Is “Reconquista” a Good Strategy for the Mainline Churches?

Jake Dell

Reconquista, or, reconquest, is a fraught term.

Historically, it refers to the seven centuries of military campaigns to expel Arab Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. With the steady recapture of land, also came efforts at Christian repopulation. The Reconquista ended in 1492, a fateful year, which also saw Columbus’s discovery of the New World, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Politically, it is associated with the “Clash of Civilizations.” Theologically, some are now calling for the reconquista, or recapture, of the liberal and progressive mainline Protestant churches in the United States, though they are quick to disown any suggestion of having recourse to violence. This is meant to be a benevolent takeover, not a hostile one.

Indeed, the basic premise of a mainline reconquista is that the mainline churches are so weak, so desperate for new members, that they will now welcome anyone, even those whose objective it is to restore them to biblical faithfulness.

As someone who strives to recover biblical faithfulness in a mainline church, I’ve long prayed to see my church repent and be restored. Could it finally be about to happen? What is this proposed reconquista and can it work?

The challenge from a redeemed “Zoomer”

Redeemed Zoomer is the YouTube handle (@redeemedzoomer6053) for a young Presbyterian, “a regular gen Z (zoomer) who was raised in a very secular progressive culture.” He writes, “I am a Presbyterian, part of the PCUSA, (Presbyterian Church USA) but I completely oppose the theological liberalism and progressivism that has hijacked it. I have made it my mission to restore it.”

This is shades of Yours Truly, circa 1987, though I didn’t realize what liberalism and progressivism were then, let alone that they were capable of hijacking anything. (That, I thought, was something reserved for airplanes and the Achille Lauro.) It did start to dawn on me once I matriculated at college that, as Redeemed Zoomer puts it, “something’s really weird about American Christianity.” 

One of the things that sets Redeemed Zoomer apart is his penchant for performing theologically sophisticated monologues while playing Minecraft. As a Gen-Xer, I get it (though I could never do it). Anyone older seems to get motion sickness when I share the video.

Redeemed Zoomer (we’ll call him RZ) makes his case in two videos. The first is “How and why to retake the Mainline Churches” and the second is “Why I’m not in the PCA (or similar denominations).” Both are worth watching, but we’ll focus on the first one.

What’s so weird about American Christianity?

RZ points out that if you pay a visit to a downtown Protestant church in any city in America you’ll find a grand edifice with a tiny congregation. That congregation, he says, is usually theologically liberal and progressive.

RZ says the tiny number of theological conservatives (really just those who believe the Bible and the creeds these congregations still read and recite every Sunday) left in these churches is the result of conservatives always having “to run away and start something new.” He cites the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) as examples.

RZ bemoans the loss of cultural and social capital suffered by the biblically faithful. He says the mainline was too culturally ascendant to be overcome from without, so it had to be subverted from within. When the biblically faithful abandoned the mainline churches, they left behind a centuries-old legacy of service, cultural connections, beautiful worship, seminaries, and historical buildings in big cities. They cannot now build this legacy for themselves, so they must recover it by returning to the mainline.

RZ’s reading of history is oversimplified. He does not consider that biblically faithful Christians fought long and hard to keep their churches and that in some cases they were successful. He does not consider the demographic trends. For instance, the urban Episcopal Diocese of New York peaked in the 1930s, and during the decades of decline after, the suburban Dioceses of New Jersey and Connecticut showed growth. Put simply, people left the downtown centers and abandoned their churches, and not for theological reasons. 

However, I agree with RZ. The state of American Christianity is weird. I first noticed it 30 years ago at both my prep school (Presbyterian) and my college (Congregational). By the 1990s, mainline Protestant institutions were barely even nominally Christian, let alone biblically faithful. Even more odd was that the last generation of Protestant Christians to run these institutions had voluntarily given away the store

How did that happen? I had conversations with the mainline chaplains, aging 60s radicals and wooly-haired men, who explained it to me in terms of new wine and old wineskins. It sounded like a mess. I always had the sense that they were perched atop a ledge that I wanted to climb, but had purposely pulled up the ladder. 

Meanwhile, some of my classmates were pushing to erase the last vestiges of any institutional show of faith. This gets captured in an exchange of Letters to the Editor to the college paper I had in 1992. 

The Sickness Unto Death

RZ shows his Thomism when he makes the case that the mainline church is essentially the stronger of the two churches, while the evangelical church is the weaker, though functionally (accidentally) it is stronger, because it has not been infected with liberalism. (“Leftism is a virus,” he writes on the slide “Philosophical Reasoning.”)

This argument does not acknowledge that evangelicalism is rapidly changing, a lingering orthodoxy on matters of human sexuality and the sanctity of life notwithstanding. Evangelical decline is setting in, it just won’t leave behind any grand buildings in the strip malls on its way out. You won’t realize that your new CrossFit cage actually had a cross in it once.

Both churches are sick, but I’ll grant RZ that the mainline is the more advanced case. But is it so far gone that a handful of determined believers can simply walk into one and reclaim it for Christ?

How to “Reconquer” a Church

RZ’s reconquista thesis boils down to this: if progressives could hijack the church 70 years ago, there is no reason biblical Christians cannot un-hijack the church today. In fact, he argues, it will be much easier. Back then the culture was Christian. Today it is pagan and the mainline congregations that remain are tired and worn out.

