We can do better than “mainline”

I often tell people that fundamentalists and liberals frustrate me about equally. I just read an article by a United Methodist pastor named Martin Thielen in Christian Century on his church’s successful “mainline” marketing plan. Basically he did a sermon series that turned into a book called What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A good friend in our church is reading it, and my wife told me I shouldn’t judge a book by its title, but I can’t help asking, Is this really the best we can do as Methodists? If this question defines the expectations we have for our parishioners, then we deserve to be losing the battle with the golf course and youth soccer league! What an utter antithesis to the connotation evoked by the Oswald Chambers classic My Utmost for His Highest (which admittedly I haven’t read yet either).

Perhaps Thielen’s book is theologically solid, and it just has an unfortunate title. But the title unfortunately captures something definitive about the mainline Christian ethos: I’m a Christian but I don’t believe X. Framing your self-identity in such a way means that you’re essentially a lighter version of whatever you’re defining yourself against. “I’m a Christian but I don’t believe in a six-solar-day creation and I don’t hate gay people and I’m not sure Hindus are going to hell and I don’t think women are inferior to their husbands.” Why not say instead what you do believe in as a Christian? The word “mainline” itself seems to connote a version of Christianity that isn’t too extreme, Christianity that works well within the mainstream secular discourse. My wife likes to dilute her orange juice with one-third water. Is that what mainline Christianity is? 2/3 Christianity, 1/3 “nice helpfulness”?

Christianity is and should be extreme! The sleight of hand that fundamentalist Christianity has pulled is coming up with a theological vision that’s actually quite comfortable and un-challenging for middle-class Americans and then packaging it as something counter-cultural and offensive so that they can feel edgy without being pushed outside of their comfort zones. Fundamentalists come up with easy controversies to earn their salvation with. There’s nothing counter-cultural about being anti-gay, for instance. It’s perfectly in line with mainstream adolescent maleness. The real gospel is a lot more challenging than the self-congratulatory “family values” gospel. Jesus says things that are embarrassingly at odds with the needs of our social order like “Whoever does not hate their mother and father cannot be my disciple” or “My mother and my brothers are those who do the will of my father in heaven.”

The reason I call myself evangelical is because I really believe that the atonement offered by Jesus Christ is the basis for perfect human community (as opposed to being just one of the many paths to God). What we most need as humans is the absolute sense of belonging that comes about when we can be completely vulnerable before God and other people. This is the way of being that Jesus has opened up for us by allowing us to enter into His body. We are saved from the isolation of only believing in ourselves, from the shame of trying to hide our sins, from the endless rancor of trying to justify ourselves in arguments with other people. Because of Christ, we can approach the Source of all the universe’s beauty and not hate God because of our ugliness, which would otherwise make God’s perfect love look like wrath when it judges us.

We have a beautiful faith that does not need to be diluted but instead boiled into perfect potency. I wish more people would trust that the Bible is not what the fundamentalists have made it out to be. We don’t need to be asking what’s the least that we can believe, but how can we believe more deeply and perfectly in the kingdom that Jesus has created for us. If the gospel is not something you can give your life to, then it means that you haven’t heard the real gospel yet. So instead of taking up a watered-down mainline version of the anti-gospel of  fundamentalism, keep digging for the gospel that really is good news. When you have discovered the true euangelion iesou christou, it will be hard for you to avoid being defined by the good (eu) message (angelion) you have heard. You might even have to call yourself an evangelical.

4 thoughts on “We can do better than “mainline”

  1. Pingback: Christians Should Be Extreme! | MennoNerds

  2. Pingback: Christians Should Be Extreme! | Koinonia Revolution

  3. How correct you are! If that’s all we expect from our parishioners, then what are we expecting from ourselves? It seems that expectations are at one end of the spectrum or the other. They are either set too low or too high. What happened to the happy medium? And what happened to giving God all we can give? And I don’t necessarily mean money. Why are people so afraid to give of themselves?

    I just read an article by a woman who had lost her job and was completely devastated and was suffering greatly from depression. She was an interior decorator, and with the economy the way it is, people just weren’t hiring this kind of work any more. Then she read an article about some homeowners who fixed up foreclosed houses in their neighborhood. An idea was born. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to find a way to make people feel better about themselves and their surroundings. So ‘Design It Forward’ was born. It is all about her helping people to make their surrounds more pleasant with the promise from the recipitants that they would pay it forward by helping someone else in whatever way they could. To date, there have been 450 acts of kindness from food drives to toy drives and volunteering at animal shelters. This is what I’m talking about!!

    Yes, Christianity is extreme. Jesus was extreme. And I think we’ve all resorted back into our little comfy places, afraid to continue that extremism. Afraid that someone will deem us crazy and we’d end up out on the street or in some mental ward. Jesus wasn’t afraid. He knew. And thank goodness he did.

    I pray your words every night, “how can we believe more deeply and perfectly in the kingdom that Jesus has created for us. If the gospel is not something you can give your life to, then it means that you haven’t heard the real gospel yet.” And yes, I am proud to call myself an evangelist!

    Lead on brother!!

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