What’s Lost with the Dying of the Mainline

What’s Lost with the Dying of the Mainline January 21, 2020

Over 3 million people are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Yet Luther Seminary professor Dwight Zscheile recently concluded that, if current trends continue, the ELCA “will basically cease to exist within the next generation.” Using numbers from the denomination’s own research office, he warned that it will have only 67,000 members left by 2050 — and fewer than 16,000 in church on an average Sunday as early as 2041.

While it’s shocking to realize that the country’s 5th largest Protestant denomination may virtually disappear before my children start having children, the trend shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 1968, the Lutheran Church in America and American Lutheran Church had nearly 6 million members between them. When they merged twenty years later to form the ELCA, that number was down to 5 million, then just over 3 million another two decades after the merger. Similar trends can be seen in most other mainline Protestant denominations, using historical adherence numbers (in millions) from the Association of Religion Data Archives and their own most recent statistical reports. (Keep in mind that the overall American population grew more than 36% over the same time period, 1980-2010.)






  Most recent  

United Methodist Church






Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)





The Episcopal Church






United Church of Christ






American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.






Now, sharp as some of these declines are, it’s still hard to fathom how a denomination can go from seven digits to five in a generation. If it took fifty years to fall from six million to three, how can it take just over half that time for million-member denominations to virtually disappear?

I kept thinking of that math while I was in the choir loft of our Lutheran church this past Sunday. It was a decent gathering for 9:00 on a January morning with sub-zero wind chills, but I looked out at half-filled pews to see the same demographic profile that presumably leads to the ELCA’s own dire projections.

  • First, age: around age 50, the ELCA membership starts becoming older and older than the overall American population. I’m glad that we worship as part of a multi-generational congregation, but you don’t have to be an actuary to anticipate the implications for 2030 or 2040.
  • Second, race: while the United States is projected to be “minority white” by 2045, 96% of ELCA members are European-American. That makes the ELCA the second least diverse denomination in the country, ahead only of the historically black National Baptist Convention. Among the mainline denominations listed above, only the American Baptists are more diverse than the median.
Empty sanctuary of Roseville (MN) Lutheran Church
The view from my seat in the choir loft on a quiet weekday morning – CC BY-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

For those reasons and others, it’s easy to see how the relatively gradual decline in membership since the Sixties or Seventies only hints at the collapse looming ahead. In April 2017 Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer warned that the mainline as a whole had only “23 Easters left.” Using data from the General Social Survey, he projected that current trend lines would take both mainline membership and attendance to 0% in 2039.

I’m not here to try to explain the causes of this. Perhaps conservatives within and without the mainline are right that it results from theological drift. (So say many of the commenters on Zscheile’s post.) I suspect the decline has more to do with Philip’s observation that Americans of all beliefs are becoming less “churchable” because they are becoming less “clubbable.” If the latter, there’s little reason to think that most evangelical churches will evade significant decline. What Zscheile says about his denomination might describe its more conservative cousins before the century is out:

Zscheile is vice president of innovation at Luther Seminary, where he has taught congregational mission and leadership since 2008

For all the energy spent on trying to turn things around over the past 40 years, there is little to show. That is because the cultural shifts underpinning this decline are largely beyond our control. To the extent to which we’ve tried to fix the church, we’ve failed. I know a lot of really smart, faithful leaders who have poured their lives into this effort. It’s not their fault. The forces dismantling the established congregational and denominational system are much bigger. Something deeper is at stake. 

Like Stetzer, “I take no delight in mainline Protestantism’s decline and am hoping and praying for a reversal.” In fact, he expected that current trends would slow or modestly reverse, as “Churches will be restarted and revitalized and there will be advancement initiatives.” And Zscheile was hopeful that “Amidst the disintegration and decline, the church has an opportunity to rediscover its identity,” as the mainline both goes back to “basics” and becomes more adept at “vernacular translation” in a changing culture.

It’s an old hope. Forty years ago, McCormick Seminary professor Carl S. Dudley closed a Christian Century report on statistical decline by advising readers not to try to

“win back” lost members by imitating the successful programs by which other groups secure the loyalties of other populations. Our problems are more complex and challenging. We cannot discover our ministry by mimicking the styles of others; we must look again at the roots of our confessional commitments….

Mainline Protestant churches appear to be uniquely prepared to work with those who believe without belonging. With them we apparently share many values of the past as well as hopes for the future. We may not get them “back” into the churches, but we can join with them to do the Lord’s work on earth. And we may rediscover the Christian church in the process.

Or as our visitation pastor preached last month (in a sermon that repeated the same projections Zscheile cited), the kingdom of God will endure, even if the ELCA doesn’t.

Yes, and amen. But for all its problems, there is much about the mainline that I would hate to lose — either because it has withered away in numbers, or because it has drastically reinvented itself so as to avoid that fate. As American Christianity goes through a period of realignment and (God willing) renewal, I hope that several features of my mainline experience survive.

This post is already getting long, so I’ll just focus on three:

Women in Ministry

In an inscription on the balcony in our sanctuary, the Apostle Paul reminds us that it is by “the power of the Holy Spirit” that we “may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13). Truly, I have hope for the renewal of the ELCA, the mainline, and all the church, because I trust that God’s Spirit continues to move in our midst: comforting, counseling, and gifting us to accomplish more than we can imagine.

