The United Church of Christ is often referred to as a mainline Protestant church along with the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and several others.
But have you ever wondered where that phrase comes from? Mainline Protestant?
Most people assume it means “mainstream”. That is, mainline Protestant churches have a kind of mainstream theology or a “middle of the road” approach to the bible and worship.
Actually, the phrase has nothing to do with this. In fact, it is much more down to earth.
In the 1920s, people traveling by train through Philadelphia noticed that as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line left the city center and traveled north, it passed by local churches representing nearly every denomination of historical Protestantism. These churches became known as Mainline Churches because they were situated on the Main Line of this railroad route (today it is Amtrak’s keystone corridor).
Later, the term “Seven Sisters” was added to the lexicon of mainline Protestantism. This narrowed down what denominations fell under the umbrella of mainline Protestantism. Those “sisters” are the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, the vast majority of Protestants in the U.S. belonged to one of the Seven Sisters of Mainline Protestantism. Today, the term “mainline Protestant” is used much less than it once was and there’s two reasons for this.
First, that Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia passed through some of the most affluent, white suburbs of the city. Consequently, many people still associate mainline Protestant churches with upper class old money that lacks any sort of racial diversity. It is kind of synonymous with White Anglo/Saxon Protestant or WASP. Not typically a helpful phrase; particularly today.
Secondly, mainline Protestant churches are in decline. All of the Seven Sisters are losing members and closing churches. A good chunk of the reason for this, in my view, is our having to work against the baggage people associate with the term “mainline Protestant” itself. Many people think of the Seven Sisters as being out of touch, belonging to the past, and unwilling to adapt to modern culture. Consequently, they are seen as lacking relevance.
I think this background is important. Maybe, however, it is time to let go of the phrase “mainline Protestant”. Maybe it is a good thing to distance ourselves from it. After all, the Congregational Church of the 1920s and the United Church of Christ today are very, very different.
I would challenge anyone to really look at the UCC today, and our First Congregational Church in particular, and come away still claiming that we lack relevance or that we are out of touch.
Our church is, in fact, a place where the Christian tradition is made new and a place where tangible expressions of Christ’s ministry of compassion and justice are making a real difference in the world.
Maybe we should drop the labels of the past and simply say: “Come and see!”
See you in church,