I got involved in a little dialog/debate on the blog of Emergent leader Tony Jones about Mainline Protestantism. I was commenting on a report of a session at the recent AAR meeting in nearby San Diego (I couldn’t go) that featured Tony, Diana Butler Bass, and Scot McKnight. Apparently the exchange between Diana and Tony got a bit heated as to the future of the mainline churches.

I jumped into the conversation and suggested maybe things aren’t so bad for us, maybe we’re on the road forward. Now, at least one commenter seemed to disagree with my assessment.

I get the impression that Mainliners keep waiting for their left of center, open-ended stance to attract the surrounding culture. And yet, the opposite continues to happen.

I would argue that it is the lack of a strong theology of the Holy Spirit that has led, and is continuing to lead a decline in mainline numbers and vitality.

Now, I disagree with this apparently young evangelical pastor. I sense a great change happening – an emergent movement of sorts within Mainline Protestantism. Indeed, it is a new openness to the Holy Spirit. Books such as Diana’s Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006), Eric Elnes’ Asphalt Jesus, and Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel not only suggest that there is a hunger for something different, but that at least some progressive churches are reaching out and doing new things. The popularity of Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity (Harper, 2003) is another sign of this trend.

The reason I jumped into this discussion was to suggest that perhaps Progressives are ahead of the curve on at least some cutting edge issues. One particular issue is homosexuality in the church. We all know it’s a big issue. It seems to be tearing at the fabric of the churches, or so it seems. But the reality is – in the broader culture there is not only a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, but that at least among the younger generations see the church as particularly anti-gay. Although Progressive Churches haven’t done well among baby boomers, the children of baby boomers – if they’re going to go to church might find progressive churches more appealing.

The question is – how do we get the message out? Martha Grace Reese has shown us that by and large mainline churches have bought into the idea that faith is private and should not be shared. But by keeping the light under the bushel, to quote Jesus, we have kept a message of grace, welcome, and compassion under wraps as well.

So, my question is, does the Mainline have a future?

Cross-published at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.