Millennials and Mainlines

Millennials and Mainlines July 31, 2013

Rachel Held Evans blogged about millennials and the future of Christianity, getting lots of reactions. David Hayward responded with this cartoon:

Kevin Davis, Hemant Mehta, Andii Bowsher, and Allan Bevere also discussed the topic.

John Hawthorne shared developing hypotheses about Mainlines and Evangelicals, while Martin Marty reconsiders the mainline legacy.

Chris Henrichsen posted “Another Liberal at Church!” while Dwight Welch blogged about religious symbols. Christian Piatt blogged about ministers losing their faith.

There is a video with John Shelby Spong talking about churches always being in the control business, and I discovered a rather unique blog written by a Unitarian Universalist minister in Italy.


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  • GRobinson

    Thanks for the good round up of voices. For what it’s worth, I don’t see much data (outside of ad hoc conjecture) supporting a movement of Millennials to mainline churches and liturgical expressions of worship. I’d suggest the opposite is happening.

    Such an interesting conversation. Alastair Roberts has a good piece over at his blog on this topic (and a few other things.)

    • Brian P.

      Yes. I’ve seen the move to mainline and higher churchmanship purported as a Millennial experience, but only supported from the wonderfully anecdotal, not really from any sort of support of laboring of social science data. When the mainliners look at their own data, they seem to be more lamenting about graying and dwindling ASA an wondering viability of the big ticket items with high overhead costs–seminaries, pastoral salaries and benefits, and denominational administrative functions. The Evangelicals have big numbers but slowing declining at the pace of generational change. The Nones have small numbers, yet (IMO) unclear in their projections in generation and generations ahead. We’re at a time of *potential* religious upheaval. Great time to be alive and watch change with our own eyes. Also, it’s great to know that with the Internet here it’ll be fully recorded live how everyone conducted themselves in this time, for the first time.

    • arcseconds

      my goodness, it’s been a long time since I read something so high-handedly dismissive of youth!

      The millennials lack committment. The millennials don’t have the ‘nerve’ to make ‘unreasonable choices’ (another writer might describe exactly the same thing as ‘millennials prize consistency and authenticity’). Millennials are sex-obsessed (well, maybe. moreso than everyone else?). Millennials don’t want to ask tough questions, they just want a church to conform to their unbelief.

      “millennials have not abandoned consumerism or performances, they just
      wish to dissemble their consumerism and adopt a more exacting or ironic
      posture towards their performances.”

      For someone so concerned about the anecdotal nature of Evan’s writing, he certainly seems to have a deep insight into the innermost reaches millennial mindset!

      Based on what, I wonder — does he have sophisticated survey data that no-one else has? Or maybe he’s telepathic?

      or maybe he’s just a petulant, hypocritical, holier-than-thou curmudgeon, aggrieved at the fact society’s not going his way anymore, along with how I like to imagine all socially conservative evangelicals over a certain age I’ve never met must be 😉

  • Does any one remember when we went through this in the 90’s? What to do about Gen Xers leaving the church?

    • Yep. I think this happens far more regularly in history than some are aware.

      Has anyone ever written a history of church decline, from the early days down to the present? I’ll bet that would be an interesting book!

      • Ian

        “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” was a book about the gen-X ‘longing’ for mainline spirituality. I bought it nearly 20 years ago. And then a whole new bunch of megachurches showed up and performance worship drew in folks looking for the rock-concert atmosphere. Angst is cyclical, I think.

        As Garet says below, I’d like to see some real data on this.

        • More specifically Robert Webber’s claim was that large numbers of evangelicals (GenXers yes) were heading to the Episcopal Church (some went to the Catholic and Orthodox branches). There was sufficient evidence at the time to bear this out. Interestingly enough, I believe this is contributed to the problems within the Episcopal Church. Evangelicals went into the Episcopal Church for the liturgy and were offended by the liberalism they found there. What they seemed to not understand was that the liberalism was already there. I know — I grew up Episcopalian before going Pentecostal!! (I’m a boomer).

  • TrevorN

    Lawrence appears to be Unitarian (i.e. Christian), not Unitarian Universalist. There is a difference, isn’t there?

    • I’d need to do some research to determine what sort of Unitarian he is. Whether there is a difference or not would depend on the results of that research. There certainly are in Europe more so than in the United States Unitarians of a more traditional sort, but it is from that same movement that the current UU developed:

      • You’ll find unitarians in many Disciples congregations — at least non-Trinitarians. Barton Stone, one of our founders held an essentially Arian Christology. Alexander Campbell on the other hand had a Trinitarian understanding of God, but since Trinity wasn’t a biblical term, he chose not to impose it on his friends. Thus, we’ve had that tension from our founding days!!

  • arcseconds

    I wonder what the margins of error on those graphs Hawthorne provides are, and what the chances of the differences occurring by chance are, and more generally to what extent they represent reality, and to the extent they represent reality, to what extent they record an interesting effect with a cause we could speculate on, as opposed to noise.

    The first graph is from ‘General Social Survey’ data, so maybe the margin of error is quite low. It was also compiled by a sociologist, so hopefully they haven’t made a rookie mistake. On the other hand, the post says ‘estimate’ and talks about ‘his definition’ of evangelical, so presumably some kind of work-up has been done here.

    If it’s possible this could deviate from reality for whatever reason by 1.5%, then the decline from 28% to about 25% shouldn’t be taken too seriously (as the numbers could just as well be both 26.5%) , and it looks like ‘born-again’ numbers are almost static.

    Similarly, a 1.5% error in the age demographic graph would indicate there is no discernible difference in the demographics between mainlines and evangelicals.

  • James, I might as well get my response into the mix here! Rachel asks important questions. But we might also want to ask — why do some stay?