Why I refuse to use "mainline" any longer

September 18, 2013

In The Christian Century and the Rise of Mainline Protestantism, Elesha Coffman outlines the origins of term “Mainline." The label commonly refers to the Episcopal Church, The Presbyterian Church (USA), northern Baptist churches, the Congregational church (now UCC), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Disciples of Christ. Sometimes that list is longer and other times it’s shorter.

Coffman writes:

In America, mainline has referred colloquially to the railroad leading to the elite northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia. Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell described this Main Line in his 1958 study, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class…. By the 1950s, according to Baltzell, the term “Mainliner ha[d] become synonymous with ‘upper crust,’ ‘old family,’ or ‘socialite.'

It was not a term that denominational leaders came up with, but we have embraced it for many years. Now, it’s a good time to discard it. Why?

It white-washes our influences. If you asked what prominent theologians and thinkers have formed the American progressive movement, I daresay that many of us would point to W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Gustavo Gutierrez, Elizabeth Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and James Cone. The list goes on, but there is something important about the names. Even though we often look to the male European Reformers for much of our theology, even though a quick browse through the theology departments of most seminaries will reveal an overwhelming number of older, white men, we also know our thought for more than hundred years has been challenged by those working in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, with the civil rights movement, from subjugated women, and in the midst of immigrants' struggles.

Liberal Black congregations and denominations have transformed our ecclesiology in profound ways. Yet, when we used the term “Mainline,” then we white-wash our history and excise our great reformers. Our influences have come from those who listened to the oppressed, understood suffering, and made us hungry for liberation. If these voices have taught us to look beyond our individualistic spirituality, greedy capitalism, and work for the world as it ought to be, then why would we align ourselves with the elite and upper crust?

Also, our labels not only define who we have been, but they call forth who we want to become. This is an important moment for our church. Things are shifting radically. In the PC(USA), immigrant churches and churches with underrepresented racial ethnic minorities are growing while many white congregations dwindle. These pockets of growth reflect our larger society. My generation is not as well-off as my parents. In my daughter’s generation, European whites will be the minority.

It’s an exciting time, and it is an important moment for us to name who we want to be. And I, for one, am tired of pretending that we want to hang out at the Country Club and eat cucumber sandwiches in fancy hats. We are not some sort of upper-crust elite society. Now, it's time to discard that tired label that ties us too closely with a particular race and class. It's time to call forth another name.


Waiting for the other shoe

All wonderful reasons for scrapping the bad old word.  I suspect in addition that the word "mainline" came into use because it sounds a little like "mainstream"--a claim that certainly wouldn't be accurate.   But it's frustrating to hear the call for a new name without any hint of what it might be.  Wikipedia provides only one alternative--"heritage" churches--and that one would be worse.  It would be nice to differentiate us from the other guys with a term that said something more positive than "not those other guys," and even terms that said "not those other guys" wouldn't be accurate.  For example, we're not "non-Evangelical Protestants" because we evangelize (even if not so much).  Denominations once distingished themselves from others by noting beliefs other denominations didn't share, but differences in doctrine are now much less sharp.

I can't think of a thing.  I may just wind up feeling guilty about using a word I can't avoid.  


have never liked "mainline" -- the arrogance of it! -- and always wondered where the term came from ~

Dropping "Mainline" and other ambigious names

I'm all for giving up the term "mainline" and I also would like to see the term "evangelical" disappear from media coverage. Often mainline appears as not so bad and evangelical appears with a negative vibe. While "mainline" sometimes evokes the feeling of "Gods frozen chosen,"  "evangelical" often evokes the vision of a Bible wielding  character intruding on another person’s space, pushing a tract in his hand. Both those groups are far more than their dubious titles.

From my viewpoint as a retired chaplain, it seems that many evangelicals are doing hands-on helping of the poor or persons in disaster areas, doing hands-on missionary work to give clean water to areas without it, and many more good works. The mainline has been and is doing much of the same hands-on work in response to the call of Christ Jesus. Let's include the  Catholic Church, with its new Pope, who gives a clear call to mission, and getting personally involved with those we aid, and not just giving a handout.

Christ’s church has long done so much public good, working more efficiently than any government program. It is time to give the message that we are not to be labeled as mainline, evangelical or Catholic but as those who serve those in need in the name of Christ only.