An Evangelical Heart with a Mainline Brain?


“The heart says stay and the head says leave,” comments Richard Beck in his sympathetic response to Rachel Held Evans piece on why Millennials are leaving the church.  Many of us have had that experience within a church.  We find the theology lacking, but have a strong emotional connection to the people, style, songs, and sacraments. I don’t have much to add to Evan’s original post (see TylerZach or Brent’s thoughts).

But this is what I found interesting: In riffing off of Rachel Held Evans’ diagnosis of Millennials and the church, and speaking for progressive evangelicals in general, Beck claims that what the church really needs is “a mainline theological and social sensibility combined with an evangelical church expression.”  He proposes this as a way forward for the evangelical church, combining the heart, style, and expression of evangelicals with the theology and social concern of the Mainline churches.

Surely this seems like the best of both worlds.  Take the more progressive theology and social practice of a mainline mentality, and add it to the vibrancy and heart of a Evangelical church, and surely this equals a growing church attractive to Millennials/Progressives (at least it will eventually, as Beck admits these types of church are rare).

But I worry that the mentality exemplified by Beck is not going to help in the long run.  As I’ve said before, each of these positions is situated on the same Christendom continuum. This is a middle way that I worry is just as problematic as the two options on the two extremes.  Indeed, I worry that Beck is actually perpetuating binary thinking about conservatives and progressives, and then offering a combination of the two as a solution (which is all too typical because we Evangelicals slipped on Fundamentalism, hit our heads and forgot where we really came from [I’m working on a post on “evangelical amnesia” that will be up on the Missio Alliance blog soon.]).

Fitch and I explore why this happens in detail in Prodigal Christianity, looking at the Neo-Reformed and Emergent options.  But we have heard that this more radical (not merely middle) way is often confusing and ambiguous.

wizard-of-ozSo I’m going to take more time here on this blog exploring how not to merely combine the “Evangelical Scarecrow” with a Mainline brain, or perhaps in reverse, combining the “Mainline Tin Man” with an Evangelical heart.

We need to do this because in reality we are all more like “Cowardly Lions” needing to learn from marginal theologies about the courage to use our power differently (I’m thinking Black, Latino/a, and Anabaptist), and only then will God’s mission break out in our churches.


But back to the topic at hand: Do you think we need join an evangelical heart with a mainline head?  If not, what do you think is the way forward?

35 Replies to “An Evangelical Heart with a Mainline Brain?”

    1. zachhoag Cool, thanks. I’m thinking of doing it through short videos instead of writing blog posts, what do you think?

      1. geoffholsclaw zachhoag great call – that’ll be fun. you and fitch should do a public google hangout sometime soon, maybe hash some of this out further in practical terms. could be part of the series!

  1. Looking forward to this. I don’t think the answer is in either camp and in that is the problem. I had an excellent conversation with a millennial yesterday. Her frustrations is knowing she lives somewhere between mainline and evangelical but she gets blasted by both sides because she truly doesn’t belong to either side. She belongs to Christ.  Mainline wants to stay mainline. Evangelical wants to stay evangelical. No one wants to stay Christian.

    1. PastorMelissa Melissa, maybe you can’t answer, but I would love to know what the your millennial friend thought was that region between mainline and evangelical.  What is it about each that didn’t fit, from her perspective (rather than from the Mainline/Evangelical gatekeepers)?  Thanks.

      1. geoffholsclaw PastorMelissa Well, I can answer for myself because our conversation was in confidence. (Therefore, I know what she said and can give comparable answers from my situation. Also, as someone who was born the same year as Rachel Held Evans I have some of the same bridge points she does. My conversation with this Millennial began because of her CNN post.)
            First, I love the idea of an evangelical heart and a mainline brain. I would add a secular courage to that and the trifecta would be complete. I would say their is also a heart and brain combo with Heart: Eastern Orthodox faith and Brain: Western Catholic Theology. 
            From my personal experience, I have been in permanent tension between evangelical and mainline since Fig Tree Christian began. Fig Tree is considered a congregation in formation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) It is also completely online, something I hope to remedy in the next 6 months by becoming locally centered through the internet, but that’s another story. Both Evangelical and Mainline have tried to suggest how to start a church in today’s culture. Both have tried to pull me into their line of thought. Both have used their brain and heart to explain what needs to be done. The problem is, both are doing a great job gaining people who already have a faith story and left a church to join the new church. They have no idea what to do with secular voices who have never heard the story of Christ or have a very misconstrued story. (As my husband puts it, the media has painted all Christian faith as cookey so the secular understanding of Christian faith is cookey.) I believe the real solution is taking a core group of people who have no idea what the bible is beyond a black leather book, and ask them to create a faith journey using that very book. It would be the most authentic truth to what is coming for Christianity. It is what millennials really want but can’t find, because it doesn’t exist yet. We, as seasoned Christians, are still trying to create church instead of a faith journey. As in, don’t even go through the gates, because faith begins in the wilderness anyway.
            I would also add, the tension includes being told I should be A or B. (A: stay at home mom who should put my ministerial world behind me because that is the heart thing to do. OR, B: I should consider looking into working full time in a church because there are congregations who need me and I should give up the internet ministry. That’s the head thing to do.) There is my tension. It is different than the tension my friend felt. If you want to speculate consider what it is like to be a female evangelical Christian living in a secular world and wanting to do secular mainline things.

