By WILLIAM McKENZIE
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
My Scottish Presbyterian spine stiffened when a friend told me about the evangelical mega-church he attended recently in Georgia. He and his wife had barely settled into their seats when a soccer team -- a soccer team! -- rushed into the auditorium and started kicking balls across the room.
That's right, black-and-white balls whizzing over their heads. The scene he described didn't strike me as very churchish. It sounded more like a baseball game, where ushers fire T-shirts into the crowd. Or a Blue Angels flyover, where pilots swoop low to stir up the audience.
That's not worship! That's entertainment!
The problem is, people like me can't afford to be high and mighty. My mainline Protestant denomination is not winning over folks by the droves the way independent Bible churches and Pentecostals are.
If mainliners are to recapture their influence on America, and I hope they do, they must swallow their pride and learn from conservative evangelicals. If Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians keep turning their noses up at the evangelical mega-churches rising up in the sprawling suburbs of Dallas, Atlanta and Phoenix, they risk a permanent seat on the sidelines of American culture.
Mainline Protestants once ran the country. Community leaders filled their churches. Their theologians, like Reinhold Niebuhr, influenced Cold War foreign policies. Their predecessors helped found the country. Fourteen signers of the Constitution were Episcopalians; 11 were Presbyterians.
But the influence of mainline Protestants on American religion, politics and culture has waned since evangelicals started their rise in the middle of the 20th century. According to a 2004 University of Akron survey, 26 percent of Americans call themselves evangelicals, compared with 16 percent self-described mainline Protestants. You couldn't have imagined those figures 50 years ago. (Evangelicals emphasize a literal reading of Scripture and personal evangelism; mainliners read Scripture more broadly and are less likely to proselytize.)
Evangelicals have done several things right, starting with taking Jesus' message of love and redemption to people in a way they can understand. That includes borrowing from the popular culture, just as Martin Luther did when he got sick of Gregorian chants and started writing hymns that spoke to people in their native tongue.
Now, I'm not saying mainline ministers should start showing up in Hawaiian shirts on Sundays, as the Rev. Rick Warren does at his California Saddlebrook Church, the quintessential mega-church. But it does mean innovatively taking the Bible out of the pulpit and into the crowd, making worship relevant to people's lives.
"Be in conversation with the culture," is the way Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary professor Cynthia Rigby summarizes the challenge.
Evangelicals also bring passion to their beliefs, a fervor about their religious and political values that many mainliners lack. Mainline Protestants need to do a better job "giving witness to their beliefs," Rigby says, if they want to stay abreast of evangelicals' influence on American life.
Then there's the sense of community that evangelicals and their mega-churches create. Churches like Prestonwood Baptist in suburban Dallas offer everything from coffee shops to exercise facilities to small fellowship groups.
Mainline Protestants still have plenty to contribute to America's culture and politics. In fact, they have a duty to do so. Conservative evangelicals shouldn't be the only religious folk shaping America's values.
For one thing, there's more to the merger of religion and politics than their obsession with abortion, gay rights and stem cells. "People of faith are not of one mind, whether on specific issues like stem cell research or government intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, or the more general issue of how religion relates to politics," Episcopal minister and former Republican Sen. John Danforth wrote in The New York Times recently.
But the nation won't hear an alternative to conservative evangelicals until mainline Protestants get more fire in their bellies.
X William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.