What President Trump could mean for Mainline Christianity

Since that fateful early morning announcement on 11/9 that Donald Trump had been elected president, I have felt like we have been living in the opening scenes of one of those movies. You know, the ones where oblivious and unassuming people are living in a world that is about to be completely changed for the worse, but no one believes it. You know, a disaster movie.

And in the days since the election, news continues flooding out with so many scandals relating to the Trump transition (he isn’t even in office yet) it is hard to know what to focus on, from Trump’s White Supremacist Chief Strategist, to an unhinged National Security Advisor, to global uncertainty, to Obama having to deal with a flood of concerned world leaders, to Trump’s ties to Russian interference in the election, to Trump’s insane list of conflicts of interests, to Trump’s inexcusable treatment of the press, to even suggestions of vote rigging (he did say it was rigged!). And let’s not forget his pre-election scandals like the misogynist Trump Tapes and Trump University law suits.

It is surreal to say the least.

With this hurricane of insanity around us, I keep coming back to the question of what this means for the church, specifically for mainline Christianity. For the portion of Evangelicals that elected trump, I actually think this was the final step in turning White Evangelicalism into a nationalist political movement. While many evangelicals may still be believers, Evangelicalism can no longer claim to follow the Triune God of the Bible.

American Evangelicalism is no longer Christian by any meaningful measure. 

But for mainline Churches, whose American members may or may not have voted for Trump, but whose leadership did not lineup behind him for a chance at power, Donald Trump may transform us in ways we would never have imagined.

If the Trump administration’s transition to power continues down this rocky and convention defying path, taking the next government deeper into racist behaviour and policy, isolationist attitudes, questionable ethics and attempted censorship complete with Orwellian double speak, we can only imagine what the world will look like after January 20th.

People are already afraid as the incidence of race related attacked and violence increases. Protests have been going on since the election and people are talking about how to survive the new regime. Many political and public leaders are advocating a wait and see approach, but many others simply don’t want to make the same mistake that the appeasement period before World War Two did and are already speaking out.

And so as Churches and communities of faith, where does this leave us?

To imagine how this new world might collide with the church consider this example I have been using for a while now:

Imagine going back to a church in 50s or 60s. If you told the average person in the pew that in 50 years many churches would be shells of their former selves with aging and declining membership, you would be laughed at. Churches were full of young families and programs. Families had 4.2 kids and church attendance was socially required.

But why were they full? Because people were better Christians back then?

Or was it that the world had just come through two world wars and the Great Depression? Was it that society had collectively stood at the brink and glimpsed our collective demise for 5 years straight before the first good news for the allies on D Day? 

Church was a place where hope was found, where grief, anxiety, struggle, pain and fear could be handed over to something bigger than ourselves. Churches proclaimed that there was something more powerful than huge armies marching over nation after nation, than governments who were sending millions of husbands and sons to war, than the threat of oppression and even extinction. 

Churches didn’t have to do anything special other than be communities that proclaimed the Good News as they had been for nearly 2000 years. They were naturally what so many people needed in that world.

Now imagine telling anyone who has regularly been in a pew for the past 15 years that it is possible that our currently declining and aging church may be full and bustling again in a few decades. They will laugh at you.

Well, maybe they would have laughed before November 8th.

But now all the things we thought were important in reversing decline like flashy worship, entertaining sermons, lattes for sale in the lobby, Nickelodeon night for the youth and all the other things we think will “attract” people mean nothing now. 

Churches, especially mainline ones, will need to focus again on the core things that we have always been: 

We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.

We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict and violence.

We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.

We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel.

Of course, God has always called us to be all these things. But lately we have been delinquent in that call because we couldn’t see all that which we needed saving from. The world told us that our only problem was not having enough.

But now the threats and dangers, both external and internal will be obvious. We will now see what it is that we need saving from more clarity.

And we will see how God is using us to proclaim that salvation with more clarity.

And this new world will make what the church has always done subversive to the established order. Just by being the church we will declare that bigotry, hatred and self interest are not virtuous.