        1. PastorMelissa geoffholsclaw Helpful thoughts on how you are seeking a way forward. Wondering if the idea of letting the Bible give birth to a faith journey/community is not getting it the wrong way around, since the faith community gave birth to the Bible. Air-dropping Bibles among isolated pagan people groups might produce interesting results, but not sure we would find a way forward that lacks any tradition or historical connection, since that is part of what needs to be within whatever way forward we attempt.

        2. I am coming from a place where I have seen tradition fail more than one Church. I am also not suggesting the bible is the only source material. Congregants hurt the potential of new Christians to join the faith. I submit Gandhi as an example. He almost became Christian but was turned off by the followers. So I guess what I am really suggesting is finding a way to allow new faith to discover without that ember being washed over by seasoned faith.

        3. wabeja PastorMelissa Well, it is something I’m going to get into in the series, but I don’t think either positions is right: it is not the case that the church gave birth the Bible, nor that the Bible gives birth the church.  I would say that both Bible and Church are birthed through an encounter with Jesus empowered by the Spirit.  Jesus/Spirit are the center, as the draw us to Father (although I know Father language is offensive to some, but that is another discussion).  All that to say I think it is the Trinity that is birthing the Bible and the Church.

        4. geoffholsclaw wabeja PastorMelissa I guess I’ll have to follow the series because I don’t know whose encounter with Jesus gives birth to the Bible if it is not the faith community. I agree that both the Bible and Church have the Trinity as the source, but it seems ahistorical to not also think of the Bible as something expressing the tradition of God’s people (the seasoned faith of the church of the first few centuries). Perhaps I’ve misunderstood your statement “it is not the case that the church gave birth to the Bible”.
          Seems to me the church is birthed by God among Jews who had an encounter with Jesus, and then the written gospels and epistles come out of that community, as the tradition of their experience. God is furthering the whole process, but historically isn’t the written witness the church’s witness?
          In the practical matter of finding a way forward, a reworked ecclesiology, my opinion is that pursuing a traditionless and ahistorical approach holds no greater insight into a way forward, and will not help us in relating to a past we shouldn’t ignore, but one which also should not strictly dictate our contemporary ecclesiology.

        5. wabeja PastorMelissa Oh yes, I agree with you totally. I wasn’t advocating for a traditionless perspective for scripture or the church, but just one that doesn’t totally abandon the perspective that God was *really* at work in some with those people and traditions.  
          I totally agree with this statement: “Seems to me the church is birthed by God among Jews who had an encounter with Jesus, and then the written gospels and epistles come out of that community, as the tradition of their experience.”

  2. As a pastor in a mainline/not-mainline denomination (depending on who you ask) I am very interested in this topic. I have always thought it was strange that so many young evangelicals express some of the same interests in social justice gospel that has been present in the mainline denominations for years. Whats even more interesting is that these young evangelicals have no interest in mainline denominations. 
    So its like we want the theology and emphasis of mainline Christianity, but we don’t want mainline Christianity. I have encountered this in my local setting where several of my friends want to talk deep theology with me, but would much rather attend a praise and worship style church setting.

    1. methodistmonk I would love to know your almost but not quite mainline denomination depending on who you ask. Is it too liberal for some but not liberal enough for others? And if so, on which issues?
      But yes, I think you are right that most “progressive” evangelicals have little interest in actually joining a mainline church (unless it is Anglican, or become Catholic, which is really to become conservative mainline, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t).  I think generally what Beck meant when he said it is that we need a “protestant liberal” head and an “evangelical” heart, but not necessarily a “mainline” church denomination with an evangelical expression.

      1. geoffholsclaw methodistmonk United Methodist – too liberal from some, not liberal enough for others. I think we try to hold ambiguous positions on social issues…homosexuality, abortion, war, immigration. So our social principles tend to speak out of both sides of the mouth. We are welcoming, but not too welcoming. We are not for abortion, but not against it either. We deplore war, but recognize it is sometimes needed. etc…
        Some want us to be more like other mainlines (PCUSA, Episcopal, Lutheran are probably the big three) and others want us to be more like the evangelicals (Holiness movements, Pentecostals, Baptists). The truth is that we have both of these identities in our DNA(Born out of Church of England as a parachurch movement), but we can’t figure out how to hold them in tension which is why I am so interested in your findings on this issue.

        1. methodistmonk Yes, I think you all are in an interesting position. I don’t know your history too much, but the Methodist have the Welseyan-Holiness-Revival roots, but not too much as they sided with the more established churches through your history (yes? roughly?).  Maybe you all need a good post-Christendom innoculation and see what happens. 🙂

        2. geoffholsclaw  cosign on everything methodistmonk is saying here. i am really wondering if renewal may be possible within the UMC through a missional/incarnational reorientation & contextualized liturgy. probably via fresh expressions/congregations.

