5 Epidemics the Mainline Church Must Address

Mainline church needs to face

I am a huge fan of the church.  It is, and we are, the bride of Christ.

The local church is the hope of the world. 

Which is why we should be relentlessly committed to ensuring we do the best we can with the mission with which we’ve been entrusted.

This post and the next post are about 5 issues I see in both the mainline world and evangelical world that I think we’d be wise to address. If you’re a mainline Christian (I served as a Presbyterian pastor for 12 years), don’t worry. My next post will address 5 epidemics I see growing in the evangelical world. (I’ve been a lead pastor in an evangelical non-denominational church for 5 years now.)

An epidemic is something that is ‘over’ or ‘above’ a population…that sneaks up on people and spreads faster than expected that results in ill health, or even death.

The culture we live in can impact and affect our thinking, and like the churches addresses in Revelation, I believe we have a responsibility to stay as clear headed and on mission as we can.

I write these posts with some fear and trembling.  Who am I to point out flaws in anyone?  All I can say is these issues drove me in each context I’ve served, both mainline and evangelical. So I don’t claim I’ve mastered them. I’m just scared enough of them not to want to end up there. So if anything, they trigger something I have to guard against personally.

And if they make the church stronger, we’re all better off.

Here are 5 epidemics I think mainline church leaders must face: 

1. Dilution. A growing drift toward diluting the message of the Gospel is compromising mainline churches. When Jesus becomes a way to God, not the way to God, the world begins to wonder what we really stand for. I personally agree with Ron Edmondson, we need less religion and more Jesus. I think about it this way. If I was to convert to Buddhism, I would want to become a Buddhist, not a diet Buddhist or Buddhist light. I worry that when church leaders dilute the message, the message loses its power.

2. Replacing Trust with Right Thinking. I actually learned this distinction in a mainline seminary, so again, I’m thankful for my heritage. But often mainline debate is characterized by positions of ‘right and wrong’, ‘liberal v. conservative’ (not that the evangelical church isn’t.) I believe doctrine is important (see point one), but sometimes what gets lost is that the Christian faith is about more than right thinking; it’s about trust. It’s about a relationship of dependency and trust in a personal God and a personal Saviour. Being right – whatever your position might be – isn’t the end goal. Leading people into a personal relationship with God is.

3. Glorifying Past Methods Over Present Mission. I love history and actually have a degree in it, but sometimes walking into a mainline church is like walking into a museum. A great approach to the past is to honour it without living in it. Sometimes mainline debate can be characterized by a desire to preserve past methods rather than advance a present mission.

4. Calling Ineffectiveness Faithfulness. Okay, I can get a little emotional over this one. It drove me crazy to hear leader after leader say “we’re small because we’re faithful”.  Well, being faithful does de facto not make you small. And being small does not necessarily make you faithful. You can be large and faithful, or small and unfaithful. Sure, some churches are small and faithful. But some are small because, well, maybe, they’re just ineffective.

5. Dismissing Churches that Reach People as Having Sold Out. There is more a bit of suspicion on mainline culture that any church (particularly evangelical church) that has grown as sold out. They’ve watered down teaching, put on a rock show, or done some other thing to ‘dupe’ people into attending. A good antidote to this kind of thinking is to get to know people who have come to faith in those churches. Sometimes you find conversions that aren’t deep. But often you will see the conversion is deep, compelling and genuine. When we all stop dismissing and criticizing each other, we will be better for it.

I believe if we eliminated these 5 epidemics, the mainline church could be stronger, healthier and more effective at realizing its full mission.

I hope you see these critiques are born of love. After all, one of my favourite can’t-stop-listening-to preachers right now is Tim Keller. In my view, Tim embodies the best of the mainline church, and the entire church is richer for having people like Tim who serve in a mainline context.

What would you add to this list?

And just a final word. Play nice in the comments. We’re going to spend eternity together.


  1. Jason Kennedy on August 19, 2015 at 5:32 am

    Great post. I think #5 is a big one! There is a lot of criticism that gets thrown around to the more seeker sensitive movements, and to be honest they are doing something other churches have been ineffective at, reaching people! That’s not to say church should be that way, but we need to look at the plank in our own eye so to speak. I know a great pastor in our city that has a huge seeker sensitive church. He told me he knew they were that way and it was his goal to fill up all the churches in our city! He doesn’t care if they stay or go, in fact he knows a ton of them will go! It shows a lot of humility and leadership on his part to have this perspective and who’s to say all those guys don’t have the same perspective. Great post!

