Churches often have names that link them to their past, their founders, their history. Some of those names may mean little to the casual viewer of sign boards hung on the side of buildings. Signs bear such names as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal or perhaps more modestly, Disciples.
Here, I am speaking of religious denominations that may have arisen out of an experience no longer our own. Some arose out of the conversion of one person, such as John Wesley, who had a life-changing experience and made the world “his parish.” My own Presbyterian communion has a form of government that empowers lay people and has no bishops. A church I regularly attend has bishops, but also empowers laity. And so it goes.
These are the churches that may be a bit tattered these days. All one has to do is look about Charleston to see a former church building here which serves a musical guild, or another there that houses a theatrical group. Another such mainline church may be looking to merge with other congregations of like persuasion. Some religious denominations that prided themselves on having a minister with a seminary education no longer have the funds to provide such staffing, and turn to locally produced lay ministers to counsel, console, educate, and preach.
Money is tight. Times are changing. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has just terminated more than 70 employees in the national offices, in order to “save” more than $9 million in salaries and program expense. Yet, churches with fresh-sounding names pop up in theaters and newly built structures about town. They thrive without a complex national organization.
Let me say it: These old religious communities are the churches I love most of all. Denominations that arose hundreds of years ago influenced me, educated me, nurtured me. I was born in a Presbyterian home that had some deep roots in Methodism as well. I was educated in a college influenced by Christian religious concerns. I was nurtured in Episcopal and Lutheran churches as a young man. I worked in a moderate Southern Baptist church as a Bible teacher more than 40 years ago.
I love them, even if I often find myself in a sparsely attended, beautiful old church, preaching the Word of God and administering Holy Communion to a faithful few, many of whom are older persons, devoted to their congregation.
Why do I profess such love for these churches that seem to be struggling in America in the present age?
I will tell you.
They preserve for me and others a core of faith, embodied in the very early church’s attempt to put its belief into words. In many of these mainline churches, I can express the Christian faith in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. I can join the angelic song of peace to God’s people on earth. I can sing the theologically rich hymns of Charles Wesley, which are often miniature professions of faith themselves. I am blessed by words that promise a peace that passes all understanding.
Then, there is the preaching. Mainline preaching is not always good, but it is often faithful, as an ancient Word takes wings. I am challenged to question my own shallow perceptions of the meaning of Jesus, or the role of Scripture in my life. At best, mainline preaching comes out of a spiritual and intellectual tradition that values the life of the mind while holding as a precious thing the sphere of the human spirit.
Many mainline churches treasure the heritage of art and music associated with the gospel. We know that one worships the invisible God by means of the visible, by the use of the human voice and with the assistance of musical instruments. What is offered may or may not be performance quality, but this treasury is offered from the heart and soul. It is possible to say that the heritage of the organ and its literature has been protected by the mainline churches to a great extent.
Even with limited resources, mainline churches are responsible for ministry with people in need. Again, as we look around the Charleston scene, we can be thankful for Covenant House and Sojourners, which do not have a churchly label, but which arose, in part, because of the spiritual vision of a few committed people. The Religious Coalition for Community Renewal makes it possible for low-income people to have homes. Habitat for Humanity builds homes, and unites members of the human family with differing religious beliefs in a ministry of the hammer, saw, and paint brush.
I could go on, but if I did I could be accused, fairly, of not seeing the missteps congregations have made. Churches do not always get it right. They stumble and fall. Their leaders may have clay feet. We church folks may wear blinders, become defensive, or seek security in doing the same thing again and again. All that said, I still want to profess my love for people of faith who follow in the footsteps of inspired persons of long ago. My list includes Martin Luther of Wittenberg, John Calvin of Geneva, and Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury and the Wesleys. Unnamed men and women have carried banners and torches for causes that can seem futile to the multitude, to be sure.
The churches of the old mainline may carve the rotten wood and ride a lame horse, to quote Luther. They are still lovable. They need now to acknowledge the One who is the Center and leader, Jesus, and march forward in the light of God. Other communions with fresh vitality and new names will march along with us, showing us some better ways.
Lawton W. Posey is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Charleston, W.V.