Mainstream: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
We used to know what it was, regardless of the church body we were discussing. It was the broad middle. In that broad middle, you might find those that were perhaps more or less conservative, or more or less liberal, who, regardless, were considered “mainstream”. Yes, most church bodies also had radical fringes, but they were regarded as being eccentric, that is, outside of the broad middle mainstream. Within that mainstream, individual churches might be known for their particular “personality” while maintaining cordial and friendly relationships with others in that broad middle. So, for example, one church might be known for its social justice programs and outreach to the homeless, while another church was renowned for their choir and music program. Yet another church might be where you would attend if you loved high church liturgy, while there was another church belonging to the same body across town, which had a more informal order of worship and was known for its evangelical fervor. Nevertheless, all these were part of the mainstream. The clergy of these churches, despite differences in style, were collegial and, more often than not, supportive of each other’s work. This collegiality and lack of insistence that everyone should walk in lock-step, to a large measure, defined the mainstream for most church bodies.
For those on the radical fringes, however, this construct was an impossibility. This came with the strident insistence that they were right, both morally and theologically, and that those who thought differently were wrong. There was little to no interest in collegiality, and certainly no desire to be supportive of those who either thought or exercised their ministry differently. For them, walking in lock-step with regard to everything from politics, to how one worshiped, to theology, was not a danger to be avoided, but was actually the goal. Moreover, those on the fringe tended to be both more vocal and more committed to getting their own way, or putting across their point of view, even if it meant the destruction or the crippling of the mainstream.
This struggle between the mainstream and more strident voices has been taking place in most denominations and associations over the course of the last forty years and is continuing to the present time as we have seen in the recent debates and fractures of the UMC and the SBC. These fractures and debates have been of long standing. While the latest examples of this phenomena may be exacerbated by the current toxic mix of faith and politics, I suspect that the root cause is deeper. Additionally, as I look over the past several decades, I believe that the slow persistent destruction of what was once the mainstream is a self-inflicted wound. The center has not held. Indeed, the center has been all but abandoned. The result of this is that those who were once considered eccentric, on the right and the left, are now almost the only voices that are heard as those who were committed to the values of the mainstream seek places of refuge elsewhere.
These days, it seems to me, that eccentricity has actually triumphed as the face of American Christianity. While certainly an expression of faith, can we equate the theater-presentation of the local mega-church with praise band, fog machine and TED talk with anything known as “Church” over the course of two millennia? Why is it that walking into a local Episcopal parish church on Sunday, I am greeted by a rainbow banner placed to remind me that it is Pride month? What should I think of a church festooned with American flags and promoting conspiracy theories while across the street the sermon is more about liberal politics than the gospel? Sometimes it really feels as though the inmates are in charge of the asylum.
Breaking away from those with whom you do not agree, has, of course, become standard practice within many church bodies, as has the practice of muffling voices of moderation – voices that are not silenced, but simply go elsewhere. The results, however, have been less than satisfactory. Anglicans, for example, were once part of a diverse worldwide communion. Now there are literally dozens of breakaway groups, each with their own overlapping bishops, dioceses and cathedrals (most struggling to survive) that, with some few exceptions, exist in a twilight zone of their own making, often fueled by long forgotten arguments and debates that mean little or nothing to anyone under fifty.
If I were to judge by what I see, it would seem that eccentricity has become a virtue and moderation (and/or collegiality) has become a vice. Rather than transforming a fractured, divided and polarized society, we, as the Church, have become its reflection. If, at the end of the day, all we have to offer people is the pale shattered reflection of society at large, we will not only fail, we will deserve to fail.
a true depiction of our current state, but I think more due to the shepherd than the sheep.
I would tend to agree…
I think you have a point. I guess I would ask, then a church follow Paul’s teaching to “avoid”:
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
When a group departs from the Creeds and/or other historical, settled, doctrines of the church, when and at what point must a church “avoid”? And who is the party which is divisive?
I agree whole heartedly that many churches have become a reflection of the broader society.
How much of this do you think is media-driven? i had a friend who participated for many years in the pro-life movement, and the media always centered on the guy in the cassock with the shaved head and the 200-pound cross, never the more “regular” people.
and from that conjecture I would follow the trail to the seminaries and bible colleges that have strayed from the gospel and embraced, (at least partially), the world that surrounds them.
an overemphasis on nationalism or sjw is leading the flock astray from the gospel, for both teaching institutions and pastors.
it is my prayer that the pendulum will settle back to the middle after all the shaking stops.
