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Mainline churches face identity crises

The Riverside Church in New York City has often been associated with progressive social movements. Credit: Riverside Church

Just two months after being installed as the new Senior Minister of the historic Riverside Church in New York City, Rev. Brad Braxton has resigned, stunning the congregation and the wider world of mainline Protestantism.

Riverside Church, a multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation of 2,700 members, is viewed by many as the tallest of the tall steeple churches of the liberal church. The imposing gothic structure of Riverside on Manhattan’s upper west side was created by a gift of John D. Rockefeller in 1930 to provide a pulpit for the leading liberal preacher of the day, Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Braxton, an African-American and a Baptist with a PhD in New Testament, had begun his pastorate last fall, his official installation not coming until this spring. His installation had been contested by a group of Riverside members who even petitioned a New York judge to stop it. The courts denied that petition, telling church members to work out their problems (imagine that!). But the problems weren’t worked out. Instead, they overwhelmed the new pastor.

Riverside Church is not the only congregation of liberal or mainline Protestantism to experience such difficulties. Here in Seattle a number of “tall steeple” churches have experienced relatively brief pastorates that have ended unhappily. St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle First Baptist, Plymouth Congregational (UCC), and Mt. Zion Baptist are among such congregations locally. (By way of disclosure: I was the Senior Minister of Plymouth from 1990 to 2004.)

What’s going on? What happened at Riverside? What’s happened in this group of important and historic congregations in Seattle? Are there common themes? Each congregation is unique, and yet some generalizations may be made.

Riverside had experienced internal conflict under the previous pastorate of the Rev. James Forbes. During Forbes’ tenure (1990–2007) Riverside changed from a predominately Caucasian to a majority African-American congregation. Among the many simmering issues is the question of the congregation’s identity. Will it be in the mold of other large African-American congregations with a worship style that reflects the tradition of the black church? Or will it be, as it has been, a more establishment if social-activist congregation, not unlike many churches in the liberal Protestant tradition?

There’s an irony here. For a couple decades now many mainline Protestant and liberal congregations have placed great emphasis on themes of “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “welcome.” When that invitation is heeded, a congregation may find itself with some unexpected challenges. Those who enter the open doors may not be like those who are already there. Some may be gay or lesbian. Others may be people of color. Some may be of different theological traditions. Others may be people whose notion of what worship looks like or should be may be very different than prevailing norms.

When this happens, questions of identity and purpose loom large. Often there is little clear agreement about such crucial matters, nor a clear way to attain agreement. At Riverside key questions appear to be, “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?” Something similar may be true of some of the Seattle congregations that have struggled in recent years. Diversity is a gift, but without a basis of unity amid diversity fragmentation ensues.

Another dimension of the diversity that many congregations of the historic mainline face is generational diversity. These churches typically have builders, boomers, and Gen Xers—all in the same congregation. Usually there are more builders and older boomers than others, but still there’s a mix. This is different than many mega and emerging churches: The mega churches tend to be peopled by boomers, while the emerging churches appeal to Gen X.

Generational differences aren’t new, but they may be more pronounced than once was the case. Different generations like, and expect, different music. They may have very different life experiences and, as a result, different needs. And they have different styles. Where some are formal, others are informal. Some like their church services unchanging and precisely one hour in length, while others covet spontaneity and variety.

What all this means is that it’s tougher than ever to lead a congregation, at least in the liberal mainline. Unless a congregation has reached some agreement about the questions of identity and purpose, leaders find themselves facing a wide variety of often conflicting expectations — a tough challenge when you’re the new guy or girl in town.

The toughness of the challenge is only magnified by the erosion of pastoral authority in these denominations and congregations. There may have been time when church members deferred to their clergy because of their education, title, or office. That time is long gone. If clergy in mainline and liberal churches have some measure of authority it is hard won, accrued over time and as a result of patient work. New clergy, facing diverse expectations and a lack of consensus about identity and direction, typically have little ground to stand on in times when being in a position of authority may give rise to suspicion rather than respect.

All this matters because the moderating voice and generally compassionate presence of the historic mainline churches have been important parts of the mix in many towns and cities of North America. Often these are the churches that have done the heavy lifting in housing the homeless, supporting the immigrant, and offering hope to the forgotten. They have also been important contributors to the wider conversation in the culture about faith and morality. With congregations like The Riverside Church in disarray, that voice has become muffled and diminished.

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