  2. Brian Fraser on July 25, 2015 at 11:29 am

    I’ve been following your posts with some interest for the last little while, Carey, and this one provoked some serious pondering on this Saturday morning. I don’t think these epidemics, even in stealth mode, are infecting the local congregation I serve in Burnaby, BC – Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Let me reflect on each epidemic, as you present it, in relationship to our witness at Brentwood. 1) I’d say we are respectful of and open to dialogue with other ways of experiencing God’s approach to us. But in that dialogue, respect does not mean dilution. We are clear that our mission is to nourish souls to flourish in the grace of Jesus Christ. In dialogue with other perspectives, each party in the conversation witnesses to their understanding of ‘the way,’ listens openly to the other, and trusts the Spirit to work in the conversation. 2) I agree that trust is the foundation of our faith – God’s trust in us and, in grateful response, our trust in God. But we must make meaning of that trust at every level of human being – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. That’s where formulating the faith under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit becomes so important for the community. And there must always be humility in our formulations. We’re prone to get things wrong. Processes for bringing the whole people of God into the conversation are crucial. That’s one of the things that keeps me a Presbyterian, frustrating as that can be at times. 3) We learn from history by being open to dialogue in community. My experience of the church in and for the world is different from yours, but both encounters with Jesus Christ in that context are worthy of consideration. And from that consideration may emerge, under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, new insights into faithful mission in the time and place into which we each find ourselves sent by God. Creativity, Northrup Frye once wrote, arises between the lines of the tradition. That happens in respectful dialogue. 4) I am seeing a lot of small mainline churches rediscovering missional faithfulness and providing new and creative space for Jesus Christ to encounter and nourish souls to flourish in his grace. 5) Certainly agree on this one. We need to create more opportunities for dialogue across the old divides in the North American church, trusting each other to be in faithful service to the Jesus that values the diversity in which God delights.

    Thanks for provoking these reflections, Carey. Blessings on your ministries.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 27, 2015 at 11:34 am

      Thank you Brian. And greetings back to a denomination where I still have many friends and some fond memories.

  3. Nita on March 13, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I find your posting very informative. I do believe however that many of these mainline churches have become so focused on reaching the lost (which all Christians are all called to do) that they are no longer developing the mature believers. Help me to see something here. I have been a Christian for many years and attend a a great church that focuses on the lost. But the teaching has been watered down so much that it rarely feeds the mature believers. It would be awesome to see churches reaching not only the lost, but also developing the new believers and the mature believers. There needs to be a balance. Otherwise when the new believers become mature they will seek other churches that will feed what the burning desire to grow more spiritually. What do you think about this and do you have another angle that you feel that I should look at this issue?

  4. Thomas on October 7, 2013 at 9:45 am

    The local church is the hope of the world?

    I thought Jesus was the hope of the world.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 7, 2013 at 9:55 am

      That’s Bill Hybels quote. And Bill (and I) would agree that Jesus is the hope of the world. But he also chooses to use the church to be his instrument of grace in the world.

  5. Paul Wilkinson on October 5, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Points one and five form an interesting contrast. The mainline church has watered down their own message but accuses seeker-friendly churches of watering-down their message. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 7, 2013 at 9:54 am

      I think any church that waters down their message loses effectiveness.

  6. newgirl on August 25, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Carey, I grew up in a traditional (non-evangelical) church and used to think I had a problem because I would always want to fall asleep in the service. I would seek out a seat near an open window or door, hoping it would help keep me awake. Then I realized a lot of people were falling asleep. Why? Because the sermons were boring, prayers were repeated in a boring monotone, I couldn’t understand what most sermons were about (even tho’ I would tell the minster “it spoke to me” on the way out as it seemed to be the correct church thing to say) and in our denomination no one ever Identified what was sin or what kind of life God expected. I knew the prayers, the creed by heart and most of the hymns but it was head knowledge. There was a lot of sin in people’s lives as a result. I was supposedly “born again” due to my infant baptism, regular church attendance, teaching Sunday school for a while, confirmation, etc. Yet the Bible says that when one is “born again” they can not continue to sin and I had no interest in getting “religious” beyond Sunday attendance or stopping living life the way I wanted to. (that was for the old people) Beautiful stained windows and wooden pews, elaborate garbs, do no good if the gospel message is not brought out as a practical message believers can put into practice in their daily lives.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 25, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Thanks for your honesty. There are, sadly, many who can relate to being bored in church. Long for the day when that isn’t so!

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  8. Jeremy on August 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Carey. I’ve participated with a number of churches in a variety of formats, and at least in my limited experience I haven’t seen any of these as major problems. They come up, sure, but they’re hardly “epidemics.”

