A Plea to the Mainline

Nancy Jo Kemper ’67 B.D.

A vigorous Christianity that stands for gospel compassion, political reform, and meaningful communication is desperately needed in America’s heartland.

In many town and country settings, citizens adhere to a form of fundamentalist religion that will fail them utterly as they face the complexities of 21st-century life. Many are fatalistically drawn to authoritarian rhetoric despite their deep commitment to freedom, to liberty. Yet liberty must be tamed by justice, or it turns anarchic and destroys all peace and harmony.

Mainline denominations are succumbing to this force: In church after church, pastors must not venture a political opinion. Outreach money is spent on youth mission trips overseas while poverty and racism in America, seething with political as well as spiritual roots, are overlooked. I hear too many sermons that ring sentimental and trite.

Many regional judicatories languish because local churches don’t see them as worth paying for. Support evaporates for initiatives that would send strong, vibrant intellectually gifted ministers to serve in small-town congregations in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Nebraska.

Theological education must stay in touch with the neglected American heartland. A reinvigorated faith must teach communication skills that endeavor to sustain people with hope, courage, and real solutions.

A resilient Christianity remains within our memory and within our grasp. It understood why the civil rights movement required a Christian voice, why war and nuclear weapons are evil, why poverty must be overcome.

But along the way, we lost the ability to convey the gospel intellectually and soulfully.

We should rediscover (and update) the words attributed to Karl Barth: Preach and teach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper (or newsfeed!) in the other. Something crucial happens when people struggle together with the biblical text and the lessons it provides for our time – wrestle with what Isaiah has to say about economic justice, what Amos says about political corruption, what Jesus says about forgiveness.

If we fail to inspire followers of Jesus in the midst of our contemporary condition, then in my estimation the progressive faith of the old mainline will vanish by 2050.