June 4, 2007
— Martin E. Marty
When asked, as I often am, "Whatever happened to the mainline Protestant
churches?" I respond by saying that "mainline decline"
is a tired ol' story — but "mainliners' mission" is urgent.
How are they recovering? They went local to turn global. Philosopher Stephen
Toulmin has written on the paradoxes of modernity: People poised to be
"cosmopolitan" tend to trust and share "the local"
more than before. "Mainliners" may have been put off by what
they often perceive to be remote, bureaucratic, or generic, and are re-learning
at home to reach out. Scoop up Sunday bulletins from thirty of their churches
(and throw in some from Catholic parishes, synagogues, and, of course,
"open" evangelical congregations) and study their weekly calendar
to grasp their outreach. They tend to fill urgent niches as they deal
with the homeless and the ill and the hungry, while being hospitable to
addicts — on whom doors are shut when the professionals go home.
I have one case study in mind, prompted by a line in Robert Franklin's fine portrait in last week's Sightings of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a congregation slammed by some political media folk, especially from the Right ("Obama's Faith," May 31). Franklin signed off by imagining "that Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood would love to have [one of the presidential candidates whose church home is Trinity] and his family as members," but that it is less well located to serve the working poor.
I have an "interest" here, I confess, having studied Fourth Presbyterian for decades, including as adviser to a dissertation by James Wellman on the history of the mission of the church. That interest also finds me oft-times profiting from the ministry of Pastor John Buchanan, who serves as the Christian Century editor as well. This means that he is my "boss" when I turn in my fortnightly columns there. Dr. Buchanan can point to some engagements of Fourth Presbyterian — atypical because it is large and endowed, but typical in its self-concept, mission, and outreach. Yes, there are wealthy members, but not so many as any hopeful presidential candidate has to rub shoulders with while seeking money ....
So here is a denominationally responsible mainline church in mission. For samples: Its volunteers tutor 400 inner city kids who live only blocks away, mentoring them and supporting some of them en route to and at college. Its volunteers and a staffer or two invented a Near North Magnet Cluster School Program to link with public schools in the Cabrini Green housing area within a mile of the church. Drop in most any hour at the church's Social Service Center and you'll meet homeless, hungry people. Teamed with Catholic Charities and using their facilities, Fourth Presbyterians weekly serve suppers to a couple hundred people. They host a health care center for inner city folk, and do all kinds of things for and with seniors (also known as "Life and Learning" people). They offer counseling, help bring gardens to the ghetto, send relief teams to other continents, sponsor an AIDS clinic, and pass a third of their budget on in mission.
There's a church somewhat like that not far from you, one which may have less money for missions, but which tries to keep a focus on "mainline" mission, far and near.
James Wellman, The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism (University of Illinois Press, 1999).
John Buchanan, Being Church, Becoming Community (Westminster
John Knox Press, 1996).
Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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