One of the hardest things about not identifying as evangelical anymore is getting over the “mainline boogieman.” I have a lot more experience with mainline Christianity than many former evangelicals. I went to a PCUSA church for several years in elementary school and since I graduated from college, my mom returned to a PCUSA congregation. I realize this is not the strongest connection, but for an evangelical it’s not bad. Still, mainline Christianity feels foreign. I feel like an outsider at best, and some days I think I’m still heresy-hunting.
Having been a part of churches and schools of many denominations, I have always been an advocate for ecumenism. I remember realizing for the first time while attending a fundamentalist Baptist middle school that there were some conservative Protestants who did not believe Catholics were “real Christians.” This was bizarre and offensive to me, as I had previously attended a Catholic school and had Catholic friends. In college, I think a lot of my evangelical friends were proud that they understood “some” Catholics could be Christian. (Maybe even most? How progressive!) Mainliners, on the other hand, were often completely written off.
While I was in InterVarsity, we had a pastor from an SBC/Acts 29 church speak nearly every semester, but it was extremely rare to have a mainline pastor. There were rumors that the [mainline] churches on Franklin St. were all mean to us and wouldn’t let us use their facilities, save the Episcopal Church, where we did hold a 24/7 prayer event one year. We did all know evangelicals who attended more moderate mainline churches, but they were seen as the faithful minority within denominations which were dying both spiritually and numerically. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this was that there were two separate campus ministers’ associations. I’ve heard that prior to conservative SBCers’ taking control of the Baptist campus ministry, it was the one organization which maintained membership in both groups. Everyone else picked sides. I’m sure some of it was due to the time commitment, but I could never quite wrap my mind around how dangerous it would be to build friendships and a cooperative spirit with those who were a bit more liberal. It made me frustrated and sad.
Even though I’ve never thought it was appropriate to write-off mainliners’ Christianity, I feel nervous to be left with mainline Protestantism as an ex-evangelical. And I think that has less to do with the mainline church itself and more to do with evangelicals’ portray of it as barely Christian. To be sure, there are some extreme liberal edges to the mainline church, but from how some evangelicals talk, you’d think a typical Sunday school class at a mainline church involves an orgy or that a typical mainline service includes prayers to Krishna or that a typical mainline pastor is an actually a closet atheist. In reality, some (and truly not all…) mainline churches might be a bit more accepting of gay people or a bit more lenient toward sex before marriage, might be a little more inclusive in their understanding of salvation and a bit more open about the role of doubt in spirituality. Yes, this is different from what you might be used to, but for goodness sakes, the level of demonization perpetuated by evangelicals is just ridiculous.
Still, I’ve been conditioned to expect the outlandish. And I have trouble giving up that expectation because WHAT IF. WHAT IF they’re right? WHAT IF those other people aren’t Christians at all? Then what? How do I be Christian if I can’t live with the evangelical version of Christianity but mainline “Christianity” does not deserve the label? I don’t truly believe this is the case. I think mainline Christianity is diverse has members both more conservative and more liberal than I am. But that doesn’t extinguish the fears evangelicalism breeds in its young.
Some days I’m not afraid at all about theology, but some of those days I’m still afraid about fitting in. I know many mainliners have attended a few churches in the same denomination their entire lives. They often identify more as “Lutheran” or “Methodist,” whereas many evangelicals identify as “evangelical” first and foremost. More like the latter, I do not have lifelong denominational ties, and if I end up anything in particular, it will be by choice, not birth. I’m not sure, but I think a lot of former evangelicals are in the same boat, and it makes it harder to find a new home. I wonder to myself, is this why I know more evangelicals who ceased to be Christian than who decided to be mainline Christians? I don’t know.
Regardless, I think mainline churches (and Catholic and Orthodox churches, for that matter) have a unique opportunity as younger people leave evangelicalism in droves. This is their chance to say, “You can still be Christian. We have been doing faith differently for a long time now. You can still have a spiritual home. It doesn’t have to be with us, but let us help you on your journey however we can.” I hope that slowly but surely an intentional outreach would lay the “mainline boogieman” to rest and allow ex-evangelicals to see Christianity as more than the all-or-nothing faith of fundamentalism.