Mainline Resurgent: Is it TRUE?

It’s nice to hear that books on mainline Protestantism are resurgent, as reported in The New York Times. I had my own little resurgence on this topic when I published my dissertation, The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism (1999), and in a more recent empirical comparison, Evangelicals vs. Liberals: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (2008).

My take was that while that there are oases of vitality in what I like to call liberal Protestantism, such as Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, the broader picture is dire. Indeed, in coming to the Pacific Northwest, which I thought a natural context for liberal Protestants, what I found was a very weak rendition of the tradition. In trying to collect a sample of vital liberal Protestant churches, all I could come up with was churches that were maintaining their membership while otherwise growing old and gray. The evangelical churches, on the other hand, were bursting forth in growth, doubling every five years, and now, in Washington, the “none zone” par excellence, there are 51 megachurches, all evangelical. And, in the recent Religious Congregations and Membership survey on Washington State, evangelicals outnumber the “mainline” by more than 2 to 1. And this ratio is very close to the national averages.

Some might wonder, why do I call these mainliner’s “liberal Protestants”? And, of course, there is a spectrum of views in all these congregations. Many are Eisenhower Republicans, economically conservative and socially moderate; some are liberal democrats, who vary economically but are generally socially libertarian, and a few mainliners follow forms of liberation theology (mostly clergy types), but these are in the minority by far. Sociologists, like Nancy Ammerman, have named them “Golden Rule Christians”– inclusive types, who want to help others, enjoy good music and well-informed sermons. More recently, Dean Hoge et al. called mainliner’s lay liberal Christians. I’ll let these authors speak for themselves:

“We have named this pattern the theology of lay liberalism. It is “liberal” because its defining characteristic is the rejection of the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth. It is “lay” because it does not reflect any of the theological systems contained in the writings or seminary lectures of today’s post-orthodox Christian intellectuals. Our interviewees did not speak the language of liberation theology, feminist theology, or the theology of Presbyterian General Assembly pronouncements. Lay liberalism does borrow from the views of certain dead intellectuals, but it is largely a homemade product, a kind of modern-age folk religion. Unlike contemporary evangelicalism or other versions of Christian orthodoxy, lay liberalism is not a highly elaborated or richly developed system of  thought.”

This is very much what I found and what I experience as I research and minister among my fellow “mainline” Christians. So what can be said about this group?  Roger Olson’s recent blog on mainline religion seems apt and accurate in summing what the NYT’s article was saying about mainline religion:

“An underlying theme of the article and the scholarly speeches and articles it reports about is that American mainline religion, liberal, ecumenical Protestantism, still has vitality and deserves recognition for its historical and contemporary cultural and political influence.”

And, of course, this idea that the so-called mainline should be studied is obvious, and yet, the conclusions drawn, at least from the NYT’s article, makes me wonder. Is the state lay liberalism a function of the mainline or the broader trajectory of U.S. culture? Mark Chaves’ recent book American Religion: Contemporary Trends goes to the heart of the issue: in 1924 91 percent of Americans said that Christianity was the only “true” religion; today, it’s 41 percent.

As Hoge et al. suggest in their research, what has fallen out of the center of lay liberal religion is any real belief that Christianity is a true religion, much less the true religion. And these folks didn’t get this from their religion, because they generally don’t go to church. My sense is that the mainline came to reflect lay liberalism because that’s what they experience in the culture and in their pews.

Now, it seems that many liberal intellectuals commenting on mainline decline would say this is a function of the mainline movement; and many of them would say this is good thing, creating a desire for inclusion and tolerance. People will no longer fight, much less kill for their faith.

And this really gets at the heart of the question: Can a religion, mainline or liberal, survive, much less thrive, with a clientele that doesn’t really believe that their religion is true, much less the only true religion?

One thing I think we can say is that it won’t thrive: the numbers say the tradition is declining. We can also say this kind of religion won’t reproduce itself, since its children and youth are not staying in these churches. So the outlook, at least sociologically, is not very hopeful. So, this experiment, which may be the first in Christian history, weighs in the balance: Can a Christian faith sustain itself with adherents who don’t really believe in what is at the heart of the tradition, that Jesus is Lord?


  • LogicGuru

    Can a religion, mainline or liberal, survive, much less thrive, with a clientele that doesn’t really believe that their religion is true, much less the only true religion?

    Of course it can: consider Judaism. The question assumes an evangelical-style understanding of what religion is–the idea that it’s a matter of conviction and commitment. If you look historically and cross-culturally you can see how peculiar that is. For most people at most times religion has been part of the fabric of social life–rites of passage and other ceremonies, holy places, myths and ideas of the supernatural.

    Can a Christian faith sustain itself with adherents who don’t really believe in what is at the heart of the tradition, that Jesus is Lord?

    Again, here we have the Evangelical garbage about Jeeeeezus. And again recognize that this is peculiar, parochial and not what religion is all about. Religion is about ceremonies, myths, fantasy, holy places, the woo-woo, the supernatural, art, architecture and music. The is what liberal, mainline churches should be doing–leave the Jeeeeezus-is-Lord junk to the Evangelicals.

    • Reformed Catholic

      “The is what liberal, mainline churches should be doing–leave the Jeeeeezus-is-Lord junk to the Evangelicals.”

      WHAT ??? The basis of Christianity is this simple phrase “Jesus is Lord”, without that, you don’t have Christianity, you have a very nice social club

      • LogicGuru

        Who sez? The Evangelicals. This is their line–if it isn’t Jeeeezus-is-Lord then just a social club.

        The basis of Christianity is the liturgy–the Eucharist and other church ceremonies.The liturgy is a window into the Other World, contact with the supernatural. It’s these ceremonies that grab people in the gut, produce intense emotion–religious experience, mysticism.

        Mainline churches have failed because they’ve flattened out, simplified or even eliminated ceremony. So people who want religious experience look for it elsewhere–in Eastern Religions, New Age products–or in Evangelical/Pentacostal churches that only offer a flat, dull attempt to achieve that emotion. Liturgy, good liturgy, is 100 times more intense, more pleasurable, more wonderful. But people don’t know about it because all they see is Evangelical rubbish.

        So let mainline churches go back to putting on the most elaborate possible most high church ceremonies, with the best possible music, and advertising, advertising, advertising. If people know it’s there, and see it, they will come. If however mainline churches insist on aping the Evangelicals, Jeeeeezus-is-Lord yada-yada they can only be pale imitations of a religions tradition that is in itself worse than worthless, because it gives religion a bad name.

        • James Wellman

          This is not what the surveys or research shows, but I guess it’s true because you say so…

          • LogicGuru

            What surveys and research? Links appreciated. According to a survey in the UK, Cathedral services are the only CofE services that are doing better in attendance. So do you have surveys in which people were asked and responded that they didn’t like good music or fancy ceremonies? That they didn’t want sensual pleasure or religious experience? References please.

            Why would anyone refuse a triple banana split with whipped cream, nuts, hot fudge sauce and cherries on top? Why would anyone not want the most sensual, most aesthetic, most yummy liturgy? Why would anyone prefer broccali to that–obligation to indulgence?

          • James Wellman

            Read the links throughout my post.

          • LogicGuru

            Your links consist of: the Wikipedia entry on ‘The New York Times,’ the Amazon pages for three books, including your $300+ dissertation which I have no intention of buying, and an article from First Things, not exactly a trustworthy, unprejudiced source. This last trumpets the rather unremarkable conclusion that the big motivator for going to church seems to be belief in God.

            I agree that “lay liberalism” isn’t going to motivate people be support the Church, but I don’t see any reason to thing that Evangelicalism is going to do it either. The Why the Conservative Churches are Growing thesis hasn’t been confirmed because now we’re seeing evangelical churches topping out and beginning to decline–consider, e.g. the Southern Baptists. It’s pretty clear that what happened was secularization beginning at the top, in mainline denominations that catered primarily for the educated, urban upper middle class, and trickling down the evangelical churches, where there were proportionately more lower class people.

            The issue isn’t orthodoxy, serious religious believe vs lay liberalism: it’s Evangelicalism vs. folk religiosity–the religion of ceremonies, holy things, holy days and holy places, customs and gestures, i.e. high church, western hinduism. That has been the industry standard for religion, until the Reformation trashed religion and initiated secularism. Religion is processions in the streets, idols and fetishes, magical formulae, fancy ceremonies, mysticism and the supernatural. Think Mediterranean folk religion, with its various saints, fetishes and ceremonies or the Greco-Roman paganism from which it developed–which started the custom of processions with statues carried under canopies.

            I didn’t see anything in your links, including the book reviews, which I read, that said anything about this style of religiosity, much less showed that people didn’t want it. Do you have any evidence that people don’t go for it–if they know about it? Think of Seattle Compline, where youths from the dating district go at night to hear spooky chant in the Episcopal Cathedral. That is what people want: fancy ceremonies, fantasy, the spooky, the supernatural. And that is what churches should supply.

          • James Wellman

            So all things evangelical are suspicious, I used to have that prejudice. The First Things article is by 3 liberal scholars, so that might make you feel better. Mainline denominations are dying, I like them, and I show in my book Evangelicals vs. Liberals, that Episcopalians are the churches that are most likely to be vibrant precisely because they are both relevant socially and the Eucharist is at the heart of the worship, a ceremony that celebrates the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is at its heart, is the affirmation that Jesus is Lord–hardly an evangelical dogma. Nonetheless, Episcopal churches are also declining… smells and bells are interesting but the answer?? We will see.

          • LogicGuru

            The Episcopal Church is declining because it doesn’t advertise–people don’t know the goodies that await them. Some time ago there was a survey in our diocese and ‘Episcopal Church’ had 17% name recognition. Moreover, since the most detestable liturgical revision of the 1970s, the most Episcopal Churches have abandoned the high style–the Elizabethan language, mystery, fanciness. And now a number of them are trying out the Evangelical style since they see that as saleable. And it hasn’t worked. I repeat: if churches do smells and bells to the hilt AND PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT IT–and know also that no commitment is required to join the fun, they will come and enjoy.

            Anyway Episcopal Churches aren’t declining any faster than other mainline denominations and, according to one survey actually have a higher percentage of converts. But a very low birth rate.

            I’m not saying all things evangelical are “suspicious”–I’m saying that they’re detestable and should be destroyed. The issue isn’t primarily liberal vs. conservative: it’s the religion of the Word, of teaching, of talk vs. the religion of the Incarnation, of sacraments, ceremony, mysticism and supernaturalism. Evangelicalism, the religion of talk, has nothing of value to offer and it only turns people off of religion. I am your enemy.

          • jasmine999

            lolol. So I’m six days late, but I had to comment as you said what I’ve always believed. YES, “all things evangelical…are detestable and should be destroyed.” I am a medievalist, and I would start the beginning of the decline of Christianity at the Reformation, ie, the moment when the WORD was placed above esthetics, art, mysticism.

            Suggested reading: Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars.

          • LogicGuru

            I read it–wonderful book! And depressing. However, from the Carolignian divines to Victorian Gothic fans and Pre-Raphaelite Anglo-Catholic aesthetes, Anglicans have been working to reverse the stripping of those altars–though with limited success. If you want to see a depressing fake, try the faux-shrine at Walshingham.

            I’m just an amateur medievalist, with a special interest in Byzantine history, but I am a citizen of Byzantium Novum which you might find interesting. I am Thecla, Countess of California, CEO of the Colony of Hesperia:

          • jasmine999

            I’ll look it up, thank you. Byzantium is very close to my heart as I grew up in Istanbul, once Constantinople. In some sad Byzantine news, Turkish authorities have turned the gorgeous, glorious St. Sophia in Trebizond into a mosque, hiding all the art in order to perpetrate the outrage :/ imo Muslim/Byzantine iconoclasm is a prelude to what happened to Christianity under the reformation.

          • LogicGuru

            I saw that news. I’ve been to Turkey twice, and love Istanbul which must be one of the most beautiful of world class cities, on the waters like NYC. One interesting question is: why did the Reformation in Byzantine Christianity–the Iconoclast movement–stall and fail but the16th century western reformation succeed? I suppose nationalism made the Reformation in much the way that ethnic resentment by non-Greek speakers in Syria and Egypt promoted Monophytism.

          • jasmine999

            Oh no, you made me miss Istanbul!

            That’s a great question btw. I don’t know what the answer is, but yours makes sense. Hundreds of Protestant sects appeared during the Reformation. Various rulers adopted various branches of Protestantism, then tied the religion to nationalism, dynastic quarrels, colonial conflict, etc. There was zero central authority. Ethnic resentment or not, Byzantines could end iconoclasm with synods; Protestants couldn’t.

        • DennisMN

          So, faith isn’t about Jesus or God or the cross, but how well we do the liturgy? I tend to love liturgy as well, but if it doesn’t have any meaning other than a performance it ain’t Christianity. We have liturgy because of what God has done through Jesus, not just for the hell of it or because it is wonderful.

          • LogicGuru

            Please read what I said, viz. that liturgy isn’t a meaningless performance but a window into the other world, a means of making contact with the Supernatural. You are dismissing the whole incarnational, sacramental side of Christianity as something we just do for the hell of it. You are implicitly valorizing the Evangelical take on Christianity, according to which inner conviction and a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is central while sacraments and liturgy are at best superficial and peripheral.

            On the practical side, Evangelicalism is poison. If you look at the sattistics in, e.g. Putnam _American Grace_ you can see that the increased visibility of Evangelical Christianity coincided with the decline of mainline churches and the explosive growth of the Nones. And most of those mainline dropouts didn’t join Evangelical churches–they joined the unchurched–arguably because they were ashamed to be associated with Evangelicals. And when Nones are interviewed, it turns out that the religion that most of them reject is Evangelicalism.

        • MainlineP

          But you posit a false choice. There is a need for liturgy, music and good preaching which doesn’t talk down to people while avoiding the sins of most evangelicals, mainly biblical literalism. However to suggest that Christianity means having no core beliefs (the Apostle’s creed or Nicene Creed) is indeed to belong to a pseudo-religious social club. Who gets out of a warm bed on Sunday morning to hear a good musical performance? If there is no faith, nothing numinous, then just sleep in and listen to NPR.

          • LogicGuru

            I would get out of bed on Sunday to hear a good musical performance: even more so, to participate in a musical performance and ceremony–something one can’t get in a concert hall, much less listen to at home. The participatory ceremony, with music and visuals, is something I can’t do for myself, and which only churches provide. I certainly wouldn’t get out of bed for a sermon. When I go to church I never listen to sermons–I read the bulletin, and then look through the hymnal to check what hymns are up.

            The issue is not “having no core beliefs”: the Church is committed to the Nicene creed, which is part of the liturgy. And the liturgy, the ceremony, music, smells and bells are what produce numinous experience–not talk. The question is what the Church can do for us. And, arguably, in a world come of age, we no longer need or want its preaching or teaching. As literate, educated people we can get this for ourselves–we can read the Bible and commentaries if we feel like it. And I personally don’t. We can read wisdom literature, self-help books, or even real philosophy on our own. We don’t need church for that–and the arrogance of clergy who imagine that they are in a position to lead or teach us, literate, educated laypeople is intolerable.

            Biblical literalism and social conservatism aren’t the only problems with Evangelicalism. The fundamental problem is that it is the religion of the Word–of teaching and preaching–and of the Bible. And to the extent that any of this is of interest we can get it cheaper and better on our own–by reading books, taking classes, using the resources of the internet. What we can’t get on our own is the cultic, liturgical aspect of church. And that, I’d argue, is all that the church should be doing–specializing in ceremony and art, being liturgy mills with clergy modestly recognizing their role as trained monkeys doing the magic act.

      • James Wellman

        Thanks, I just said this myself!

      • MainlineP

        Amen, and amen. Having written off the RCC long ago (I was a childhood member), it pains me to see where the mainline is going while the anti-science (and sometimes hateful and reactionary) evangelicals either hold steady, decline a little, or prosper (depending on who is doing the survey). Can one find a church which believes in the creedal basics and social justice while rejecting fundamentalism?

    • James Wellman

      Weird, I’m not an evangelical. The fundamental claim of the early Christian community was that Jesus is Lord. I’m not sure what you’re saying. Jesus’ claim to Lordship is what got him crucified. It sustained a small persecuted community for three hundred years.

      • James Wellman

        This statement by Pope Francis is right on point: “[Idols exist] as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.”

    • DennisMN

      Ummm…the whole Jesus is Lord thing is a political statement. In Christianity’s early days, saying Jesus is Lord meant saying Ceasar is not and that got people into trouble. Are you saying that’s all junk?

  • Lothar’s son

    Hi James, that’s a great post, I’ll use it as a base to write a new topic on my own blog.

    I must say I’m still struggling finding a church where I could find at ease.

    On the one hand, I cannot stay in an evangelical Church where Biblical inerrancy is taught, with the consequence that folks believe that:

    1) genocides and the slaughetering of small children are sometimes right, as depcted in the OT

    2) homosexuals are hated and most often despised and even hated, even tough homosexuality has been shown to be natural and harmless for society

    On the other hand, Christianity makes no sense if miracles, the ressurection and even a personal God are denied.

    I definitely considered myself a progressive Christiant in that:

    - I strongly reject inerrancy, infallibility and believe we are in an ongoing process of improvement in many respects

    -I’m quite open to the possibility of supernatural things going on (whereby supernatural doesn’t mean outside the laws of logic, as I’m going to explain in a future post)


    Lothar’s son

    • James Wellman


  • Mateen Elass

    I appreciate the overall direction of your blog, but almost stopped reading after the first line of the second paragraph. How can someone with a Ph.D. spell “oases” “oasis’s”?

    • James Wellman