John Schmalzbauer: The mainline surrender of Christian Education

If mainline denominations do not learn to tend their own theological gardens through Christian Education that is specific to their own heritage, they will not survive.

Earlier this month, “Faith & Leadership” sponsored a discussion on the future of denominations. Acknowledging their contributions to the Christian landscape, Brian McLaren noted that “denominations do invaluable things.” According to McLaren, one of the things denominations do well is “conserve treasures,” preserving a “whole range of things such as doctrines, memories, and virtues.”

In the local church, such conservation happens when congregational discourse reflects the doctrines and memories of the denominational tradition. As Nancy Ammerman notes in “Pillars of Faith”, such mundane publications as hymnals and Sunday School curricula assist in the telling of denominational stories.

Who could imagine Methodism without Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”? According to Ammerman, 73 percent of mainline churches use hymnals from the congregation’s denominational publisher.

My own congregation fits this pattern, utilizing the United Methodist Hymnal in two out of the three services. Though the contemporary service relies on the praise music of Maranatha Music and other non-denominational publishers (which sometimes conveys a Wesleyan vibe), for the most part congregational singing remains a source of Methodist identity.

Over in the Sunday School wing, such identity appears less secure. While one of the senior citizens classes uses a Cokesbury Bible study, children’s curricula come from a host of non-denominational publishers. Apart from confirmation class, the kids are unlikely to hear about John Wesley or sanctifying grace.

This non-denominational pattern is on display every summer when churches embrace the ecumenism of Vacation Bible School. No matter what their theological or denominational traditions, congregations across the Missouri Ozarks gravitate to the same curricula. You can tell because of the identical signs on church lawns. Last year it was Crocodile Dock, published by the Colorado-based Group. Another year it was Avalanche Ranch (also by Group).

My own adult Sunday School class utilizes a mix of denominational and non-denominational materials, including books by Methodist Pastor James W. Moore and videos from Rob Bell and N.T. Wright.

Late in 2009 we chose a video series called “Go Fish!” Having passed around the Cokesbury catalogue in class, I was under the impression we’d be watching the “Go Fish!” series with Indianapolis United Methodist Kent Millard.

Such was not the case. Much to my surprise, the “Go Fish” videos we saw in January featured Andy Stanley, pastor of Atlanta’s North Point Community Church and the son of Southern Baptist Charles Stanley. Together with Passion founder Louie Giglio, the younger Stanley is the face of a new generation of seeker-sensitive evangelicals. Though an engaging communicator who has much to teach mainline audiences, a Wesleyan he is not.

Recently, a LifeWay survey asked 1,000 pastors to name the top three living preachers who had most influenced them. Topping the list was Billy Graham, followed by Charles Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Rick Warren, John MacArthur, Barbara Brown Taylor, David Jeremiah, Max Lucado, John Piper, and Andy Stanley. Though the survey was sent to both mainline Protestant and evangelical clergy, the list included just one mainline preacher (Taylor) and zero Methodists. Such data suggest that the ecumenism of Vacation Bible School extends beyond the children’s department.

To be sure, mainline denominations have benefited from the assistance of evangelical para-church ministries (including Sunday School publishers). As Presbyterian Richard Hutcheson notes in Mainline Churches and the Evangelicals,” the role of the para-church is to work alongside or beside the wider ecclesia.

And yet if congregations do not learn to tend their own theological gardens, they will not survive. Such a development would be a loss to both mainline denominations and to the larger church.

John Schmalzbauer is a sociologist of religion teaching at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.