The Mainline Protestant church is dying. Church leaders have known this for decades. We developed the church consultation industry to sell us solutions. The answers we bought are only apparently true. We hear “evangelical churches are growing because of their theology.” Or “we need programs and other worship styles to attract younger people.” Is the problem theology or marketing? No. The problem is a form of cultural suicide.
Mainline Is Sidelined
The mainline churches are failing while a few congregations are successful. Evangelical churches are also failing at a slower rate. The question of why continues to be unanswered. The answer is a cultural issue.
Mainline protestant governing bodies support issues of economic and racial justice. The mainline congregations often consist of lay members who see economic and racial justice as being “political” rather than “moral.” Many of the members of these congregations do not support economic or racial justice measures while favoring tax cuts and similar measures that contribute to income inequality.
The governing bodies of mainline churches are incapable of teaching their justice positions because the congregants refuse to hear those teachings. This is a problem for clergy leaders of the congregations. Because the income of our congregations are tied to the availability of disposable funds of our members.
Ageism in Reverse
Mainline church membership is getting older. Clergy hear complaints about church program and mission budgets from people who are retired and “on a fixed income.” The volunteer lay leadership in congregations and denominational bodies are composed of older people who have the free time to give. Disposable income is the key to church leadership. Disposable time is also a factor.
Most younger families in the United States have two weeks of vacation time available each year. If my United Methodist Annual Conference meets for the better part of the week, most younger adults are reluctant to use their vacation time in what could be long contentious meetings.
Younger adults are expected to be involved in church governance. But they work longer hours for less income than the baby boomer retirees did. The retirees don’t understand it. They continue supporting social policies that make it harder for younger people to raise families and volunteer outside of work.
The Gen-X “I” Factor
Older Generation X members are in an odd position. Decades of consumerist conditioning leave us wondering, “what do I get out of this?” We know how we have struggled. University education is necessary for better incomes while being unaffordable. We paid more to work for less. Bloated military budgets with attending federal debt caused inflation that made it more difficult to save. We feel no one came to rescue us.
The concern with “when do I get mine” extends beyond economic injustice. There is also the injustice associated with being a smaller demographic. “Wait your turn” became “we need more young people” when we got to the age of taking more responsibility in churches (and in corporate America too).
Turning inward is the Gen-X response to these issues. We are a generation going back to the isolation in which we grew up. There is nothing left for us but to retire and hopefully survive on the income from the 401k and Social Security (if it is available). Boomers would not retire. We could not advance. Millennials are nipping at our heals hoping we get out of the way soon. Gen-X feels (as always) constrained by the wishes of others.
What is the point? Ask any mainline church leader this question. What would the answer be? We have all sorts of reasons we believe church should be a priority for people who claim to be Christian. But what have we done to improve the quality of life for people? We promote individual spirituality without social holiness. Mainline churches react to the tears of the social fabric. We want to help addicted people, poor people, homeless people, and people of color. But we do not wish to build community with any of these people. We don’t want to build community with any people. Mainline churches effectively fall short of the primary Christian value.
William Sloane Coffin said that the mainline church should try to “do something interesting.” We lack the vision. And if we had the vision, we lack the will. Mainline churches are the products of times that began segregating churches by race and wealth. We cannot get over it by simply improving the present order. That order and our church institutions must be wholly changed.