Why the Mainline Shrinkage?

Why the Mainline Shrinkage? December 16, 2016

ruin-987795_640_optIt might be time for these researchers to have a conversation.

FIRST: In the Dallas News, David Millard Haskell writes:

Those who don’t attend church regularly but are scouting for Christmas services this year might be surprised to find fewer mainline Protestant churches around these days.

Across the English-speaking world the numerical decline of mainline Protestantism is accelerating. The largest mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church. Collectively, membership in these denominations decreases by about 1 million a year, resulting in hundreds of church closures annually.

While most mainline Protestant churches are declining, there’s been no consensus as to why. Hoping to solve this sociological riddle, some colleagues and I conducted a study. We tracked down an elusive sample of growing mainline congregations and compared them to a sample of declining congregations. We surveyed more than 2,200 of the congregants, half attending growing churches and half at declining churches, and the clergy who serve them.

We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs, such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least.

When we used statistical analysis to determine which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal take on the Bible, was a significant predictor. Conversely, the analysis showed liberal theology, with its metaphorical reading of Scripture, leads to decline. Our research stands out because past studies have suggested theology and church growth are not linked. They are.

David Millard Haskell is associate professor of religion, culture, and digital media and journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford Campus, Ontario, Canada.

SECOND: But contrast this with the blockbuster study of Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout in their book The Truth about Conservative Christians, which has an edge of irony or even humor — but statistically accurate: if the Mainline Christian couples want to have more influence in the elections, they need to leave their boycotts and city hall protests and get home, have child-producing you-know-what and start having more babies. Yep, you read it right.

What explanations are you hearing of why Mainliners are declining and Conservative Protestants growing? Haskell’s study above says it’s about theology. Is it?

One of the most interesting conclusions that Greeley and Hout discovered is that church growth begins at home, not with the evangelistic tract or evangelistic efforts in CP churches. Conservative churches are growing, not so much by attracting spiritually unfed liberals and mainliners, but by having women who statistically are more fertile. Conservative Christians have more babies than Mainline Christians. ConsProts have 2.1 children per family; Mainliners have 1.9 children per family. (Contraception is a major issue here.)

Excessive liberalism as an explanatory device for growth in ConsProts is a myth (in their opinion).

CPs [Cons Prots] have statistically grown for decades … not by evangelism so much as by having more children; and Mainliners are not holding their own when it comes to the statistical average (or they barely are).

Conversion stats — from Mainline to CPs — have remained steady for 75 years. 70% of the growth of CPs over Mainliners comes from fertility; the other 30% comes from a drop in conversions to Mainline churches.

Here are the possiblities and their statistical conclusions:

1. Increased conversion from Mainline to CPs? No.
2. Natural increase due to fertility? Yes (70-75%)
3. Decline in conversions from CPs to Mainline? Yes (25-30%)
4. More apostasy among Mainliners? No.
5. Greater inflow from outside Prots to CPs? No.

Significant: CPs have retained the upwardly mobile CP; in former decades many of the upwardly mobile converted to the Mainline churches.

The evidence is that this numerical growth advantage is about to level off so that the stats will remain about the same for the time being.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Iain Lovejoy

    The solution to the problem of non-conservative, non-fundamentalist believers leaving the church is unlikely to be, in my view, making the church more conservative and fundamentalist.

  • John Hawthorne

    I’ve been following this debate since Dean Kelley’s book came out in 1976. In addition to the Houk and Greeley data above, research supports two other factors: 1) slightly better generational transition among CP in terms of children following parents in church involvement, 2) demographic shifts in the mainline (they were bigger earlier which means that larger percentages of them are passing on). I’d add a related third — the mainlines benefitted from a cultural expectation in the 1950s-1970s that people “ought” to belong to church. The erosion of that cultural expectation over the past 30 years disproportionately impacts the mainline churches.

  • Mike Mercer

    I’m a member of an ELCA church. I think the reasons for decline are complex, but one thing is clear to me. Conservative evangelical churches, starting in the 1960s and 70s, adapted to the changing landscape of America, which moved from rural and urban to suburban. They innovated with regard to organization and leadership and approach. The mainlines by and large did not. My own denomination, one of the largest of the mainlines, to this day has over 50% of its churches in rural areas or in towns of under 10,000 people. That is not a recipe for growth.

    Also, when you consider that the model for mainline growth has always been to catechize and retain members of successive generations in traditional communities or to attract members of your own denomination who relocate to your more urban/suburban setting, you can see that they have never had the mentality of reaching out beyond their own to attract others.

    Finally, denominations like mine are facing a crisis of leadership. The average age for pastors is rising rapidly and few young people are going to seminary. Young people see antiquated, moribund institutions when they look at denominations, and not energetic, flexible, adaptable organizations engaged in vibrant mission.

    Perhaps at times theological issues don’t help. The ELCA went through a crisis of loss when they changed their position on homosexuality, but I think the real problems are more structural and organic to their lack of organizational adaptation.

