On Oct. 18 The Tribune reprinted a fascinating piece from the Religion News Service titled, "Mainline Protestants: vintage or vibrant?" The piece examined the fact that many mainline Protestant churches are shrinking and have been for decades. This is true, but as a pastor of a Presbyterian (USA) congregation in Sugar House that is growing and also growing younger, I would like to rise and say, "Rumors of our demise are a little premature."
The article suggests we may be in need of re-branding. I would say no to that, but not for the reason stated by Steven Hunter, quoted in the piece: "People didn't leave these churches because of marketing or branding, and they won't come back for it either. Sorry. But you can't water down a faith until it's essentially meaningless and then expect to still draw people."
"Water down?" I wonder. Is accepting Darwin's theory of evolution (seeing no conflict between science and our belief that God created the universe) to water down the gospel? I think not. Mainline Christians happen to be Christians who, in most cases, have highly developed critical thinking skills. That's all. We may not take the Bible literally in every instance, but make no mistake, we take it seriously. Very. We do our best to read the Bible on its own terms, not on terms dictated by the political right wing in this country, a political wing that seems to have taken evangelical Christianity hostage.
If this is a new thought for anyone, they should see Pat Bagley's September cartoon with Pope Francis holding a crucifix in one hand and saying, "Let's review everything Jesus ever said about abortion, and gays, and contraception." That first panel is followed by four panels where Pope Francis says nothing at all. It concludes with Pope Francis saying, "Can I talk about the rich now, cuz I could go on and on."
Yes, one can find fault with those in progressive Christianity who have traded the gospel's emphasis on individual spiritual growth for a long liberal political agenda; still, one can also argue that "conservative" Christianity is equally adrift and has lost touch with what is truly at the heart of the message of Jesus.
Sadly, the article ignores recent research that says that evangelical Christianity is shrinking, too. Fact is, more and more young people are claiming no religious affiliation at all.
My feeling is that if all Protestant churches, liberal or conservative, took a page from Pope Francis (and one of his predecessors, Pope John XXIII, 1958-1963) we would all find our churches growing again. Francis and John threw the windows of the Catholic Church wide open with their candor, their love and the obvious depth of their spiritual devotion.
Stated simply, they both showed the face of Jesus to a spiritually hungry world. And look what has happened. The world responded in 1958 and it is responding again now. The ascension of Francis to the throne of St. Peter is evidence to me that God is alive and so is the possibility of a vital Christian Church, no matter what the denomination.
Rev. Scott Dalgarno is pastor of Wasatch Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.