Evangelical Mainliners Vow to Stay and Fight

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) In the traditionally liberal northeast, United Methodist minister Chuck Ferrara has been coping with what he calls ``the very definition of insanity.''

For nearly two decades, the conservative pastor has mounted the pulpit of his Connecticut church each Sunday increasingly frustrated with the denomination's liberal leanings, which he said have led to membership losses.

``I'm not against social activism, but I think the church has reversed its priorities in a number of ways. I think the church has lost that passion to fulfill the Great Commission,'' Ferrara said, referring to Jesus' command that Christians should seek disciples around the world.

Ferrara's frustrations mirror an escalating movement within each of the mainline denominations as conservatives gather strength from within to foster evangelism and combat liberal stances on a number of issues, especially human sexuality and abortion.

At times, the self-described evangelical has considered completely abandoning the church. But Ferrara and thousands of other conservatives in the Protestant mainline describe themselves as missionaries in their own faith.

``I can go to a more conservative denomination and be with people who think like I do, or I can stay and reach the lost,'' said Ferrara, the pastor of New Life Community Church United Methodist in New Fairfield, Conn.

``So I continue to stay.''

In Ferrara's United Methodist Church, conservatives have banded together in groups such as the Confessing Movement, UM Action and Good News. Good News characterizes itself as ``a voice for repentance, an agent for reform and a catalyst for renewal.''

These groups are not alone in their evangelical quest _ some conservative Presbyterians seek to ``reclaim the land and set the captives free'' by ``uniting evangelism and prayer'' through the group Presbyterians for Renewal. They are joined by Episcopalians in the American Anglican Council, Lutherans in the Word Alone Network, and members of the United Church of Christ in the Biblical Witness Fellowship.

Increasingly, these 30 or so separate groups are working together on a united front of shared priorities. In 1996, they formed the Association for Church Renewal as an umbrella structure. ACR, in turn, has tried to build ties to the conservative National Association of Evangelicals.

Estimates of religious conservatives vary widely _ anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent within the mainline, depending on the source. ACR claims 70 percent of Methodists, for example, embrace the conservative belief that the Bible is without error.

Internal polling by the Presbyterian Church (USA) shows that about one-third of pastors and nearly 40 percent of members describe themselves as conservative, compared with one-fourth of pastors and about 18 percent of members who are self-described liberals. The rest are moderates.

Conservatives insist they represent the silent majority of people in the pews, even if top church posts are occupied by people they describe as liberal.

Conservatives have been able to marshall grass-roots support to hold the line at church legislative meetings. Methodists, for example, soundly defeated several attempts to loosen church rules on homosexuality. Lutherans maintained the status quo and rejected a proposal to allow liberals to violate church laws without sanction.

Increasingly, conservatives _ especially Methodists and Episcopalians _ have recruited allies in the growing African churches to help slow or prevent changes sought by liberals, especially on issues of sexuality.

The burgeoning conservative-``Global South'' alliance will face its greatest test this summer when Episcopalians convene in Columbus, Ohio. Anglican leaders in Africa have provided strong leadership for conservatives since the 2003 election of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

Scholars say the growing dissent has been encouraged by a diverse, ``large tent'' mentality among the mainline churches..

``I think at root these are very liberal denominations, not politically, but in terms of being tolerant and flexible,'' said Laura Olson, professor of religion and politics at Clemson University. ``Because of that tolerance and flexibility, you end up with very different modes of interpretation.''

While religious conservatives embrace a more literal interpretation of the Bible, mainline churches have carved out room _ conservatives would say too much room _ for debate over the authority of Scripture, the character of Jesus, God and human nature.

But many see the fight as dangerous, particularly when it comes to hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Fay Short, president of RENEW, an affiliate of the Methodists' Good News network, called it ``a cancer within the body which will destroy it.''

``I don't think it's healthy to have differences that polarize (the denomination) around the basic doctrines of the Christian faith,'' Short said. ``We're talking about the body of Christ, which cannot be divided.''

Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank that hosts the ACR umbrella group, said membership trends alone indicate ``liberalism is dying off.''

In 1960, the United Methodist Church boasted the largest base of the mainlines, topping 10 million. Today that number has dipped to just above 8 million, reflecting a downward trend in most mainline denominations.

At the same time, evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention have seen a steady rise in membership, increasing by approximately 6.5 million since 1960.

Others disagree.

``I would characterize it as a challenge more than a threat _ a challenge for the mainline churches to stay focused on the core agenda of Jesus,'' said the Rev. Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of 35 mainline and orthodox Protestant denominations.

Edgar said the divisions can be attributed partially to conservatives who have been successful in polarizing Christians around controversial topics that he said do not play a major role in the Bible.

``For our evangelical friends who believe Jesus is coming back soon, I think Jesus would shake his head,'' he said. ``Tell me where in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John does Jesus say anything about civil marriage?''

Conservatives insist their churches would grow if their message was firmer and say missionary efforts have atrophied. Liberals, for their part, said prospective members are not attracted by rigid doctrine and say true growth would be found in an inclusive message.

Still, they also acknowledge they must work together to reverse the trend.

At a heated and highly charged summit last September, the traditionally liberal Women's Division of the United Methodist Church squared off with its conservative counterpart RENEW for the first debate between the groups on the hot-button issues of the modern church.

Throughout the ``discussion of family business'' which more closely resembled a rigid presidential debate, the women voiced mutual frustrations. Both sides quoted Methodism founder John Wesley. Both criticized the other for being too partisan or fundamentalist.

``No doubt, there are points of agreement. No doubt there are points where we come together,'' said RENEW president Fay Short. ``But there are also very wide points of divergence.''

Tooley said the event was indicative of a larger trend within the mainlines _ liberal leadership like the Women's Division being forced to acknowledge their conservative opposition.

``Their old way of thinking was: Don't respond to critics, just move forward. The fact that they felt the need to respond was significant,'' Tooley said.

But Ferrara and others insist upon more concrete, evangelical action.

``If the mainline churches don't change and find new ways of doing ministry _ with the same message in a different way _ we're going to see them be completely absorbed by nondenominational churches. Our people are fed up with political jargon _ they want more spiritual food,'' Ferrara said.

KRE/JL END KANEEditors: To obtain a photo of Ferrara, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on ``photos,'' then search by subject or slug. If searching by subject, designate ``exact phrase'' for best results.