After the Awakening that Slept In: Can the Mainline Church Listen to a New Wake-Up Call?

For the last year or so I’ve been saying an unpopular thing to people in Mainline churches, but it’s a thing I think we need to hear: There is no Next Great Awakening. The promised Emergence has retired to a cottage in the Ozarks. And, perhaps most discomfiting of all, the Missional Church has pretty much lost its way.

How do I know this? Well, how do we all know? Because numbers.

The most recent data on religious unaffiliation from the Pew Forum shows a drop in the percentage of Christians from 78% to 70% between 2007 and 2014. In the same period, the number of people claiming no religious affiliation—Nones—rose from 16% to nearly 23%. The percentage of Nones would be even greater if the affiliational drain on Christianity in all forms were not offset by increases in the population of Muslims in America.

The pace of unaffiliation outstrips a projection earlier this year from Pew that the Nones would grow to more than 25% of the population by 2050. Nones, it turns out, are the overachievers of American religion. Even the tremendous popularity of Pope Francis has failed to tick the needle on Roman Catholic affiliation, which has fallen from nearly 24% to just below 21% since 2007.

The bottom line here is that the Emergent Church movement, now in its forties, has borne little fruit in terms of revitalizing American Christianity beyond periodic displays of Jesusy tattoos and piercings, short-lived neo-monastic communities, all manner of waterlogged wannabe-Coachellas, conferences, and consultants aimed, it often seems, at making Mainline ministry leaders at least feel a little better about the Church’s slide into irrelevancy. And, like the historical exaggeration of prior periods of Christian revival in America, signs of a coming “awakening” can only be read by bracketing out the effects of a far more dynamic and diverse religious, spiritual, and unreligious reality on Christian affiliation and practice.

There is no Next Great Awakening.

The promised Emergence has retired to a cottage in the Ozarks.

And, perhaps most discomfiting of all, the Missional Church has pretty much lost its way.

As Keith Anderson noted last week on “Bearings,” plenty of examples of engaging, mission-driven ministries pop up across the American religious landscape. But they’re the few fortunate moles that manage to survive the whack of growing unaffiliation—this very often precisely because they give up the idea of affiliation as the measure of ministry success. “If we view worship merely as an ‘if we build it, they will come’ strategy for church revitalization, we are bound for disappointment,” Keith wrote in response to a Washington Post article by Rachel Held Evans on the lure of sacramental worship to Millennials, “because most of the time, ‘they’ won’t come. They’ve made that pretty clear.”

Indeed they have, the numbers tell us, which opens the field for reflection on what’s next for the Church. A week or so ago, in a HuffPo op-ed that floated across my Facebook and Twitter feeds with annoying regularity, a Presbyterian pastor suggested that forcing kids to go to church might stem the tide in unaffiliation. She argued, “What kids hear when their parents say, ‘It’s up to you,’ is ‘It doesn’t matter to me, and therefore, it doesn’t matter.’”

By that logic, you kind of have to wonder what kids hear when parents say, “Get in the damn car and go worship Jesus or I’m going to drag you there myself!”—and what their therapists will make of that when young adults explain why they left the church at the earliest possible opportunity.

In a response on The Narthex, I suggested that the church-related conversations adults—and not just parents, but all adults who have significance in children’s lives—should be having with kids need not so much to be about science and religion, money and sex, or why having religion is helpful if there’s a life crisis. Rather, I argued that adults need to develop skills that enable them to talk to kids about why church matters to them at the level of felt experience in their lives.

The skill-building bit of this suggestion is critical. As I wrote of groups of teens and parents I interviewed at two Mainline churches, “Parents — and, I’d add, many clergy — are often incredibly inarticulate about why being a member of a community of worship, service, and learning is important. They have a hard time explaining why they choose to go to church beyond the ‘good person’ rationale. Kids take their cues from that.”



The big wake-up call of the Gospels is this: Let go of all of it. Stop grasping. Stop counting. Stop scheming toward The Next Big Thing. It’s all already here.


In a thoughtful response to Keith’s thoughtful response to Rachel’s thoughtful article, Tony Jones productively upped the ante on my line of thinking. It’s not just that Mainliners need to be able to articulate how the experience of living out faith in a worshipping community matters, Jones suggested. He insisted that Mainline Protestants need to be able to talk about this experience specifically in terms of the Gospel.

Oh, that.

“What is the gospel for mainline Protestants?” Jones asks. “That’s the question that needs to be answered. If that can be answered, and answered forcefully, then I think a lot of millennials will follow Rachel into liturgical churches.”

Or, perhaps, into the more cosmopolitan expressions of Christian practice and connection that Keith has highlighted across the country as well as into the extra-ecclesial, but nonetheless spiritually rich, contexts of their everyday lives.

The wake-up call for Mainliners seems pretty clear in all of this. It’s not about sacramental liturgy versus whatever might count as “more relevant” worship, as Tripp Hudgins points out. It’s not either-or. It’s both-and. In fact, it’s both-and-and-also. With a side of all-of-the-above.

That is, where we need to be paying close attention—really listening for the much storied, but seldom heard, “still, small voice”—is at the intersection of integral Gospel narrative, authentic sacramental worship, and engaged Christian practice in the world outside the church door.

That’s not a neo-somethingy-something movement, program, or slogan with a distinctive dress code, lingo, and Pandora playlist. It’s a way of living that shapes a story that forms and reforms successive generations of people trying to hear and respond to God’s invitation to the Kingdom that we’re meant to see now and to bring forth together for the whole world.

The big wake-up call of the Gospels is this: Let go of all of it. Stop grasping. Stop counting. Stop scheming toward The Next Big Thing. It’s all already here.

So, the trick is not how to build it up, but rather how to give it all away again and again and again. That, it seems to me, is why the conversation that’s unfolded this week has been so provocative and will perhaps ultimately be productive. It seems like maybe we’ve finally given up on reviving a dying church. Maybe the long period of Boomer grieving for the Church of the 1950s has started to pass. Maybe we’re really listening now for how we can live our faith in the world as it is today.

Elizabeth Drescher

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the editor of Bearings and a Consulting Scholar at The BTS Center. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2016), Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse 2011), and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012) and Click 2 Save: Reboot (Church Publishing, 2018). Her commentary on contemporary religion and spirituality has been published in Alternet, AmericaThe AtlanticSalon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, Religion Dispatches, The Washington Post, and other national publications. She is a much sought after speaker for religious and academic groups engaging the changing religious landscape in the United States. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter @edrescherphd.

Photo credits:

Cover photo: “Cause I’d Rather Pretend I’ll Still Be There At The End,” by Bethan, 21 June 2010. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Desaturated from original.

Inside photo: “Listen Carefully . . .” by Justin Lynham, 15 June 2011. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0.