Part three of three parts; click here to read part two.

Are you suggesting that you're more likely to find grace in mainline communities?

Hestenes:People come looking for grace, and they come looking for a place that's not going to make them turn their brains off. I am grateful to be a part of a church that at least wrestles with the great social issues. I have learned more about the human condition, the needs and the brokenness of people in areas of sexuality, than I ever wanted to know. I am very grateful to be a part of a thoughtful Christian tradition that takes so seriously needs in the world. I do not want to be a part of a privatistic, disengaged church. There is something in our traditions that keeps us in conflict, and tension that is healthy and shouldn't be given up for uniformity and safety in doctrine.

An absolutistic mindset, on the other hand, doesn't allow that there's any chance you could be wrong.

Hestenes:It's not just that. Let's talk about homosexual orientation. It's really a new issue. The church earlier didn't wrestle with it in just this form. We have to have a place where Christians can wrestle with these new issues. We're now into the cloning issue. I happen to know I'm part of a church that will appoint a task force, and we'll go to work on it because we know there are ethical consequences for society.

Frey:What you're describing is an outgrowth of a very deep Trinitarianism in the mainline churches. If God is Triune, then any reality that fails to reflect that kind of unity in diversity is doomed to failure. In other words, unless we reflect all reality in our ecclesiastical structures and our social structures, we're on the wrong track. We don't have to parrot the simplistic bumper-sticker answers that a society without Trinitarian reference might have. But we do have to deal with them.

Willimon:There's a gift in a polity that keeps rubbing my nose in the tradition of the church, which keeps me accountable to a group of other pastors. I remember talking to a pastor who kept saying, "We're an independent church." And I said, "Where did you get that word independent? I can say I'm from a very dependent church. We're dependent on Scripture. We try to be dependent upon Jesus."

We were lamenting earlier the lack of entrepreneurial spirit amongst us, and that grieves me. The other side of that is an entrepreneurial spirit gone wild with no ecclesial check on it. There's no accountability to the tradition. What a marvelous thing it is that at the end of the day Episcopalians still have to come back to that Book of Common Prayer. I worry about churches that can't point to a similar grounding.

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The future of mainline denominations
What do you honestly think will happen to these churches over the next 50 years?

Frey:I'm not a sociologist, and I always want to bring in the Jesus factor, which is an unknown. Right after the Revolutionary War, all of the mainline churches were in deep trouble. Thomas Paine predicted that in 30 years, at most, Christianity would disappear. And that was right on the eve of the Second Great Awakening. This is the Jesus factor. I think we're on the eve of the third great American awakening, which we'll see in the early twenty-first century.

Willimon:We've seen the end of denominationalism as we know it, although not the end of some kind of chastened denominationalism. It may be a stripping down for service. I don't meet any young adults interested in feeding national organizations. But Jesus is doing quite well among them, and I'm confident the Holy Spirit keeps finding a way to take over the world.

Hestenes:What God is doing in the world does not come with these neat labels on it. The next millennium is going to see something that is Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant in its primary formation and not simply about Protestant denominations connecting with each other. This new Christian force will not come through the World Council of Churches. They are at the end of an era, and they know it.

What do you say to people in the mainline who are disenchanted with it and want to leave?

Hestenes:I want to discern two things.

One: Are these consumer Christians looking for the perfect church? If they are, then the old cliche; is true: If you find a perfect church, don't join it, because you'll ruin it.

Two: I would also want to discern whether there is a moral or an accountability problem. Is the heat getting too hot where they are presently so they're looking for a place that leaves them undisturbed? But if the church down the road is a place where they can grow and minister more actively in Christ, then I'd respond: "Could I lay hands on you and bless you as you go?"

Frey:My daughter and her husband are very active in a Vineyard congregation. I know that my own church missed the boat with them. What can we say except, "God bless you. You're being nourished. You're being blessed. You're raising our grandchildren as wonderful Christian people. You're living an exemplary Christian life. What possible objection could I have?"

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If you were counseling a pastor who is distraught and considering leaving the ministry of his or her denomination, what would you say would be the defining issue?

Willimon:I know people for whom it ceases being a lovers' quarrel with their church family, and they venture out. It's hard for me to conceive of myself being one of them. It's like adolescence: one of the painful parts of adolescence is when you realize that all the things you despised about your parents you embody. And many of the things that you despised are those aspects of yourself that you treasure the most. I've been reminded in the most embarrassing ways about my tradition. Yet here I am, and I think here I'll die.

Hestenes:It's different for me as a clergyperson than for a layperson. I have taken what I consider to be holy vows. I have pledged to God and the gathered company to work for the peace, purity, and unity of the church. I could not fulfill that vow leaving the church. I'm in it for the duration.

Frey:The means of grace and the hope of glory, to quote a wonderful phrase from one of our Anglican liturgies, are still there in my tradition. And so long as they remain there, I'm not sure why I would want to leave or counsel anyone to leave a particular denomination. Nobody has ever prohibited me from preaching the faith that I've received, and there are no laws against my practicing my faith in what I consider to be the best possible Christian biblical fashion.

Where do you see signs of hope for Protestant denominations?

Willimon:John Wesley's last words were "And the best of all, God is with us." In the local congregation, there are incredible signs of vitality. On a college campus, Jesus is busy. And the good news is, mainline denominations are at these institutions—they created many of them.

Two, the very birth of my Methodist history that I chafe under is such an incredible resource. Even as I'm busy railing against my denomination, I'm doing so with the very tools my denomination gave me. Deep in my Methodist bones is this mythology of a sluggish, accommodated church and the revolution begun by this priggish little Englishman. So forgive me for always expecting change to be possible. That's a gift of my church.

Frey:Despite the fact that I have a lover's quarrel with my church, knowing the power of the Resurrection because of things God has done in my own life, the phrase of Zechariah 9:12 comes to mind: "I'm a prisoner of hope." I'm not optimistic; optimism, to me, is based on a false anthropology—the goodness of human nature; but I'm hopeful. Believing in the Resurrection, I don't know how you can be anything but hopeful, even though things are awfully dark. Because if our theology is even close to being right, then God is in the business of raising the dead. And the promise that I see being fulfilled—the gates of hell not prevailing against the church—comes to me forcefully when I see a resurgence of evangelism, real concern for people outside the church, the reality of the healing power of God, and lots of people in small groups.

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Hestenes:Two signs of hope for me: One is the serious explosion of small groups in the life of the church. I believe that small groups are an expression and a means of renewal in the church.

Second, to be very concrete, it's been my privilege and pain to be at the general assembly that dealt with the two big issues in my denomination: the Re-Imagining controversy, which just tore at our church very deeply, and the debate over homosexuality and ordination. At the 1996 general assembly, there were several thousand people listening to the debates, open hearings where hundreds of people went to the microphone, and they got two minutes each. There were views expressed that I did not agree with. But as I listened to the grassroots of the church, I heard all things that gave me hope: Lives that had been transformed, people who had found the power of God in their lives and rose to give testimony to that. And my own sense was, Jesus was right: he said he would build the church, and he's still in that business. And whatever human form it takes, at root it's the church that Christ is building, and that gives me a great deal of hope.

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