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.

  • Tim

    My optimism isn’t about what someone young or old might find in one denomination or another. It’s in the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, young evangelicals are looking for something. So was Gen Y when it was younger, and so was Gen X before that. You can keep going back through the generations as far as you like, it’s the same set of events playing themselves out in each generation. And God works in each generation as well, amen.


  • Guest

    I write from the perspective of a cradle Catholic who discovered my Catholic faith through evangelicals in college. I lived with them and worshiped at 2 churches every weekend. I needed both the Eucharist and the fellowship and neither community had both. I’ve worked at a Baptist summer camp but always made it to mass on Sunday. I spent 2 years living with a nun in a nourishing retreat house. I often think I am more ecumenical than I am Catholic. My teens get the bulk of their faith community from an evangelical church youth group because there is not a Catholic one that has as much life in it. I say all that just as a way to let you know where I am coming from. I also see God present in many who do not associate with any church and I personally do not have a black and white, rigid theology.

    I see the strengths and the weaknesses in the evangelical community. However, I have never been involved with a mega church that holds its pastor up as a hero. I do see the evangelical church as an essential part of my faith journey and believe it has something to offer my kids on theirs. However, I love the sacred tradition I find in being Catholic and despite my struggles, it is my home. As far as I know young adults are leaving both churches, Catholic and evangelical, in high numbers.

    I am surprised that the Catholic church was mentioned in this conversation. The message given by the Catholics has been that holiness is only found in 4 issues: contraception, abortion, homosexuality and denying women ordination. That is unfortunate because there is so much theological depth in the church. Young adults are not going to find a church that welcomes LGBT friends, allows questions that don’t have predetermined answers and has accountability at multiple levels in the Catholic Church. I also don’t see young adults longing for organ music with centuries old hymns in any denomination. Maybe they don’t need a rock band at church but some contemporary music speaks to their hearts. For me personally, the organ music with hymns from centuries ago is suffocating. It always has been as a young adult and now in midlife.

    That said. I do believe there is something of value in mainline churches that young adults need. From a Catholic perspective I found the book, “Rebuilt, Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter” to have some insights into avoiding the consumer culture at church. There is a depth, stability, wisdom and sacredness in mainline churches that is not found in evangelical churches. I also have a lot of hope as a Catholic that Pope Francis will change the tone and direction of the church.

    • Steve

      Ms. Beth,

      I’m really happy to hear that you appreciate the sacred tradition of the Catholic Church. I’m somewhat sad to hear that you’ve come away with the impression that Catholic holiness is only about having orthodox views on matters sexual.

      What I find is that those are the teaching most often under attack, and thus we have to spend the most time defending them. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had someone challenge me on the validity of the Church’s teaching regarding selfishness, humility, or bearing false witness. Let alone call me terrible, unspeakable things for defending them.

      But that’s the public square. I can honestly say that I’ve rarely heard the issues of abortion, homosexuality, contraception, or female ordination from the pulpit. Perhaps your experience is different.

      Also, I work with a teen youth group. The kids I work with (about 50 of them) are looking for answers. They don’t mind that the Church has answers. Just as long as they are followed up with satisfying -reasons-. Aside from that, they love Gregorian Chant, the Latin Mass, kneeling for communion, and Eucharistic adoration. Kids are looking for transcendence and truth, not relevance.

      Myself, I love knowing that my home is the Church which Jesus founded. I like knowing that doctrine won’t change when I’m not looking. I don’t want a Church that gets with the times, I want a Church that is faithful to Our Lord. That’s why I can lay my head down at night on the rock of Peter, knowing that I am home.

  • winslow

    Ellen Painter Dollar’s remark that she believes the Episcopal church is the answer for young evangelicals fed up with one or more aspects of their faith took me up short. Has she never heard of Katherine Jeffords Shori? Does she not know what that woman is doing to the Episcopal church? The Episcopal church is in its death throes and is not the answer to anything.