    I find the single greatest problem among Christians is in not truly believing or trusting Jesus Christ. He has made many promises, and offered many warnings, and I think we simply don’t take him seriously.

    Why do we have buildings, bureaucracies, pastors, liturgies? We do not trust in the headship of Christ and the orderly leading of his Spirit. Our Lord has made each and every one of us royal priests and beloved sisters and brothers. Why then do so many of us consider ourselves laity, leaving “real” faith to the professionals?

    We do not trust the Christ. We do not have faith.

    For clarity, I don’t look down on or hate my fellows for our collective shortcomings. Lord knows I fail, too. I simply think we make a mistake looking to symptomatic problems when the root is so simple, and has plagued believers from the very beginning. Cultivate faith. Look to what Jesus has said and truly, deeply believe it. Give your life, and your death, to his word.

    • Jeremy on August 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      This was an edit, but it turns out I can actually edit the original post! Nevermind this one. 🙂

  9. Tom Paine on August 13, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Carey – just as people have different personalities but all are needed in the body, so goes the different branches of Christ’s church. We do not need a standardized model for a particular congregation. There are congregations that are more evangelical by nature and more in touch with our current society but there are others that nurture spiritual growth like others do not. One thing I notice is that many mainline churches are filled with people who started out in larger more evangelical churches but have found depth in mainline churches they did not find elsewhere.

    The larger church does need to be relevant. We do need to connect. But we will never out entertain the people of this world and are fighting a losing battle if we try to get the right music or the right visual medium to share the Gospel alone. Those ‘theological museums’ are packed with depth church goers may not find in those ‘theological big box stores’.

    My larger point is that all of Christ’s churches, together, do serve a purpose. We need each other. We need to work together. And most of all, we don’t need to be just like one another.

    All the best and In Christ,

    Tom Paine, Pastor
    Parkway Presbyterian Church

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 14, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Tom…thanks for sharing and thanks for signing your real name. Nice to have actual conversations in the comments. I appreciate your perspective and I agree, 1 Corinthians 12 is as much about churches, congregations and denominations as it is about people. I just want to push back a little on the stereotype that ‘big box’ equals shallow. I have worked with many large and small churches and find deeply mature Christians in all settings, and some shallowness in all settings as well.

      • Tom Paine on August 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm

        Carey, my analogy might not be the best (although I use it in our church all the time for other reasons. I tell them, ‘folks, we are the “Ace Hardware” of Churches and have to realize we are challenged by plenty of “Home Depot” and “Lowes” type churches out there. We can offer more personal contact but that alone isn’t going to draw the people in anymore than it does for Ace. We need to connect and offer people something they aren’t getting elsewhere”).

        There is the old joke about a church board considering taking out the pews and putting in more comfortable chairs and the old elder on the board saying, “But church is not supposed to make you comfortable!” I do not see a lack of depth in larger churches about challenging people personally (something mainline churches lack in doing) but do not find many of the newer large congregations offering that prophetic voice enough – challenging our society to change.

        I am writing in great generalities and know there are large churches that do just this and small mainline churches that are as supportive of the status quo as any social group in existence. But, overall, if small churches need to find their evangelical voice anew (and to challenge individuals)- I feel many larger churches need to find their social voice (and one that doesn’t toe the line with their favorite political party).

        Thanks for writing. I am hopeful that the appeal of mainline churches will be found in a new generation (and that we will change as you highlight that we need to). And I am hopeful that all churches will see their need for one another and we work together instead of competing with each other much more.

        I plan to follow your writings. Thanks again for your post.

        In Christ,


        • Carey Nieuwhof on August 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm

          Tom…thanks for the reply. I agree great work can be done and is being done in contexts large and small, as well as mainline and evangelical. We need each other.

  10. Clay Faulk on August 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    Carey you are so spot on! Sadly, the Mainline is as much a mindset as it is anything else. So many individual churches are more than comfortable to claim themselves a “righteous remnant” in a world where others simply are going to hell. It is not true. Many people are hungry for Jesus, it is too often the church and the attitudes of many Christians that turn them off. Churches must decide that they care more about the people in the street than they do the people in the pews/chairs.

  11. Duane on August 8, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    2-5 are solid points in my opinion, but 1 seems rather nebulous. It seems to imply that you have some clear definition of orthodoxy in mind — something that nowadays doesn’t seem easy to build concensus on across the theological landscape.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 9, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      Duane I appreciate it. I think there is a realm of orthodoxy that the Christian church has embraced over the better part of 2000 years. That’s what I’m referring to.