  • RustbeltRick

    Increased fertility doesn’t seem to be helping the Catholic churches, so I wonder how this theory holds up. I continue to see the consolidation and shrinkage of Catholic schools and churches, even as Catholic families typically have more children than non-Catholics.

  • jh

    It could also be the social pressures are far more abusive in conservative environments. The threat of social ostracism can be a very strong threat in a conservative, let’s face it authoritarian, structure. Obedience is what is valued. The conservative theology is very good at generating obedient workers. That can work for a short while, especially when society is constantly reinforcing that “christianity is good” nonsense.

    But we are pretending that the conservative churches are healthy and that is not the case. Just look at the Baptist “baptism” rates and you see a disturbing trend for the viability of that particular denomination. In many cases, it’s a case of cannibalism where one church picks up new members by cannibalizing an existing church. The new convert is few and if he exists, he is from a non-white, non-American background where poverty is rampant. I suspect that within the next few decades, we will see the conservative denominations show signs of the same issues that have plagued mainstream denominations.

    What I hope to happen is what I expect to happen. Conservative churches will compete with each other to be more conservative. And much like the republican party that is now composed of alt-right white supremacists, neo-nazis, kkk, and evangelicals/christians… we will see a complete degradation of the concept of christianity.

    *the concept of christianity as a force of good

    BTW – the muslims are better at making babies than christians. We are looking to a world that will be muslim dominated. I wonder what those conservative Christians will feel when the laws they enacted to “protect their religious liberty” are used against them. Ahh.. who am I kidding? They will blame the liberals, the atheists, the LGBT like usual.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think all of those are on point. People forget there were far more mainline to start with so much more room for decline.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It’s not theological liberalism. Conservative evangelicals have this idea that most mainline are preaching Marcus Borg from the pulpit. That’s just not accurate. Most mainline services I have been to occupy what I call a “mushy middle” theologically, basically sticking to the mainstream and not wanting to step on any toes. Which ends up not invigorating anyone. IMO becoming more conservative or liberal in terms of convictions would aid these churches.

    One part not mentioned; mainline traditionally occupied urban centers. White flight from the cities in the 60s-70s had a MAJOR effect on many congregations. Another biggie: children of mainliners are more likely to move away from home; this is actually one of the best predictors of conservative-liberal leanings there is.

  • Affirming the full humanity of gay people has had a dramatic effect in the PC(USA). While individual congregations like the one where I’m a member are growing (we have the largest youth group in New York City!), many congregations left the denomination – first over allowing gay folks to serve from the pulpit, then for allowing ministers to bless the marriages of gay couples – which contributes to the denomination’s shrinking rolls. I predict the same for the UMC.

  • I was in India last year. Fertility of Muslims compared to other religions (especially Hindu) is a huge discussion there.

  • I think your third point is spot on. More liberal churches were more palatable to non-believers who were interested in keeping up appearances.

  • Ted Johnson

    I think the reasons for mainline church decline are more complex than just theology, and involve a confluence of many trends and factors, many of which are well referenced here in the comments. Theology is one factor, but by no means the only one or perhaps even the most significant. The rise of the secular society and the trend away from denomination affiliation have both hit mainline churches hard. Conservative theological churches draw from a more socially conservative population, who are more resistant as a social group, to secular trends, and thus more likely to still find faith and church a more important and central part of life and family. Mainline churches tend to draw from a more liberal and college educated population generally, for which secularism has risen and belief in God has waned. With the rise of the ubiquitous internet, personal media, social media, it is harder than ever to get people to, and keep people in, social community, whether church or whatever, especially younger people. One thing I have heard said many times over the years in different ways by many different people is: When Jesus was not resurrected and no longer God, the Bible was made up stories, and all religions were equally true, there was no longer a compelling reason to be part of a Christian church. I realize not all mainline churches are that liberal theologically, but theology is on a continuum, and the more liberal on that continuum churches are theologically, the more challenging it becomes to get and keep committed members/attenders.

  • Al Cruise

    Most CP’s invoke complimentarianism as a practice and enforce the theology with passive aggressive teaching. This helps keep many of the female gender in the fold, and keeps them from furthering their education beyond high school. If any further education is pursued it will be in a CP institution approved by the parents and Church that will maintain a strict adherence to complimentarianism. This creates the reason for… ” having women who statistically are more fertile.”

  • MrD

    When you have churches with atheist pastors, there’s quite a bit of room to move them towards being “more conservative” while still remaining plenty liberal; certainly without approaching anything like fundamentalist.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I agree. My point is that there is a danger in seeing the more conservative theologically churches numbers holding up or growing and assuming that therefore the churches as a whole could arrest their decline by more of them moving in the same direction in imitation.
    Your mention of atheist pastors makes me wonder if part of the problem is a loss of confidence and direction on the part of more liberal Christianity so that “theologically progressive” tends to end up being code for “not really believing anything very much at all”.

