Weak Churches

Weak Churches July 16, 2015

In their 1994 study of mainline decline, Vanishing Boundaries, Dean Hoge and associates offered evidence in support of Dean Kelley’s thesis (Why Conservative Churches Are Growing). Kelley claimed that churches grow when they are “strong,” that is, when they have clear doctrinal beliefs, demand commitment, and enforce a particular lifestyle. “Weak” churches leave doctrine up for grabs, don’t demand much, and live and let live. 

Hoge and his associates argued that the mainline was declining in membership and vitality because of “ebbing strength.” Once strong Presbyterian churches had become weak, and were leaking members to stronger denominations.

Once upon a time, Presbyterians expected their members “to abstain from using alcoholic beverages, to avoid ‘worldly amusements’ in general, to dress modestly, to conduct family devotions, not to practice birth control, and not to seek a divorce unless their spouses had deserted them or committed adultery.” By the mid-1960s, though, “all these disciplines had fallen by the wayside.” The church slipped into a “disciplinary silence” on virtually every cause, the dissipation of the older standards unreplaced by “the imposition and enforcement of new standards.” By the middle of the decade, “it was difficult to give a clear-cut answer to the question, ‘What do Presbyterians do that makes them different?’” (192).

So, blame it on the Sixties?

Not quite. A more complex, but probably more accurate, account emerges by taking a longer view. If we start not with the 60s but with the 20s, we can see a decades-long “weakening” of Presbyterian church: “Concern about worldly amusements and family altars had subsided by the middle of the 1920s, but support for Sabbath observance and national prohibition remained strong for several more years. Among Presbyterians, the dissipation process involved sloughing off some elements of tradition that seemed burdensome or pointless, while retaining other elements, at least for a time” (192-3).

The supposed revival of the 50s didn’t change the trend. They find “no evidence of either a slowing or a reversal of the relaxation of old Presbyterian disciplines during the 1950s” (193). During the 50s, “conservative churches increased their share of the Protestant market by the smallest percentage in decades” and during the period “mainline denominations had gained more members from conservative churches than they had lost tho them.” There was fear among conservatives that their churches were “slowly draining away” (194). 

The growth that swelled the mainline during the 1950s was fueled by people looking for “a more relaxed, less legalistic, less dogmatic version of the faith.” Despite numerical growth, the mainline churches didn’t grow “stronger” during the 1950s; their grown “concealed an ongoing weakness that a few years later produced an unprecedently steep decline in membership” (194).

The authors see the drift in the mainline as an accommodation to cultural trends: “The American cultural climate has shifted during the twentieth century in the direction of greater relativism and skepticism in matters of religion, and toward greater degrees of individualism. Acceptance of diversity in belief, lifestyle, and ethnic and racial background has broadened markedly.” Initially promoted by elites, the shift became popular, and “the leadership of the mainline Protestant churches accommodated the shift within their own ranks.” When the Sixties hit, the mainline Protestant churches were already sailing with the same wind that carried the sexual revolution and the challenge to settled authority: “The mainline Protestant churches did not initiate the new shift, but they were unable and unwilling to resist it” (198).

Not surprisingly, Presbyterians lost the next generation: “The children have asked over and over what is distinctive about Presbyterianism – or even about Protestantism – and why they should believe it or cherish it. The answers have apparently not been very clear. Today Presbyterians should not bemoan the lack of faith and church commitment exhibited by their youth, since they have no one to blame but themselves. No outside power forcibly pulled their children away from the faith” (200>


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