Reasons for Hope: A Dialogue on the Christian Future” featuring Barbara Wheeler and Richard J. Mouw. Jointly sponsored by The Christian Century and Christianity Today, the event brought together two respected leaders in theological education, each of whom I knew to be an articulate representative of her or his respective liberal or conservative Protestant camp. I was also aware…">
By: Rev. Mark Williamson
October 18, 2011
As a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) in Wheaton, Illinois, a town often regarded as the intellectual capitol of American evangelicalism, the intricacies of mainline-evangelical relationships are an ever-confounding aspect of daily life.
So it was with great interest and a longing for clarity that I hopped on the train into Chicago a few weeks back to attend “Reasons for Hope: A Dialogue on the Christian Future” featuring Barbara Wheeler and Richard J. Mouw. Jointly sponsored by The Christian Century and Christianity Today, the event brought together two respected leaders in theological education, each of whom I knew to be an articulate representative of her or his respective liberal or conservative Protestant camp. I was also aware that they had been honing this dialogue for several years now, demonstrating friendship across difference within the denomination they share (PCUSA), and that the good fruits of their relationship had been reaching beyond the Presbyterian fold at least since 2004 when the Century published side-by-side articles called “Why Liberals Need Conservatives” (Wheeler) and “Why Conservatives Need Liberals” (Mouw).
The premise, of course, of the ongoing Wheeler-Mouw dialogue is that there do actually exist two definable blocks in American Protestantism called liberal Protestant and conservative evangelical, and that their views can be represented intelligibly by two institutional leaders acting something like heads of state or diplomats. I think when I read those articles back in ‘04 I was possibly too taken by their irenic tone to question this premise. I also believe the landscape has shifted significantly over the last decade, particularly among younger generations, and that perhaps the greatest “sign of hope” is that this whole paradigm is so 20th Century.
This is more or less how I felt throughout the Chicago dialogue: I struggled to buy in to the supposed neatness of the mainline-evangelical divide from the get-go. Further, I came away more convinced that we as leaders should do our best to stop reinforcing it (the news media clearly loves these categories enough; the church doesn’t need to provide an echo chamber).
No doubt the liberal mainline v. conservative evangelical paradigm still works fine for some, but it just doesn’t work for too many. Here are some reasons why:
More points could be added. For those, however, still not much convinced that the Protestant waters are extremely muddier than reported, for those who still feel fairly comfortable with the mainline and evangelical categories and with belonging to one or the other, I would submit that, particularly in the present moment, there lies an evangelical (good news) imperative collectively to muddy those waters for the sake of those who don’t yet believe in Jesus. Because if it was somehow workable in the 20th Century to settle in more or less exclusively with either The Christian Century crowd or the Christianity Today crowd, there’s certainly no justification for such an arrangement in the 21st Century, where—as both Wheeler and Mouw acknowledged—the big story is the rapid rise of the “nones,” or “no religious affiliation.” In a context like this there’s really no excuse for maintaining the previous century’s comfortable distance. The mainline/evangelical division was a “privilege” a church in mission in North America can no longer afford.