As Mainline Protestantism dies a slow, painful death, I want to propose a theory. Mainline Protestants (MPs) will begin a process of going one of two directions: charismatic or Catholic, leaving the in-between place they’ve been able to live in for centuries. This is not to say the churches will cease to exist, but that their style will go one way or another. The three criteria I will use to judge which “side” Protestants will favor will be worship, tradition, and biblical authority.
Given those three parameters, let us examine catholic versus charismatic praxis. Perhaps the reader will enjoy seeing which camp he or she feels most comfortable. And to make my bias clear, I heavily lean towards the catholic persuasion, and I am a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). (I use the term catholic loosely. For me, it certainly points towards the Catholic Church, but it literally means “universal” or “general” church, as opposed to the local church where Preacher Bob makes all the decisions for his congregation, with little regard for the rest of Christendom. When I suggest that people will become more catholic, I don’t mean they will necessarily convert to the Catholic Church, although they might. It means that if they’re not already Roman Catholic, their faith and practice will resemble that of the Roman Catholic Church, understanding Christianity in a context that favors the Great Tradition, “high” liturgy and biblical “sovereignty” instead of biblical inerrancy. Charismatic refers to “independent” churches which may be everything from churches that speak in tongues to the feel-good churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Baptist in Houston.)
With regards to worship, many MPs continue to be more and more catholic in several regards. The importance of weekly Eucharist is one way, but catholic Protestant churches also have a higher view of the Eucharist than they used to. The United Methodist Church (UMC) recently agreed with the ELCA for interim agreement on full communion. This is no small agreement as Methodists tend to have substantially lower view of the Eucharist, preferring a spiritual presence of Christ over a physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Lutherans and Episcopalians have always believed in a real physical presence of Christ within the elements, but when Methodists and Presbyterians jump on board, now we’re seeing some real movement towards a higher understanding of the Eucharist.
Charismatics typically have little use for weekly Eucharist, and almost uniformly regard it as a simple reminder of what Christ did more than any real presence of Christ himself. For Charismatics, baptism is a person’s choice more than a gift of grace. This is a very different understanding of what the sacrament of Baptism is, and the two understandings are almost irreconcilable.
With worship also comes rituals. Catholic liturgies have fluctuated through the centuries but continue to have several elements that have rarely if ever disappeared: baptism, Eucharist, prayer and reading scripture from a lectionary, or a cycle of assigned readings many churches adhere to. Charismatics boast about being non-liturgical, which of course is impossible. (If a church ever does the same thing two weekends in a row, it’s hard to be described as non-liturgical.) The Bible is used on an as-needed basis, and usually the preacher will choose the text to preach on instead of adhering to the lectionary readings the church assigns. And hymns are more likely to be written in the last 30 years for Charismatics, whereas the catholic tradition regularly uses poetry from the 4th century.
In terms of tradition, Roman Catholics have us all beat, but many MPs are discovering the wealthy that the Great Tradition has to offer. It’s not uncommon now for MPs to pray with a rosary or quote St. Augustine in a sermon. MPs finally are eager to look at Christianity pre-1517, and learn from the centuries of wisdom the Roman Catholic Church offers. Before too long, MPs will probably need a reminder to making idols of saints, as Luther reminded Catholics during the Reformation.
Whereas catholics have a long memory with regards to tradition, Charismatics seem to have the attention span of an ant. More and more MPs agree with Charismatics that the Church Fathers are Billy Graham and Pat Robertson. The pastors here who attend seminary (you may be surprised how few of the biggies have not) don’t seem to spend much time contemplating metaphysics or Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. No, personal piety trumps all, traditions be damned, and MPs who are tired of their church’s lethargy find such an emphasis on personal piety very attractive. Hence, they are regularly leaving their MP churches for Charismatic ones that have “something more to offer.” As if the preceding 2,000 years didn’t provide enough.
About the only “old” thing Charismatics defend is the Bible, which they do with remarkable vigor and ignorance. Usually with little to no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, Charismatics make it a routine matter to speak about biblical inerrancy, never having been humbled by actually translating the Bible themselves. Homosexuality has been one social linchpin that has brought this issue to the forefront, and convinced many MPs to migrate to a charismatic church. The catholic tradition of course has great reverence for scripture, but tends to see it more as the “norm and rule” (ELCA) of life and would not call the Bible inerrant.
An obvious example would be that the catholic tradition takes seriously the story of Jonah, teaching and preaching its valuable lessons, and chuckling at the great sense of humor the author had when writing this comic tale. Charismatics, as preachers of biblical inerrancy regard the story of a prophet sitting in the belly of a fish as true. (I’m not totally unsympathetic: as institutions are knocked down one by one in a Postmodern culture, Charismatics are hanging on with all of their strength to the perfection of the Bible.) The problem is that this (to me) defines their biblical position as almost if not idolatrous, ignoring that the only perfect thing is God. Our English version of scripture is filled with thousands upon thousands of translational choices, and we should be weary of idolizing any version, especially an English version, as perfect.
I predict most MPs will be defined as “catholic” or “charismatic” by the end of 30 years, maybe as few as 20. There is a third possibility that MPs will try to save the sinking ship, a venture I believe to be hopeless. The MP church will operate on a membership model, choose a middle-of-the-road approach to most every social issue, and function the same way it has for the last 50 years to its own demise. With no immigration or big families to keep the pews full, MPs will be forced to choose a direction. But for her members, the balance of “protestant” and “catholic” will be harder to achieve, and I believe they will tend towards the catholic tradition or charismatic newness.