Lessons from the Demise of the Mainliners

Lessons from the Demise of the Mainliners March 16, 2018

I was looking over the data from the Pew study on the changing religious landscape in our country. Evangelicals had decreased as a percentage of the population from 26.3 percent of the population in 2007 to 25.4 percent of the population in 2014. Clearly as one who holds to evangelical theology (but not to their current political instincts), that is not good news. It is not such a decrease that it is inevitable that evangelicals are doomed to collapse as a staple of America’s religious society. But it does tell us that we had better think about how to change this troubling trajectory.

But then I looked at the information about mainline Protestants and I felt a little better in comparison. They have gone from 18.1 percent of the society in 2007 to 14.7 percent in 2014. They have lost nearly one fourth of their relative percentage of the society in just seven years. Ouch!!! Now that is a panic pace of loss that those in the mainline denomination had better be worried about. In the movement towards secularization in our society, those in the mainline denominations appear to be the biggest losers.

Now it may be that all of the Christian groups are doomed in the coming secular society. We may be like the Native Americans in that we will eventually lose to the encroaching secularists, just like the Native Americans eventually lost to the encroaching Europeans. Perhaps, we can only delay our demise. Some Native Americans tribes delayed their demise by working with the whites. They wound up in the reservations anyway but they were able to forestall that fate for a few years. Other Native Americans decided to fight the whites to keep their freedom. Eventually all of them wound up in the reservations. There was no ultimate winning strategy given the desire of whites to oppress the Native Americans. Likewise, there may be no winning strategy for Christians.

However, it does appear that the strategy of going along with the culture does not appear to be useful. While generalizations should be made carefully, it is fair to argue that mainline Protestants have been more willing to accommodate modern cultural changes than conservative Protestants. Many of them have marched to the forefront of those cultural changes. Their reward for this support is empty pews.

It is always dangerous for a social scientist to make predictions. We are not fortune tellers and have no special powers to see into the future. But we can see the current dynamics occurring within given social institutions. And if things do not change, then my prediction is that within the next 10 to 15 years we will see the fall, or at least major reorganizing, of several mainline denominations. They simply cannot keep hemorrhaging members like this and survive. Perhaps there will be changes that stop this process, but I am hard pressed to think of what those changes may be. They cannot just change on a dime and develop a traditional mindset. Social organizations are not built for such rapid changes. But their acceptance of a more secularized priority system simply has not worked. The die seems to be cast for them and I say this without the slightest bit of joy as a conservative Protestant.

There is a lesson for us evangelicals in the demise of the mainline Protestant denominations. It will be tough in the coming years to deal with a post-Christian society. We may not be persecuted, but we will face discrimination and stigmatization. There may be temptations to conform to the cultural norms of the larger society in order to avoid this unpleasant reality. My recommendation is to fight that temptation. You may gain some relief from the cultural pressure in the short term, but in the long term I fear that such compromises will plant the seeds of destruction in our organizations.

We should not minimize the costs of going against the grain of our culture. There is a cost to being seen as a deviant religious expression. But that struggle can be useful since making demand on the members of the church can even help them to grow. Dean Kelley made this observation in his assessment forty years ago about why conservative churches were growing. Making demands on the members of our churches should not be avoided as long as those demands are in keeping with our values. This does not mean that we can demand anything from the members in our churches, but it does mean that we should feel the freedom to make demands when necessary.

Now just saying that we should resist temptation is not sufficient for preparing Christians for the post-Christian world. We have to create mechanisms that allow us to retain our cultural values and unique perspectives in a society that no longer appreciates what we have to offer. For this reason, I consider it essential that we think about how to strengthen our communities so that we can be prepared to defend those values and perspectives. A Christian community has staying power in ways that a Christian individual does not. Such a community will provide support for those who want to stay true to the Christian values facing rejection from the larger culture.

Being distinct is a blessing. Why would anyone darken the doors of a church if they can receive the same thing elsewhere? We have to be different from the rest of society if we are claiming to live a life that is rooted in the supernatural. But to be different comes at a cost. If we have a community that goes against the values of the larger society, we will pay that cost and there will be those who want to avoid that cost. But there will also be those who see the dysfunctions linked to general societal values. They will want something different. They can be convinced that Christian values are worth embracing. Being different can be attractive.

Let me show this with an example. I just finished reading a book called Cheap Sex by Mark Regnerus. One of his arguments is that we have changed as a society due to the availability of sexual pleasure without the commitment of marriage. Due to these changes, sexuality is less likely to occur in a committed relationship. This change in sexual norms has been embraced more by men than by women who are more likely to want to have their sexual experience tied to relational commitment.

This change has made marriage less likely to occur. If men are able to get their sexual needs met without having to be in a committed relationship, then they are less likely to become marriageable. We are creating a society whereby marriage is being bypassed and a hook-up culture where sex has become “cheap.” (Although Regnerus also argues that sex is cheap due to innovations in pornography as well.)

Now let us be honest. There are some, perhaps many, individuals who like these new social changes. They thrive in the type of hook-up culture we have today. But there are also many who want the type of traditional marriage that is becoming less common. Many women may find it hard to locate men who desire such relationships, and some men also find it difficult to navigate within modern sexual norms to find a traditional relationship. If Regnerus is correct, they will find it harder in the general society that does not prioritize linking sexuality to relationships.