Whenever I need to be reminded of that truth, I turn my head to the right of the choir loft, where I see the two women who serve as our senior and associate pastors preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. Then I think of the women on our staff who direct the church’s excellent children and youth ministries. And while I don’t put a lot of credence in church hierarchies, I may even recall that women currently serve as the bishop of our local synod and as the denomination’s presiding bishop.

In a time when most (non-Pentecostal) evangelical denominations deny such roles to women or fail to back up egalitarian words with regular calls to pastoral ministry and leadership, it’s the mainline that best embodies the Pentecost message that God has poured out his spirit on all humanity, such that daughters and sons alike will speak for him.
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“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,” continued Paul’s letter to the Romans, “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5-6). And it is the mainline wing of Protestantism that has generally taken most seriously the dys-evangelical effects of post-Reformation disunity.

Here I don’t so much mean the institutional ecumenism of the National and World Councils of Churches as the lived faith of congregations like ours, where we’re regularly reminded both of our Lutheran distinctiveness and our participation in the unity of the church catholic. For example, this Sunday we sang hymns by Lutherans like Philipp Nicolai and Martin Franzmann, but also one by the Benedictine nun Delores Dufner. During Communion, our choir sang an anthem by the 19th century Anglican writer William Monk. It starts with Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17: “At that first Eucharist before you died, / O Lord, you prayed that all be one in you.” The regular practice of that sacrament itself is my favorite ecumenical practice, as the broken Body gathers together to join “with each other and with all the saints in heaven” in singing God’s praises and receiving his grace.

“Go in peace,” we’re told at the end of worship, “and serve the Lord.” That’s a charge we can only fulfill together, with Christians who might belong and believe differently than us. During Sunday’s education hour, we learned about our church’s partnership with Dorothy Day Place, which continues that Catholic writer’s commitment to living in solidarity with the poor. The week before, children of all ages had assembled materials for Bridging, a local nonprofit that helps Minnesotans transition out of homelessness; its Catholic founder had died the day before.

(I’ve decided not to add a section on social justice here, in order to focus on other, less obvious topics. But I do think evangelicals can learn from the mainline that it’s not enough to respond with charity to deprivation and suffering; writing during a national holiday honoring a mainline pastor who advocated for racial and economic justice, I’m encouraged to ask what caused the deprivation and suffering in the first place.)

Music and Worship

In Paul’s much-debated passage on the mutual submission that marks a united church, he also describes being “filled with the Spirit” in these terms: “you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19).

Of course, there are many ways of living this out in practice. We all have our own preferences. You won’t be surprised that an evangelical who laments the removal of hymnals is no fan of worship that takes its cue from megachurches, where the congregation is too often reduced to a passive audience standing silent as professional performers sing words that are too shallow to the accompaniment of tunes that are too monotonous. (See the Patheos blog Ponder Anew for a more sustained critique of supposedly “contemporary” music, or Keith Getty’s recent complaint that “modern worship,” with its desire for “cultural relevance,” can lead to a “de-Christianizing of God’s people.”)

Of course, “traditional” worship has its own problems. I’d guess that Zscheile would find in our 9am service many examples of how “mainline churches’ language and cultural forms are inaccessible to most people in their neighborhoods.” At its rote, staid worst, such worship exemplifies what Orthodox historian Jaroslav Pelikan meant by traditionalism: “the dead faith of the living.” (And he certainly knew a thing or two about Lutheranism.)

But at its vibrant, creative best, such worship embodies Pelikan’s definition of tradition (“the living faith of the dead”). For example, my heart swells as the centuries-old words of Nicolai’s Epiphany chorale again “teach us / God’s own love through you has reached us.” And it’s worth pointing out that five of the eight texts our congregation or choir sang in that single hour of worship were written by authors born in the 20th century. This, too, is living tradition: Christian composers and writers continuing to adapt old musical forms to accompany still older words (mostly from Scripture itself)… and Christian laypeople continuing to sing them, actively participating in worship. (Many of them even singing in four-part harmony, another way we may learn Christian unity.)

That this happens is not the result of mere inertia. It has taken the conscious, ongoing investment of mainline churches in publishing houses that encourage musical creativity and in colleges that provide musical training for professionals and amateurs alike.

I don’t mean to sound naive. Each of these elements can be problematic. Beautiful music can become the end of worship, rather than one of its means. Practiced for its own sake, ecumenism easily turns bureaucratic or latitudinarian. And the conviction that the Spirit is bringing renewal can tempt us to exchange dead orthodoxy for living heterodoxy.

But I’m not sure that any of these problems are inherent to the practices themselves, that (in the words of one of my favorite mainline writers) they are “characteristically damaged.” If mainline Protestantism as I’ve known it is bound to decline or die, I pray that whatever succeeds it will develop healthy new expressions of these enduring commitments to a living tradition of music and worship, an ecumenism formed in worship and lived out in love of neighbors, and an openness to a Spirit that God pours out on women and men alike.

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