I think both eccentric fringes (left and right, liberal and conservative) bear responsibility…
Much is media driven, but the media can only amplify what is already there…
“…it is my prayer that the pendulum will settle back to the middle after all the shaking stops.”
I would agree, but my greatest fear is that this is not a swinging of the pendulum. It may be an irrevocable fracturing…
I would agree, but my greatest fear is that this is not a swinging of the pendulum. It may be an irrevocable fracturing…
I would think that any permanent fracturing would then be meant to be, as He Who Is In Charge has decreed that there will be a remnant, a number that we don’t know of those that try and stay true.
and i don’t think appeasement is the answer.
“irrevocable fracturing?”. carries serious implications for humanity’s time of Grace. …. Or so it seems to me. ….
Serious implications, indeed…
If the trajectory of modern society is increasingly atheistic, pagan and/or deist, then would it not be probable that the church will increasingly fracture as the temptation to placate the society for one reason or another swallows up more and more churches?
Jean, if so these “Christians” don’t know the devil when he whispers his “logic” to them….
sorrowful, sorrowful, sorrowful….. 😔
The devil doesn’t come carrying a sign or wearing a name tag that says “Prince of Lies.” The only way one can discern a lie is by knowing the Truth.
True Christians know the Truth and His truth. He is not a host or guest on cable or internet news or talk shows, so you won’t find Him there.
Truth doesn’t contradict Himself, so you won’t find him in churches which teach the faith and its doctrines in contradiction to the God breathed Scriptures.
Truth is not a nation or political philosophy, so you won’t fin Him wrapped in a flag or incarnate in a government.
God the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirits as we prayerfully, humbly study His Book….
Self deception and ego are not Christian virtues!
A cursory glance at+/- 200 years of Methodism, Southern Baptists, TEC, and (though not mentioned in the post) Lutherans is instructive. The “mainstream” UMC is a denomination created and remade through theological/social fracture, repair, merger, and fracture again. “Mainstream” SBC culture is itself a turbulent result of a theology that condoned American slavery, only recently corporately begging forgiveness. The Episcopal/Anglican break is more recent but when would have been the “Golden Age” of Episcopalian unity and mainstreaming? The 1928 prayer book, nearly 100 years old now? Finally…American Lutherans…ELCA/Missouri Synod/Wels, anyone?
After looking with just a bit of an extended historical lens, what can be considered “mainstream” (with connotations of relatively static harmony) is as much an imagined construction as is the idea that there exist unique unbridgeable divides today.
No, there was never a “golden age”, but there was a time in which everything did not devolve into a knife fight…
Rather than transforming a fractured, divided and polarized society, we, as the Church, have become its reflection.
Duane very well written artical that is true and sobering. One point about the church transforming society, I would disagree. I would argue that the church should be concerned about transformation of it’s own, however, not sure we can translate that to the society as a whole. The fact that the church resembles the world is not surprising. Maybe the church has taken on too much responsibility outside of it’s specific calling and in the process has become weakened.
Many thanks! In terms of society, I had in mind Matt. 5:13-14 with the idea that we are, I believe, to be something different than the society at large. We have become its reflection. Perhaps that is part of the weakness to which you correctly refer…
Interrupting a good thread with apologies….. but waiting for a Michael update ? ? ?
No updates at present. When I hear anything I’ll post it in the Prayer and Praise thread…
Thank you, Dr. Duane – I’ll check back later this afternoon.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill
A new podcast from Christianity Today. So far, fascinating!
Duane, yes I agree. The church is to be different than the world and that gets to the calling of the church which is to make disciples of Jesus and nothing more and nothing less. If churches can unite on this front, we truly could see it strengthened. It’s not about politics, social justice, nationalism, numbers or any other statistical measure. It is simply about making disciples of Jesus. There are those in the world fleeing to the church for refuge and they deserve our protection and there are those in the world trying to destroy the church which we need to be on guard against. There are also some in the world who see the church as a positive influence and want to join forces with the church in transforming society for the better. However, when the church joins forces with the world like this it is not spirit lead and the results are what we see today.
This podcast hits on all the things we’ve been talking about here for the past 20 years, not just Mr. Driscoll.
I tend to be very careful in making pronouncements as to what is led by the Holy Spirit and what is not. Often we have to wait and judge by the fruit that is produced.
