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5 Ways Progressive Mainline Churches Can Welcome Disenfranchised Evangelicals

I’ve never considered denominationalism a bad thing. I like to think of the various Christian traditions as different facets of a diamond refracting the same light, or as workers tending to a shared garden but with unique tasks, or as a single body made of many interconnected parts (see 1 Corinthians 12). No single group owns the copyright to Truth, and we need one another. 

There is much to love about evangelicalism, but lately I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from disenfranchised evangelicals who, after a break from church, are looking to return. Many hope to find a place in a more progressive tradition, but feel a bit disoriented their first time in an Episcopal Church or at a PCUSA coffee hour. In addition, when I travel, I meet many progressive ministers who are eager to welcome new people to their churches. So with all that in mind, here are some ideas for helping those evangelical visitors feel more at home: 

1. Update Your Website. 

Disenfranchised evangelicals aren’t looking for a highly-produced show. They aren’t looking to be impressed by the latest and greatest technology. (They’ve had enough of all that, trust me.) They are, however, looking for your address. And maybe a belief statement of some sort.

Millennials in particular tend to start their search for anything—be it a church or an apartment or even a date—on the Internet, so if your site is difficult to navigate and embarrassingly out-of-date, they may not bother to come for a visit. I also appreciate it when a church’s website includes information about beliefs, ministries, worship, ministerial staff, educational programs, etc. And if your church is located in a more conservative area (say, East Tennessee), you might even want to make special note of the fact that you welcome LGBT people and affirm women in ministry. 

Just keep in mind that often our first “visit” to your church is via the website. So it might be worth putting some extra time and resources into it. 

2. Take Risks on Unconventional Church Plants. 

In my next book, I feature several unusual church plants that are thriving in their communities, and many are associated with mainline Protestant denominations that were willing to take a risk on unconventional models. One such church is St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn—a small “dinner church” centered around the Eucharist as both a sacred ritual and a meal. St. Lydia’s is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. 

Another church that comes to mind is Missiongathering in San Diego, which is associated with the progressive denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) but has a very evangelical “feel” to its worship because it attracts a lot of folks who come from evangelical traditions and enjoy evangelical worship but are looking for a church that welcomes LGBT people. I think too of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, also associated with the ELCA.  

I’m no expert on church planting, but what these churches seem to have in common is a pastor with a vision for ministering in a unique way to a specific group of people in a specific neighborhood, partnering with a denomination that can help with resources and accountability. These days, it’s less about getting people to come to you and more about going out, serving the people, and then letting them build the church together.

3. Infuse the Traditional Liturgy and Sacraments With Some Creativity. 

A lot of disenfranchised evangelicals like me are drawn to the beautiful and ancient liturgy of more traditional churches. For us, it’s a refreshing alternative to the highly-produced contemporary worship services we’ve grown used to (conversely, folks who grew up with more traditional worship may love the contemporary worship of an evangelical church). So you don’t have to replace your smells and bells with electric guitars to welcome evangelicals. But it’s nice to see a little creativity infused into the liturgy.  

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Rachel Held Evans is an award-winning author and popular blogger from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.