomplete), posing a false dichotomy. Global is local and local is global.

To take pride in denominational heritage and to go beyond denominationalism

The idea that holding two ideas in one’s head at the same time may actually be a virtue seems to go against the grain today. Some would have us build a future on the reassertion of rigid orthodoxies of the past. Others come dangerously close to holding up political correctness as our standard. These are false choices.

Fourth, we need to think of our churches as mission outposts and of our communities as mission fields.

I have been visiting some of the churches around the country that have earned a reputation for attracting “baby boomers” in their communities. Having visited several of these, I’m now trying to figure out the source of their appeal. It is not, I think, their theology or their programming or their leadership though these certainly play a role. What they seem to have in common is an understanding that the local communities of America need to be approached as mission fields. We learned long ago in foreign mission efforts that the gospel needs to be planted in fresh ways in each new culture, that one cannot take institutional forms and practices developed in rural New England in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and expect them to be effective in Timor or Ghana or Japan.

That’s a lesson we have resisted applying in our own country, and it is most unfortunate. Evangelical Protestants have done a far better job than we have in indigenizing the Christian faith for the America of the 1990s.

Fifth, we need to recognize the fact that there is a deep sense of spiritual hunger in America today and an openness to explicitly religious messages.

Evangelical Protestantism and what has come to be called the “New Age” movement, for all their differences, seem to me to be two sides of the same coin: a response to and rejection of much of the sterility of modern life. They speak to individuals’ genuine spiritual needs.

Our churches, concerned (as they ought to be) about membership losses of the past quarter-century, are giving increased attention to church growth and evangelism. That’s a good thing in my judgment, but I am very wary about the concern for growth overtaking the need to attend to evangelism. Reaching out to newcomers, providing extra parking spaces and refurbishing church nurseries are important strategies for addressing church growth. Speaking directly and intelligibly to the spiritual vacuum that plagues our culture is something more. It is evangelism.

America’s churches weren’t built by effective programs, but grew because they had a vision of a better way of life, a vision that spoke to the nitty gritty joys and pains of real people in real places. They grew because our forebears found in Jesus Christ the promise of a better way, a way that promises you and me and all people a way out of what the UCC’s Statement of Faith calls “our aimlessness and sin.” The big challenge for our churches is to be competitive not just on programmatic but more importantly on religious grounds.

That means articulating a distinctive and a distinctively religious vision. John Michael Cuddihy has written that mainline religion today is “happen to be” religion. My religion? “Well, I happen to be a Presbyterian.” “I happen to be a Disciple of Christ.” “I happen to be a Lake Woebegone Lutheran.” Establishment religion creates a religious style that is calculated not to give offense.

Ask yourselves what is actually known about the religious convictions of First Church, Guilford. My hunch is very little. People may have a sense of your programs, your history, even where the church stands on certain public issues, but for the most part the content of the faith proclaimed in our churches is a mystery to our neighbors. In what may be the best illustration of the prevalence of pre-disestablishment thinking, we assume that people know what we stand for. They don’t, and it’s largely our fault.

Finally, our new position in the culture gives us a chance to hear afresh the word of God.

Some time ago I preached at my home church in downtown Hartford. Center Church, the First Church of Christ in Hartford, was founded by the Rev. Thomas Hooker in 1632. It is the “founding church” of Connecticut. Its Main Street location and its steeple rising above the city — though now dwarfed by office towers — are silent reminders of the role the church played in the city’s past.

Like your church, Center Church has had its ups and downs over three and a-half centuries, and struggles today to figure out what it means to be a historic oldline church in a city whose residents are predominantly Black and Hispanic and that ranks as one of the nation’s ten poorest cities. Our 400 or so members, mainly white and middle class and most from Hartford’s suburbs, are committed to the city and the church’s mission in it, though we’re not certain what that means. Most would probably agree with former relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry who told a reporter that the future “is a lot like the present, only longer.” Most members would confess, however, that as far as Center Church is concerned they’re not convinced it’s true.

The occasion for my sermon was the church’s 354th annual meeting. The Lectionary reading for the day was the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. You know the words, “Consider your call, my friends; not many of you were wise according to earthly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose the foolish in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human might boast in the presence of God.”

This struck me then as an appropriate text for Center Church and strikes me now as an appropriate one for this church in its 351st year. In the early years of the American experiment, our churches were able to see themselves as “not wise by earthly standards,” as “not of noble birth,” as “the weak,” as “the low and despised. In the early years these churches could see themselves as over-against the center as represented by the established churches in the lands they had fled. Paul’s words were reassuring.

Later, in the halcyon days of the Protestant Empire, such a reading became more difficult. Paul’s words are hard to deal with when the church is at the center of things. They weren’t written for the establishment, but for persons on the periphery. I suspect there were years when they just weren’t welcome in oldline congregations. They just didn’t fit anymore. One suspects they were more welcome in the churches of the immigrants and others who felt excluded by the churches that dominated the city’s life.

Paul’s words are empowering, however, when the church is a bit closer to the margins of life. Today, no longer alone at the center of things, Center Church and oldline churches more generally are in a position to have the light of God break forth in fresh and unforeseen ways.

Accepting our reconstruction will require all of us to learn new ways of thinking and acting, but it is the only way our churches can look forward to a future that, in Dan Quisenberry’s words, is longer than the present.