      • Duane on August 10, 2013 at 8:25 am

        I don’t think most churches, of whatever denominational persuasion, would consider themselves “unorthodox” or in conflict with the “authentic” Christian tradition, even though they might not willing to acknowledge the same claim for other groups. Most of us can point the finger at someone and claim that they are “diluting” the true gospel. For that reason, I don’t think your first point helps to clarify things, but just allows more finger-pointing.

        • Carey Nieuwhof on August 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm

          The only problem I have with that line of thinking Duane is then truth becomes completely relative, and no one is ever accurate or inaccurate. I’m not into drawing fine lines, but I do think there are broad boundaries of faithfulness and unfaithfulness to authentic Christianity.

          • Duane on August 12, 2013 at 11:21 am

            I agree that relativism is a danger, but no greater a danger than arrogance, condescension, or judgmentalism on the other side. The life of faith is always a matter of walking that fine line between those two dangers. It seems to me that both dangers must be avoided by a humility that prayerfully acknowledges the limits of our own wisdom, and remains continually open to God for further insight and guidance. Our professions of faith, both formal and informal, need to retain a confessional quality to them, rather than assuming that we speak with the voice of absolute Truth.

          • Carey Nieuwhof on August 12, 2013 at 9:33 pm

            I agree that truth and humility are wonderful companions, and that’s certainly how I hope truth would be spoken.

  12. tanyam on August 8, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Wow. I got to the end to learn that Tim Keller is mainline in your view. Keller is a graduate of Gordon Conwell and Westminster seminaries, and is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, not the PCUSA, the mainline denomination. His denomination doesn’t ordain women. I know he prefers the term “orthodox” to evangelical, but really . . . .

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      Hi Tanya. I think those seminaries and traditions are part of the mainline tradition and Keller speaks from a tradition that’s very consistent with several centuries of Presbyterian thinking which, at least to me, is within that historic tradition.

  13. colliejr on August 8, 2013 at 1:01 am

    As an evangelical with a family member who serves in the Methodist church in California, one of the things we’ve seen/discussed is that a lot of the mainline churches in our area seem to lack a compelling “why”. Many choose to de-emphasize their creedal background, and strive to fit into a pluralistic worldview. Unfortunately, many of these churches struggle to create and communicate a compelling reason for people to commit to them. Sometimes it seems like a lot of mainline churches don’t offer anything that people can’t find elsewhere. If a shared belief isn’t at the core of these churches’ mission, then what takes its place? It seems like a lot of them don’t have an answer.

  14. Matt Brough on August 7, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    I would add (or maybe its the flip side of # 4) – inferiority complex. I know so many small mainline churches in decline where the people think they have nothing left to offer and say things like “if only we had more people, or more youth, or more families, then everything would be better.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 8, 2013 at 9:35 am

      Matt so glad you raised that. It’s a great point and I had forgotten that.

  15. sempei13 on August 7, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    I agree. Big isn’t bad or the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 wasn’t “faithful.” I love tech, but if it fails to work, I’m not going to talk for the next two centuries about the good old days when blogging and podcasting worked. Methods change, but truth remains.

  16. Randy Willis on August 7, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    These are good things to think about, though they’re certainly not limited to “mainline” churches. In fact, I don’t think most of them would even apply in my particular context.

    I’m a UMC pastor who grew up and attended seminary in the Pentecostal Church. And I personally refuse to adopt the term “mainline church.” 🙂 (I love Scott Kisker’s book, “Mainline or Methodist?”).

    I do think a lot of the leadership in the UMC, overall, is becoming more missional and discipleship focused, and especially in my conference.

    • davpettengill on February 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      Scott Kisker is my History of Christianity Professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio (He just started there this fall). I am learning a lot in his class and he is really good at challenging students.

  17. chadbrooks on August 7, 2013 at 9:58 am

    As a young UMC pastor who grew up in a large “free-church” this post really excites me. I think you hit the nail on the head on all of them, especially 3-5. I always tell people about the distinction between tradition and traditionalism. For those in the mainline committed to liturgical worship, they must understand it still has a forward motion. It is always about classically telling the story of Christ in an active and real way.

    I currently pastor a contemporary congregation within a larger traditional congregation. We have fought through many of these things in the last several years and are finally seeing some serious spiritual maturity and outside focus.

    I appreciate #5 the most. As I pray through the idea of starting a new congregation and talk about the dream and vision with others I occasionally get called a sell out. I totally agree with you. When the local church (whatever the affiliation) loses evangelical action it quits being a church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 7, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Chad…love this. Thank you. The mainline church needs a constant infusion of faithful young leaders. You’re fuelling hope!

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