  3. Good points here, Geoff. Would love to be a part of that conversation. I think it is helpful to certainly communicate a “what Anabaptists can learn from x,y,z traditions” but like you said, its not about manufacturing a faith based Frankenstein. In my own mind, if we joined a evangelical heart (with all of its evangelism, expression, and worldview) and combine it with a mainline head, we’d still end up having an Empire supporting, 501c3, institutional corporate American church. How does that look like the ekklesia from Scripture?

    1. thejesusevent yes, I also fear in the long run that this combination will still be Empire supporting, except on certain accepted social issues.  That is why both need more of a minority report from other non-Western and non-Christendom theologies.

      1. geoffholsclaw thejesusevent Eventually, what once existed as “certain accepted social issues” it just becomes the new norm, and in need of supporting power systems. It feels like young searchers/followers want authenticity, which they believe takes different forms.

  4. I’m not sure that I buy that argument. Certainly there is too much cognitive dissonance in the evangelical world, but I am concerned for matters of the heart there as well. For instance:
    • Many evangelicals, particularly of the calvinist persuasion, believe that the majority of the population of the world, including a number of their friends, will be going to hell for all eternity and are quite content with that reality so long as they’re not going themselves. They see a God who would do such a thing as loving. This strikes me as a heart issue.
    • Evangelicals, by and large, absolutely love guns. This too strikes me as a heart issue.
    • Evangelicalism takes major issues with the LGBT community. While this is a “head” issue, it is also an issue of the heart in that evangelicals refuse to listen to the cries of their neighbors who are suffering.
    The issue that I see with the evangelical heart is that evangelicals believe that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, to quote the old testament verse. The issue at hand is that evangelicals refuse to trust their hearts because of the modernist assumptions that run rampant in evangelicalism, namely that the heart is deceitful but the mind can be trusted.

    1. DavidMSchell David, great call. And when I was writing this post I was reminded that RHE even wrote about the Scandal of the Evangelical Heart.  I think you OT quote about the heart of very telling, but I wonder what the gift of the Holy Spirit says about that when we follow Christ. Should we be so suspicious of our heart if we are saved?  This is probably my non-Calvinistic mindset comeing (i.e. more Wesleyan and Charsmatic).

      1. geoffholsclaw DavidMSchell I’m writing a blog post about that right now. Though maybe I should go back and read RHE to verify that I’m not plagiarizing her. I think I have an original post, though.

  5. Hi Geoff,
    I’m also looking forward to following your thoughts. I couldn’t agree more with this: 
    “We need to do this because in reality we are all more like “Cowardly
    Lions” needing to learn from marginal theologies about the courage to
    use our power differently (I’m thinking Black, Latino/a, and
    Anabaptist), and only then will God’s mission break out in our churches.”
    Because I think you are very right. The “mainline head” isn’t very satisfactory as it often reduces to an insipid tolerance. Not that tolerance is a bad thing. I’m a huge, huge fan. But tolerance doesn’t get us to the hard cross-bearing work of peace-making, loving enemies, and washing feet among the least of these. 
    I have many liberal friends who are very tolerant, but who can’t count a homeless, poor or disabled person among their friends. And if that’s the case, then yes, we need some different hearts.

    1. RichardBeck Richard, thanks for jumping in.  I appreciate it.  I know that people mean many different things by “mainline” so I didn’t want to impute too much into your use (same with ‘evangelical’, right?).  I’ll probably run into similar problems moving forward (and I know Fitch and I already offended some in the past when referring to ‘mainline theology’.  
      I think at the end of the day, perhaps we won’t be very far apart from each other in what we hope and long for the church on mission.  I hope that is the case.  BTW, I really enjoyed your series on “Warfare and Weakness.”

  6. Hey Everyone, 
    Thanks so much for jumping in with your comments.  I’m just editing the next post (its a video, well see how it goes), and hope it will be up tomorrow.  
    Hope this doesn’t sound too funny, but I just want to recomment either subscribing to the blog or grabbing the RSS feed for your Feed Reader (or get it through email there also). I really would love to hear your perspective on these issues and don’t want you to miss out. 
    You can subscribe if you scroll all the way up or down, and add your email, or hit this for the Feed (
    Grace and peace be with you.

  7. Here’s my “yes, but” comment. I like the idea, but I don’t think it’s enough. 
    I am concerned that the experience of the Holy Spirit in the church looks so different than scripture, so we need to listen to charismatics and the eastern orthodox. I am concerned by how little western tradition has to say about the physical, and how many Christians feel the need to turn to yoga for holistic engagement. There is also Pope Francis, who is reminding the world that the Catholic tradition has a few years of experience to offer.
    Then there’s the Anabaptist approach to repentance. community and ethics, which I know we both find central.
    Any thoughts on how to fit these together?

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