Why Aren’t Mainline Protestant Religious Leaders More Famous?

Church for Sale

Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler asks this question at Faith and Leadership blog.

Here is a taste of her piece:

No one seems to call anyone famous in the mainline church.

As a historian of the largest churches and ministries, I have been grappling with this conundrum: why are there so few mainline celebrities? And when I find them, why don’t they want to be called celebrities?

I have spreadsheets of the largest mainline churches in every denomination — Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and so on. Even with plenty of mainline megachurches, there are few familiar names among them. Today’s era of increased concentration of people in big churches is not necessarily creating the same model of self-promotional leadership that has made Joel Osteen or Steven Furtick into recognizable faces.

I recently spoke to a young pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch about the advantages of becoming a star.

“I am not interested in becoming a celebrity,” he said. “Even that word makes my skin crawl.”

Mainliners did not always feel that way, especially about one of the most important vehicles for fame: television. Mainline preachers had been staples of religious television in the postwar period until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the rules that subsidized their airtime in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was religious conservatives who outbid them in the years that followed, willing to pay higher and higher prices for the exposure that television would bring. Gradually, televangelism became equated with a certain kind of theology — a form of Pentecostalism known as the “prosperity gospel” for its assurances that health and wealth would come to any righteous believer.

All the largest Christian television networks were owned by prosperity preachers (except, of course, the Catholic network owned by an unforgettable entrepreneurial nun in Alabama named Mother Angelica). Televangelism was thought to be slick, credulous and fun, while mainline culture still sought to be unvarnished, respectable and serious. Not to mention that no mainline pastor would dare to imitate Jim Bakker’s powder-blue suits — not even to jazz up the Easter morning breakfast.

Anyone who has ever seen a Catholic priest break out his guitar to sing “On Eagle’s Wings” knows that every American religious tradition has cultural episodes of trying to appear more relevant. But the chilly relationship between mainline Protestantism and the popular marketplace has become a stable feature of the mainline’s self-understanding. The more that evangelicals and Pentecostals dominate megachurches, television, publishing and almost any other means of gaining fame, the more that mainline pastors seem disinclined to enter the fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Perhaps this is yet another reason why mainline churches are in decline and evangelical churches are growing.

2 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Mainline Protestant Religious Leaders More Famous?

  1. Evangelical churches are in decline now too — all churches are. But from the 1970s through the early 2000s evangelical churches were growing even while their TA ministries were huge. Certainly didn’t siphon people away.

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