Just by doing what we have always done we will be seen as contrarians who believe that forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given to us freely by God. Things that didn’t seem to mean much when the world’s biggest problem was not having enough stuff. But now are things that will mean everything to people suffering under a kleptocratic regime.

Just by being people of Word and Sacrament, we will birth a reality completely different than the one dictated by power.

A reality grounded in Christ and rooted in defiant hope. 

For a while now, many churches, church leaders and Christians have been wringing our hands over decline, wondering what it might take to get people back. And we foolishly thought it would be trendy programs and music selection.

Now, we are discovering what may actually drive a resurgence in mainline Christianity and what will be truly important for the church to be about.

Are we ready for the kind of world that will finally give us what we have been longing for?

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15 thoughts on “What President Trump could mean for Mainline Christianity”

  1. This is interesting and thought provoking – and you may well be right. We face exactly the same “post-truth” (I hate that term – it implies a degree of truth that is non-existent) and societal issues in post-Brexit Britain, and the Churches are in a similar (possibly worse) position than the Churches in the US.
    However, some things are different now from how they were in the 50s and 60s. We no longer have shared values in the way we had then. We have been divided as a society by recent events (especially by a self-inflicted refugee and immigtation crisis) whereas the Second War united us. Where then we shared a view of society and community as crucial to our understanding of ourselves we are now individualistic and most of us can make little sense of community beyond our own family and friends (which is, I believe a major driver in the growth of social networks as a vital, if arguably illusory, source of community for millenials). The Church no longer speaks for the nation in the way it did then and belief is now under attack as irrational and delusional (wrongly in my opinion).
    Whether Church will be the place that people look for hope and deliverance remains to be seen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are right, I see us in time less like the 50s and 60s and more like the post WWI period (imagine Downton Abbey). There is great social inequality being challenged by fracture social structures, new technologies and governments ill prepared to deal with all the change. Things will need to get worse before we cycle back to a period of unity like the post-war period.

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  2. As a recovering believer who experienced his first verbal assault and public displays of hate in the days following the election, I see the decline as continuing. I also find it difficult to see this as your positive point when so many bad things could come. You acknowledge censorship and other horrors, but we must all remember that Christian bystanders allowed the Holocaust to happen. The secular left has screamed bloody murder about his rise, but just now, white Christians are starting to see the possibility of error. I hope both of our hopes hold out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry but social inequality was taking place in the 50s & 60s and where was mainstream Christianity? As a African-American pastor, I’m not sure where “white Christians” or the mainstream Christian community was but I’m reminded of a passage of Scripture that says”; “the elders of Israel came to Samuel and said give us a king so that we can be like the other nations”. (1Samuel 8)

      The Church universally is in crisis and this is one crisis the Church asked for. For the “elders of Israel came to Samuel and said give us a king so that we can be like the other nations. This displeased Samuel but God said, they are not rejecting you Samuel, they have rejected me.” Saul’s elevation was a result of the Church leaders turning away from God and here we are….

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    2. I am sorry to hear that you have been victimized already. And I agree with you, I would rather see a different outcome to the election than any kind of opportunity for the church. My point is more about a call to action. That churches need be more deeply aware of where we need to be acting in the world. Certainly some churches and Christians have been bystanders both in the 40s and now. But many are not standing by both then and now. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confessing_Church The progressive left of the church has also been speaking out, but the media thinks we are boring, so there is little coverage. http://www.pubtheo.com/page.asp?pid=2101

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      1. Rev. Erik, you want Millennial participation in your church–give them meaningful control over making the community a better place. Two suggestions for starters:
        – Power issue in Ontario – on the news tonight. Where’s the church?
        – Value of Government programming to the local community people. Identify where government programming in the local communities need dramatic improvement and call the government on it; expose, expose, expose. Try to change internally, and then go for broke (press, etc.) Here’s a teaser: Who is the Mental Health Commission of Canada accountable to for results and how much is it costing the Canadian Taxpayer? Even better if this were being done in Alberta, why is there a federal Mental Health bureaucracy in Ottawa and a provincial Mental Health bureaucracy in Alberta? Every dollar consumed by a bureaucracy means a dollar (or more) available to a community client.