Duane I was referring to the fractured, divided and polarized state of affairs in the church today. We don’t need to wait to determine this is bad fruit or do we? I suppose we can disagree on the causes though.
Perhaps “the fractured, divided and polarized state of affairs in the church today” constitutes the fruit. That, by the way, is a chilling thought.
The church has been fracturing and dividing since the 1st century. 1 John talks about those who have gone out from us.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
I don’t see the fracturing church as anything other than what’s been happening from the beginning. The devil doesn’t kick back when his kingdom is plundered by the Stronger Man. He fights tooth and nail to regain his former slaves.
Agreed, but what is currently taking place seems different in size and scope…
Jean,. I seem to recall you once telling me that the devil doesn’t have a kingdom, only God does.
Not an authority on this, but i think the sword Jesus referred to was the Church at the mercy of the world…. for a time….
Steve, Paul calls it a domain of darkness. He calls the devil a prince. Jesus calls him a strong man. I don’t recall denying the devil has a kingdom.
Em, where did Jesus and the apostles cause division? Where did the Reformers cause division? Against the followers of who in the Pergamum church, did Jesus threatened to come against them with the sword of his mouth?
It happens mostly between people who claim to be the people of God.
Satan does not have a kingdom. He is called a prince of demons and a prince of the power of the air. But, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to the exalted Jesus (Mt. 28).
Jean, that was your direct quote from Feb 24th. https://phoenixpreacher.com/linkathon-308/#comment-606964
Steve, I don’t recall the context of that comment.
It’s true that all authority has been given to Jesus. He is the stronger Man (the only One strong enough), who plunders the house of the strong man. But there remains a strong man.
Moreover, God is sovereign over all creation, including the ancient serpent. Yet, the serpent still lies and deceives.
However, all humanity outside of Christ is a servant of the devil.
Jean, the context was about your interpretation of the apostles creed where God rules in 2 different ways in 2 spheres (creation and kingdom). I didn’t understand your sphere dichotomy.
If Jesus is going to judge the world in righteousness, He must have authority over the world. If He is God, sovereign over all creation, then He rules over the world. In one kingdom, humans will be judged under the law for their deeds. In the other kingdom, believers in Christ will be judged righteous by faith. What is so confusing?
Jean, you are now calling the spheres kingdoms. Now you have mentioned 3 kingdoms when you include Satan’s. I was more on board when you only had one. 😀
Satan has a kingdom, but not sovereignty. He It’s a sub-kingdom. There are also human kingdoms.
On topic… worthwhile reading this from Tim Keller.
Great article Duane.
Duane, good stuff. ‘
“Social media drives extremism and mutes moderates. It magnifies and empowers the voices of those at the political and cultural extremes of Left and Right, while stifling the voices of those in the middle.”
Good takeaway from Keller…
Excellent article, Duane.
“While extremists can only gain status and belonging on-line, moderates (rightly) fear saying something that will anger others and jeopardize their career or relationships.”
The extremists have no qualms about going “nuclear” with every argument because they have little to lose and much to gain, while moderates have a life beyond the internet that they would rather maintain and protect so they would rather back away from the online bullies of both sides.
Duane, this just dawned on me. When, we talk about mainstream and the Middle maybe its not about the content as much as it is about the demeanor. There are certain things that just by the nature of us being Christian puts us outside and some would like to label us as fringe and radical simple for having an orthodox belief. There are some hills I will die on if forced but most things are not like that.
All some people have is their rage (usually expressed online). Most of the rest of us have “lives”…
To go to the fringe, Right or Left, you usually have to “pass a test” that goes along the lines of “What do you think about __________” (fill in the blank) and you pass or fail. Moderates understand that one can be very much aligned with other people without walking in lock step. Much of the time it isn’t about content, it’s about attitude…
Fringe thinkers, according to the article, would deny they are fringe. Being fringe would not be good for their identity and self esteem. So they become loud and aggressive, over participating on social media to give the impression that they are the large voice, not the small voice. That accounts for the disproportionate volume of fringe tweets.
Good observation Dr. Arnold.
Normal people have known this since time began.
You (generic you) do not have to be in lock-step with everything on the right or left.
I hold to the tenets of the Apostle’s Creed as non-negotiable parameters up front.
The rest of the stuff after that?
I pick and choose as I see fit.