Mainline Churches—A New Home for Disaffected Evangelicals?

By now, it’s old news that one in five Americans, including one-third of adults under 30, claim no religious affiliation. Popular blogger and author Rachel Held Evans, who identifies primarily as an evangelical, wrote a much-shared CNN blog post about how churches can attract disaffected “millennials,” or young adults, back to church. (She is talking mostly about young evangelicals disenchanted with the trappings of that particular expression of faith, rather than young people who reject religion altogether.) No, it’s not about having hip music or serving better coffee, Evans wrote. Rather,

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance. We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against. We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation. We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Evans also strikes a note of hope for those of us who worship in mainline denominations like the Episcopal Church, implying that in our churches, millennials might find some of what they’re looking for:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditionsCatholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

I want to believe that is so, and there’s some evidence it might be. I know of several former evangelicals, for example, who now worship in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Might mainline traditions, ours and others, be poised for a resurgence, a triumph of tradition and depth over politics and marketing? It’s an attractive notion.

Then again, my friend Katherine, a UCC pastor, is currently mourning the permanent closing of the first church she served. She notes that while the church she currently serves is very much open, it is not being inundated by millennials seeking an alternative to either evangelicalism or a life lived outside of any religious tradition.

If disenchanted young people are longing for the ancient, unpretentious, authentic gifts of mainline denominations, that’s news to many mainline congregations that have plenty of room in the pews.

In my more optimistic moments, I believe the Episcopal Church can become a home for young evangelicals who are fed up with the politicization of their faith and their slick megachurches, who want a church with solid doctrine, plenty of room for conversation and questioning, and a commitment to justice, mercy, and hospitality. In my more pessimistic moments, I see my friend Katherine’s grief over the closing of her former church, and I’m not so sure.

I am sure of one thing, though. If young people start looking to mainline traditions to provide something they’re missing, it won’t be because we change things up to be more relevant and hip. It will be because we stick with the ancient traditions, liturgies, language, and creeds that are our foundation. As another blogger, Andrea Palpant Dilley, wrote in a post for Faith and Leadership:

Consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

But Dilley is realistic. She recognizes that, despite the appeal of history and tradition, “…your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.” But, she continues, “…the next generation might rebuild it. They might unearth the altar, the chalice and the vestments and find them not medieval but enduring. They might uncover the Book of Common Prayer and find it anything but common.”

Do I share Dilley’s pessimism about the possibility that mainline churches and denominations might die? Or her optimism that young people, as they mature in years and faith, might find something of great value, something they need, in our traditional approach to faith?


How about you?


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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.