  • pj3333

    One reason for the higher fertility is the “quiver full” movement in CP communities. Many fundamentalists simply do not practice any methods of family planning (whereas even Roman Catholics who eschew artificial birth control often practice calendar methods). Combined with courtship practices and arranged marriages, reproduction often becomes the defining role for young women. You often will see homeschooling, quiver full, and courtship marriage beliefs running together in highly conservative, fundamentalist views.

  • Teresa Rincon

    For what it’s worth, the large Joel Osteen-type megachurches don’t emphasize fertility at all.

  • Al Cruise

    Yes, good point. It boils done to the ability of the Church to control the lives of women. The Theology therefore must be focused on that goal. Cherry-picking certain Bible verses becomes paramount to the teaching of practices like “quiver full”.

  • Peter Davids

    I am more persuaded by the first study than the second, although I am sure that there is some truth to the second in what it does not affirm. Why? While 1.9 children does mean decline over time, it should not be precipitous. On the other hand, 2.1 children is at or just under the break-even point. It does not indicate growth, but at best steady state and at worst a slower decline. Yes, I would expect churches that stress “family values” (which has a variety of meanings) to have more children per woman (and per man, but it is very hard to track the number of children a man fathers, while it is easier to to track the number of children a woman gives birth to). Generally those churches are more orthodox theologically (although there is the Joel Osteen version that up front is not typically orthodox, but does talk about family). So there is overlap. But the fact is that 2.1 children per woman will not make a church grow, just shrink less quickly. Thus the orthodoxy study seems to be more evidence-based.

  • In the well known Pew Research Center Survey, from 2007 to 2014, mainline protestants lost about 5 million members, a decline of about a 3.4% share of the U.S. population. Evangelicals gained about 2 million members in the same period, but because of overall population growth, still declined by about a 0.9% share of the U.S. population.

    Compare both of these groups with the religiously unaffiliated, the “nones” of the survey. The number of Americans claiming no religion grew by 19 million over this period. This was a gain of about a 6.7% share of the U.S. population.

    Whether or not fertility is driving the increase of the Evangelicals, they’re still not keeping up with U.S. population growth. And the Nones are blowing both Mainline and Evangelical stats out of the water.

  • Preston Garrison

    Read Philip Jenkins recent posts about declining fertility and religion. He indicated his next book will be on that subject. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2016/07/fertility-and-faith/?repeat=w3tc

  • Doug Erickson

    While the reasons and statistics for the mainline decline are complex, i think it boils down to simple human behavior.
    In previous generations, “being a churchgoer” was a societal expectation and component of being a good citizen. Hence, for the insurance salesman, or carpenter, or attorney, church membership was considered a necessary ingredient of whether or not a person was “trustworthy” or “normal”.
    hence the mainlines provided a place where social expectations could be met. Numerous studies for years have shown that commitment expectations and volunteer participation are much higher in Evangelical churches.

    Things have changed now, and basic human behaviors have changed. If there is no social/economic/cultural advantage in attending church, AND you are presented a theologically liberal message where it doesn’t really matter what you believe, or what you’re commitment level is, at some point people come to the insight that staying home in bed, or going golfing, is no different than church attendance, as long as you’re nice.

    So people sleep in late or go golfing, because those things are easier.

  • satuit_i

    “Shrinkage” vs. fertility…. Clever title.

  • Kepha Hor

    Nonsense. I’ve been in Evangelical churches for much of my adult life and they have all had educated women. I think you’ve been reading too much Margaret Attwood.

  • Al Cruise

    “they have all had educated women.” Educated women Pastors and elders?.

  • Tim

    I have several questions, but I’ll limit it to, where are you seeing arranged marriages in American conservative Protestantism?

  • Animal

    No doubt there is a shrinkage in mainline denominations while there is an increase in non-denominational and evangelical churches. I attribute this primarily to the rise of cool and hip programs found in these non-denominational and evangelical churches along with their concert-style worship, laser lights and hazers, cool coffee bars, thousands of dollar in A/V equipment, and hundred million dollar mega church buildings with surround sound and stadium seating. Not to mention the most entertaining youth programs. This is all a draw for the commercialized and consumerist American mindset, thus the growth in these modern churches. Fortunately, mainline denominational churches haven’t fallen for this cultural relevancy, and have remained committed to the old traditions and liturgical worship of the church that has been handed down for centuries. There is an awe and reverence in stepping foot into these mainline denominations that are curiously absent in modern evangelical social clubs they call churches. So, while yes there is a drop in numbers in mainline denominations, I wonder what kind of “disciples” these other modern churches are churning out. Judgmental? Perhaps. But, I speak as one who came from these modern churches and was complicit in the consumerist mindset. Rather than feed me with the word, it was feed me with cool concerts… until I repented and migrated to the Episcopal and Lutheran churches appreciating the liturgy and traditions of the Protestant churches, and their progressive social development.