        Turn the Millennials loose on stuff like this and you may have trouble keeping them out of your church.

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  3. The age of the prophets has begun. The test of the prophets is . . . Wait and see. We might even have to find some renewed direction. One thing I really hope happens is that we in the mainline churches may get to know other Christians and become a little more grace filled, maybe even get to know more of “those people”. We might find lots of weakness in us all . . . And more common ground in the gospel than we before realized. I said “we might”. When we walk close to the ground, there is less danger in the fall.

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    1. I am curious to hear you clarify some of what you say here. One point that I find interesting is the suggestion that if mainliners criticize other Christians it can only be because we simply don’t know them. What if we do know other Christians and still find points of objection? Your perspective doesn’t seem to include that possibility.

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  4. Trump actually listened to a large number of hurting people who were expected to suffer quietly while their livelihoods were moved to other countries so that corporate investors could make more money and I could go to the hardware store and purchase a set of tools for $2.00 less. Imagine–not having the decency to suffer in silence!!!! The god of globalization was underway and those hurt in the process were invisible to the press, the church, and their elected representatives.

    The problem I have is the way in which Trump secured the presidency–albeit probably the only way he could have gotten elected under the circumstances. Up here in Alberta we recently had a bozo candidate test the waters when he and his team chose to ignore our democratic rules and traditions to contest a leadership situation. Fortunately the powers that be stood up to him and he received the appropriate education. These politician folks need to realize this is my province, my country, my democracy and you mess with it at your own peril. It is not yours as a political candidate to twist to your expediency.

    As to the church, almost 70 years of regular interaction with it has taught me that it is full of itself and now leads me to question the value of my consistent interaction with it over a lifetime. In my church story (four different mainline denominations) the church has been a solution looking for a problem and if I had a problem that would be the last place I would go. At 72 I’m trying to understand why God made Man one way and has been trying to change him ever since. The message has been that Man doesn’t measure up and never will. The theology doesn’t compute in my dimension.

    Anyway what we’ve done in the past has led us to where we are today. The American Voter, in that wonderful exercise of democracy, took his/her pencil and exercised his/her democratic right and sent the status quo packing. I treasure our diversity in Canada and the cultural richness it affords us. At 72 I am trying to spend less time worrying about what God wants down here, as I can’t read her mind, and to focus on how I can love my human brothers and sisters more effectively–in and outside of the church. The rest is above my (retired) pay grade.

    Thanks for tackling a difficult subject,
    Bill

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    1. I think Trump absolutely identified something that most politicians and pundits had been missing. Bernie Saunders did the same. Trump pointed at government as the culprit, Bernie pointed at Wall Street. Probably the collusion of the two is to blame. I would have been interested to see an election between the two of them.

      In terms of your comment about God making humanity in one way and then trying to change us ever since. The problem is freedom. God couldn’t give us anything less than freedom to choose our own way as creatures. But this means the freedom to make poor choices for ourselves and that negatively affect others. And since we had the choices, we made them. This is what the church calls original sin. God’s dilemma was how to save us without taking away freedom, and that’s where Jesus comes in. In the incarnation God reconciled us to God-self, or in other words, when God called and called us to repent (a cycle repeated over and over in the old testament) we wouldn’t. So when we would would return to God, God came to us.

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      1. Now Bernie Saunders vs Trump would have been something to behold. Unfortunately Bernie’s own people in the Democratic Party ensured that one didn’t happen. The political implosion south of the border will be interesting to follow as a new sheriff is in town and he’s got a new political law book.
        Today’s FORTUNE CEO Daily under Allan Murray’s introduction throws a different light on it. Trump seems to have these people bamboozled. Last I heard Trump hadn’t suspended the libel laws in the U.S. yet and the press contingent has sufficient legal resources to take the boy on for slander should they choose. But they seem to have the “deer in the headlights” look down there right now.

        Thank you for explaining the original sin concept to me. My fundamentalist home churching as a kid still messes around with my head which I try to mix it with Lutheranism. The concept makes sense and I’m going to have to go back to some basic Lutheran concepts which have eroded from me over the years. I am, after all, getting to the age where I can hide my own Easter eggs.

        Bill

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