I think he’s right that the mainline is tired and worn out. It’s not uncommon to find a handful of old people gathered in a cavernous vault that can hold hundreds. When it comes time to fill volunteer leadership roles, good luck. The Baby Boomers, the last generation of cultural Christians and churchgoers, are ready to pass the torch. There is just no one to pass it to.

RZ’s plan is three-fold. First, find a theologically moderate mainline church and join it. His reasoning here is that if it’s too progressive, you won’t be able to make any difference. What you want to find is a nice group of septuagenarians, who still turn up on Sundays, still go to Bible study, still make soup and sandwiches for the homeless, and would be more than happy to teach Sunday School if there were any children at church. They may be fuzzy on their theology (I had one woman say to me that she “didn’t really know what to think of all the genders nowadays”) but that’s okay. This is a group you can work with. This is a church you might even be able to save.

Second, gain leadership in a volunteer lay position. I can say from experience that this isn’t too hard. When I was 14, I was baptized and joined a PCUSA church in Pasadena, California. Within a year they had made me a deacon. Even back then, in the late 1980s, the trends RZ sees in the mainline today were very far along. They were ecstatic to have a young person — just one young person — join their church.

RZ is right about this. If a handful of biblically faithful Christians decided to colonize a dying church, they could make a big difference.

Third, RZ counsels these would-be reconquistas to “Disrupt the safe spaces!” Progressive Christians “are terrified of traditional Christianity,” he says. Again, I think RZ is onto something. If leftism is a disease, then the Word of God really is the cure. Those who have truly rejected God’s Word do not like to hear it spoken (let alone expounded) by one who really believes it is the truth.

Remember, progressives are creedal people too. “In This House, We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything,” is a creed, and purposely so. Fundamentalist, thy name is woke.

Recite the Apostles’ Creed like you mean it and see what happens. Usually, progressives can’t get past “I believe in God, the Father Almighty” without wanting to change the words.

Can There be a Reconquista?

I was glad to learn of RZ’s idea for a reconquista. It gives a name to what I’ve been trying to do all these years. Nothing violent, nothing coercive, just my mild-mannered insistence that the Bible says what it means and means what it says and that any church worthy of the name ought to be able to affirm this (and the creeds) without crossing its fingers behind its back. Otherwise, go play golf.

Reconquista is a provocative word, likely to offend some, but only meant by RZ to recall a time when the Christian cause seemed lost, yet nevertheless was restored. Restoration is, after all, the whole message of the gospel (Acts 3:21).

The message of any band of reconquistas to their new church home must not be “we hate you” or “you really messed this up,” but, instead: “here we hope to practice our faith in peace and quiet and we invite you to join us.” To a dying congregation, this might be the renewal for which they’ve been praying.

Besides, now it will be up to the reconquistas to figure out how to fix the boiler, repoint the masonry, seal the roof, make the building ADA compliant, and restore the pipe organ. (In my last church, the restoration of a very modest instrument cost $400,000.)

It’s true that many of these old churches have endowments. But if a church is in the desperate shape I’m describing, that endowment has likely been spent down just by keeping the lights on. Mainline churches that still have substantial endowments will be much better guarded and their ideological gatekeepers will stop the reconquistas before they get too far.

That’s something RZ may not fully appreciate yet. Though the mainline denominations may soon be without any members of which to speak, they are still very rich and stand to get richer from the sale of real estate.

The mainline denominations are not unlike major U.S. corporations in the 1980s: worth more on paper than for the productivity they added to the economy. Corporate raiders spent that decade liberating assets and making the coastal elites rich. A generation later developers are coming for the churches, though in a new era of urban blight, these monuments to American Christendom may become white elephants.

The mainline denominations, meanwhile, could get a new lease on life as legacy trust funds, (think: the Ford, Mellon, and Carnegie foundations) promoting progressive causes, world without end, or at least until Jesus returns.

I will say this to encourage RZ, and to anyone else who may find himself, like me, an accidental reconquista. What he is describing is exactly what church reform looks like. The Christian is called to be a witness, in the Greek, a martyr, to the Word of God, letting the chips fall where they may. This can be as simple as opening the Bible to Genesis 1 and 2, Leviticus 18, and Romans 1 (as I found myself doing the other day in one of those intractable debates about transgenderism) and saying, “I believe this.” 

Boom. You’ve just witnessed, not to your own words, but to God’s word written, which may indeed make you a martyr. Maybe RZ is right. If the biblically orthodox had just stayed put and been martyrs to the Word, the mainline might be in much better shape today.

Being a witness means that we read God’s Word out loud to whomever will listen. We expound it faithfully. We strive to live it consistently. We gather others who will do the same. If we meet in an old mainline gothic barn with a leaky roof, praise God. If we meet in an actual barn, in hiding, during the persecution that is surely coming, praise God.

God has laid a burden on RZ’s heart. I give thanks and praise to God for that burden. It is one I share. As one who has been at it for a generation longer than he has, I can attest, it can be done! 

Grace is always at work. God’s true Church — even in the mainline — will always hear and respond to the call of her Lord. Have courage, RZ, and anyone else attempting this work. It takes patience, a long-term commitment, and the desire and means to stay in one place. This is generational work. There will be opposition and setbacks, but Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

That means He has also overcome the mainline church.

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