On the Monday before Christmas, I was troubled and saddened by a story on HLN (formerly “Headline News”) about how people flock to evangelical churches during tough economic times. The upshot of the piece was that such congregations teach people to trust in God, while, according to one community church pastor interviewed, for mainline churches it’s about the denomination, the building, traditions, and history. Mainline churches for him are apparently all head and no heart.


How awful that denominations like my own Presbyterian Church (USA) are perceived that way! And in fact to some extent we deserve the criticism. Our worship can be arid and lifeless. Meetings frequently go on forever as elders and ministers argue about this word or that in a document few even in the Church will ever read. Some places and sometimes, more money goes into preserving the museum-like building that’s open for a couple of hours a week than into mission that brings hope and wholeness.


But the evangelical pastor’s global and stereotyping comment was in the end unjustified. Mainline church folk are deeply spiritual, passionately hopeful, and compassionately involved in mission. I think of the college student walking the labyrinth at our presbytery’s campground, contemplating her vocation. Or the retired man fluent in Spanish who travels to Central America as part of a team installing simple technology to bring clean water to a village. The elder from a dwindling congregation who is nevertheless committed to ministry in her community and determined to carry on faithfully in the name of Christ. Myself, as joy wells up in me when I celebrate the Eucharist or Baptism.


Pam Byers, the Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, expresses the commitments of mainline churches well. Commenting on a statement by a member about how God chooses to do God’s gracious work through us, Pam says: “I see you making that real every day.  As you offer warm coats and a warm word to those who rarely receive either, as you invite the unloved and unlovely into your fellowship, as you find and inspire resources to share you didn’t even know you had, with music and pageant and preaching you carry that same countercultural word—‘Do not be afraid.’ 


“And even while others build walls of exclusion, you reach out to those too long on the outside. You witness publicly and repeatedly that no one is outside of God’s love” (“Fear Not,” e-mail, 12/22/08).


The fact is both evangelical and mainline churches do a great many faithful things in the name of Christ, bringing the good news, changing lives, working for justice, protecting the environment. Neither deserves the easy and sometimes mean-spirited stereotypes attached to them by the media or by each other. But having said that, both also have a great deal of repenting to do of complicity with the forces that deform and destroy human life and rob people of hope and joy. We have both been too closely allied with political parties, measured our success and failure by the numbers in pews and bank accounts, and turned away those whom Jesus included and loved.


In this new year, maybe we can get beyond name-calling and instead, join together to call upon the Name.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham