The Mainline Needs Many More Missional Communities

Nurya ParishNurya Parish has done an amazing job of crunching the numbers on the current rate of decline of the Episcopal Church. She did her research project in response to a recent manifesto on the coming collapse of the Episcopal Church and in correlation to data released by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which produced this chart going back to 1987 that shows a large increase in church closures in the past couple of years. (2010 data is the most recent in the chart.)

As an Episcopalian, Nurya was motivated to track down the same numbers for her church and see how the Episcopal Church is doing in comparison. Here’s what Nurya’s chart looks like:

Seeing Nurya’s work on behalf of her tribe got me wondering what this same chart would look like for my tribe, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I asked a colleague of mine to help track down the statistics, and he produced this chart for me with Disciples data going back to 2001:

There’s a lot of red on these charts, and that’s no surprise. Much has already been said about mainline decline. (There are also a lot of things that these statistics can’t tell us — for example, the 740+ new churches that have been started by or affiliated with the Disciples over the past 10 years!) But these percentages are still relatively small, and I can imagine a lot of people (most?) might still be thinking, “We can turn things around. It doesn’t make sense to make radical changes now. Things aren’t really that bad.”

While I’m not interested in bemoaning the decline, I also don’t think false optimism is the best way forward either. I really think we need to be asking, What then shall we do? And I’m not going to suggest that creating missional communities is the path to saving mainline denominations, as if institutional maintenance should ever be the ultimate goal (that’s just “putting lipstick on a pig” thinking). Rather, right now is the best time for mainline churches to consider making the missional shift — before they’ve reached the point of no return.

As I began working on this post, I started reading The Start-up of You by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and he talks about the city of Detroit as an illustration of how “the forces of competition and change … threaten every business, every industry, every city,” and I would add, every denomination:

“Detroit did not burst overnight. It saw a gradual deflation. In fact, that was part of the problem. Because companies were still generating billions of dollars of revenue for years during their decline, it was easy for management to get complacent, to ignore the problems that were piling up. No one stress-tested the organization, or tried to identify and fix long-term weaknesses. This made the day of reckoning painful. By the time the red alarm started ringing — that is, when GM lost $82 billion in the three and a half years leading up to the federal bailout — it was too late.”

Are our mainline denominations going to become the new Detroits, by waiting until it’s too late — to try something different? to invest in new kinds of faith communities? to get behind experimental missional communities? to prototype and test and see what works? I have high hopes that they’ll make the turn. I see signs that give me hope.

What are you seeing in the mainline world? Are you hopeful? Or are you discouraged? I’d love to hear your missional hopes and dreams, for those of you in mainline churches.

UPDATE: My Disciples of Christ friend Dennis Sanders has pointed me to his blog circa April 2009 comparing the Mainline to the Auto Industry in Detroit. I guess I’m really late to the party on this one! Seriously, go read Dennis’s great post, with this fine conclusion: “The thing is, for both the auto companies and the churches, you either have to make meaningful change, or die. I think for both we are way past the point of small change.”

  • Chase

    I’m a recent mainline “convert.” My wife and I, cradle Baptists, were confirmed into the Episcopal Church last year. We love everything about it. I’ve been going through a terrific primer over the Episcopal Church ( that has further affirmed our switch.

    Although there is decline in the mainline denominations, I am hopeful. Evangelicalism is becoming increasingly polarized. I’m guessing that the Young Restless and Reformed crew will eventually dominate this group, pushing all progressive evangelicals out. Most of these Christians would probably flock to the mainline and emerging churches.

    This is all speculation, but at least it’s somewhat hopeful right?

    • Harold Stassen

      Yes, it is all speculation. You think that whistling in the dark is “prophetic”? The fastest growing group in the US’s religious landscape is “None of the Above”. Barely 3% of those 18-30 belong to ANY Mainline Protestant church.

      • Steve Knight

        who’s “whistling in the dark,” Harold??

  • Mark Rowland

    I believe that the Mainline Denominations need to work together in Community & Mission Work . . . that is the ONLY way we can succeed against the “Big BOX” “Watered Down Milk Toast” Non-denominations.

  • Dennis Sanders


    Wow, didn’t know the picture in the Disciples was that bad.

    I don’t know if you are aware that I was born and raised in Flint, MI 70 miles north of Detroit. Flint is basically Detroit in miniature in that it was an auto town that has been decimated by the changes. Seeing how far Detroit and my hometown have fallen is always heartbreaking.
    I wrote a post back in 2009 about mainline churches and Detroit that you might want to read:

    Good post.


    • Steve Knight

      Thanks, Dennis. Those stats are pretty bad, but I wonder how much urgency most in the Disciples feel about the moment we’re in right now. I hope this might create some greater urgency.

      • Dennis Sanders

        If how the church I serve at and how the Regional Church responds is any indication, I would say they really don’t give a rip. I think people are either focused on their own churches or have just come to expect their church is going to die. Our church funds left over from the sale of our old building. The interim pastor and I are both wanting to use some of that money to plant new churches and that’s been a tough sell. They are more inclined to give it mission agencies than into creating new churches which they seem like a waste of time. I think the case has to be made why this is a big deal, because right now, people don’t think it is.

        • Steve Knight

          Do I need to fly back up there and give them a presentation about why this is a BIG DEAL, Dennis? :-)

          • Dennis Sanders

            Short answer? YES.

    • Steve Knight

      BTW, Dennis – I should’ve given you a co-author credit on this because you clearly were writing/thinking about this Detroit connection long before I was! I swear I didn’t see it on your blog (or at least, I don’t remember seeing it, but maybe it was in my subconscious? ;-)

      • Dennis Sanders

        Thanks for shoutout, Steve!

  • Geoffrey Mitchell


    I love stats- they create anxiety! A few not fleshed out thoughts:

    1) We have started 740 plus new churches since 2001 and they look nothing like the other 3,000. So while that should be every reason to celebrate it is met with suspicious spirits. You were not a DOC in 2005 when all our ethnic church plants were thrown under the bus in print and at the Assembly. The embedded racism of white liberals- yes I mean that- is real. And while we have fought for a diverse church, what we got many did not like. So whether it be missional communities, mega churches or ethnic plants meeting on Sunday night, new churches has caused even more disorientation than the decline we would have had without them. I want a dollar for every time I have heard “are those new churches even real Disciples?” I get as angry about that- in a real way- as anything else in ministry.

    2) While we are often a good home for those running from the darker corners of evangelism (like yourself) that is not the same as gaining ground on the largest segment of our population which is those who don’ give a cap about faith, church or Jesus. I say this not to be funny or sarcastic- as a DOC movement I dont want to be doing therapy for those fleeing evangelicalism. I want them to join us on mission and live what Rohr describes: the best criticism of the bad is a practice of the better. I hear more about Mark Driscoll from former evangelicals than anyone else. We hav ebeen ignoring fools for a long time!

    3) I disagree with Chase in that evangelicals will end up in our churches- as they are. Rachel Held Evans has written an amazing piece that challenges me even more than the culture war post that was shared 56 millions times. Most of our churches do not need more people. They need to die, I mean die, so that God can birth something new.

    4) I love being mainline and couldn’t do anything else ;)

    • Steve Knight

      Thanks, Geoff, good thoughts. I agree with your point under #2 – we all need to be thinking more about how to re-create new faith communities that are welcoming and engaging for the fastest growing faith group in the U.S., the “nones.”

  • Cheri Holdridge

    You are spot on. I live in Toledo, another smaller version of Toledo, economically depressed. The Episcopal Church in my neighborhood just closed and merged with another one in town. The United Methodist every-four-year General Conference just met in Tampa and rather than focusing our energy on innovative church planting the delegates spent enormous time on restructuring proposals and ended the 10 day event with NO PLAN for a new structure, let alone a plan to make us missional and relevant for the generations we have failed. Yes, I believe there are pockets of hope, that is why I am planting a church that is UMC/UCC. I am one of many who is experiments with a new model, trying to offer hope, while using God’s resources. We mainline church planters squeeze out what resources we can from broken institutions, because, of course, we are a people of hope. John Wesley had more hope than anyone I know.

    • Steve Knight

      Thanks for all you’re doing to inspire others to experiment with new models, Cheri!

  • Cheri Holdridge

    Oops, make that Toledo is another smaller version of Detroit.

  • Nathan Hill

    This is a great read, Steve. I hope it wakes people up. We are pretty small. Let’s admit that and do some radical stuff. Local churches worry a lot about the little things, like administrative assistants and office hours. Sure, that’s fine to a point, but it’s not growing disciples. Maybe we should come up with a sort of “rebel” church model using tons of technology – how to use open source stuff to get rid of the costs of phones, copiers, and infrastructure. More churches choose to fold up shop or join with some other local Disciples churches to build a stronger witness. More sharing of resources and more coaching.

    The thing is – we don’t have bail outs. Help is not necessarily coming.

    Steve, are there tools out there to help congregations discern at what point it is unlikely they can build new energy in their transformation process? Or do they often turn to those kinds of tools too late? That seems like it was part of Detroit’s problem.

    • Steve Knight

      Nathan, one of the tools/resources that is available to mainline churches is called New Beginnings, and it’s being used by the Disciples, PCUSA, UCC, ELCA, etc. — mostly “fourth quadrant” churches that are in steep decline:

      The work I’m doing now with Hope Partnership is another process for missional transformation, specifically available to Disciples churches right now but with the desire for it to be useful ecumenically as well. The key question you raise is, will churches take advantage of these tools before it’s “too late”? That remains to be seen.

  • Ana Hernandez

    Hey Steve, Nice post!
    Nathan, for a really inspirational book about what to do when “Help is not necessarily coming” check out Walk Out, Walk On by Margaret Wheatley from the Berkana Institute.

    • Steve Knight

      Great book recommendation, Ana, thanks!

  • Nurya Love Parish

    Steve, I could not be more honored to be part of this post! I am grateful for your ministry and for the voice you are lifting up for missional mainline communities.

    • Steve Knight

      thanks, Nurya! I’m grateful for you, as well.

  • Pingback: Missional Monday: Hipps Passes, Mainline Numbers, Memorial Day

  • Jason Lantzer

    Very interesting piece, and one of those things I wish had been done (just from an academic standpoint) when I was working on this:

    One of the points I raise in this historical study of the concept of the Mainline in America is that who we consider to be “mainline” has changed over time, and perhaps (here is the last chapter in a sentence) rethinking who makes up the Mainline might help us (a) better understand Christianity in America today, and (b) might help the Seven Sisters rethink their own place within the broader faith. Indeed, the latter point is something I hope to return to one of these days.

    • Steve Knight

      thanks for commenting, Jason! I’ll look forward to checking out your book.