But they may find it in Christian communities if we maintain our values in the area of sexuality.
I know that some will argue that we do not always live up to our stated values of sexual purity until marriage. But, even if not all Christians wait until marriage for sexual consummation, a subculture that prioritizes waiting for marriage is not one where people are going to feel free to engage in the behaviors linked to a hook-up culture. Sex, even when occurring outside of marriage, will not be cheap. It will be consequential which will be what some people will desperately want. Those individuals can be attracted to our Christian community.

These individuals will not be attracted to a mainline denomination that does not differentiate itself from the sexual economy in the rest of the society. This is where the mainline denominations went wrong. They became so much like the larger society that individuals stopped seeing any real reason why they should attend those churches and organizations. Our Christian communities can be a source of refuge for those who lose out in the modern changes we are seeing. We can be that salt that we are called to be if we decide that we are going to embrace our distinctiveness. The mainline denominations forgot about that role. I pray that we conservative Christians do not do the same thing.

Update: There is a claim among some respondents that I provide no evidence of the value of a traditional sexual ethnic. This is neither the time or place for a complete literature review on the subject. But to give just one example, it is clear that religiosity, particularly among regular attenders, acts to depress domestic violence. This is just one example of the potential benefits we can gain in a religious community as there is research of other benefits. And I would submit that if we did not have as much Christianophobia in academia we would also find more benefits. Mainliners have given up these benefits which I think has damaged them greatly.


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  • Salvatore A. Luiso

    Notice that Pew says their survey has “a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 0.6 percentage points”. The decline of 0.9% should be considered with that in mind. One should also consider the lack of definiteness in the definition of an evangelical. It is quite possible for someone to identify himself an evangelical in 2007 and not to identify as an evangelical in 2014 without changing his beliefs.

    You argue that American evangelicals should maintain “our cultural values and unique perspectives” for the practical purpose of maintaining our numbers in American society: for our self-preservation. Why have you not argued that we should remain faithful to the Lord Jesus regardless as to what society thinks of us and regardless as to whether it helps us maintain our numbers relative to society? We should not have the goal of maintaining our numbers. We should have the goals of obedience to the Lord and of increasing *His* numbers through the *Gospel* while maintaining *His* values.

    I suggest that if you write a sequel to this article, you quote all of Matthew 5:13 and James 4:4–and refer to at least one person of the Trinity.

  • Grateful

    This is pure leftist tripe easily identified by criticism of evangelical’s politics and a revisionist’s view of historical facts about the sad plight of the American Indian. Contrary to the Pew study, a study by Harvard University and the University of Indiana reported in “The Federalist” online about a month ago, Christianity in America is NOT diminishing…it is, in fact, increasing, much to the chagrin of the left. Granted, mainline church membership and attendance are, indeed, dropping, but it is more than made up by significant increases in membership among evangelical and orthodox Christian churches. The losses have been among such mainline churches as the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, USA, The Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church, all of whose memberships have dropped as their messages have become more apostate, secular and anti-Christian. Churches such as the Baptist Church, independent Presbyterian Churches and the Anglican Church of North America are seeing substantial growth as Christians depart apostacy and seek orthodoxy. The continuous message from the anti-American political left has been the demise of Christianity and the blatant extolling of Islam as its replacement. Anyone who has read the Koran (Queran) is well aware of that fallacy and its objective. George Yancy’s comments here follow, almost exactly, liberal talking points and should be universally ignored.

  • Great article! Christians need to realize that conforming to the culture is the death nell AND people don’t want it. When you offer what the heart truly desires why water it down? Orthodoxy is and will always be the answer.

  • Very insightful George, I fully agree with your foresight. From a purely marketing standpoint, a religious experience must set itself apart from the rest of the crowd. I am an Evangelical and I say this not from a business mindset but as a concerned Christian. What is it that we can offer? Salvation? Yes, but what does that mean in day to day terms. I don’t think we are advertising (wrong word here) our message as efficiently as God would want us.

  • Fernando Saraví

    If the number of church members is going down because churches are being truly faithful to Jesus Christ, then figures should take the back seat. But if we are losing members because we are compromising our beliefs, we must repent and go back to the narrow path.

  • Mark A LaJoie

    I am, admittedly, not a great fan of religion.
    But I do agree that if Christianity becomes a minority facing discrimination or actual persecution, Christians must either give up their beliefs or segregate themselves from the larger society, as have the Hutterites and the Amish, or become secretive about their beliefs.
    Indeed the early Christians were a very closed and secretive society, as the Masons used to be. They recruited carefully, and set out procedures for dealing with apostasy. The Jehova’s Witnesses, the Amish, and to some extent, (or so I have heard), the Mormons also shun those who become disillusioned.

  • Henry Carrier

    I’m a Christian who points to the clash between our familiar language associated with scientific facts and biblical vocabulary as the major cause of the decline of our Faith in American. Is it apostasy to change our reference to God as The Divine Creator or to Jesus as “That Most Perfect Being”? How about a perspective that is Evolutionary, that The Divine Creator used the evolution of life on planet Earth to eventually implant a most perfect being in the midst of varying cultural influences, Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, for example, as the necessary ingredients for the germination of moral development in the unfolding of humanity’s history. We must accept that Einstein is correct, that time/space are relative, so that Christian is the necessary catalyst for the eventual Kingdom of God.

  • John C Holbert

    I would suggest that there are still mainline churches that flourish, because they are true to the full reach of the message of the gospel, both its vertical and horizontal elements. The issue has less to do with statistics and numbers, but with attendance on the gospel. It just may be that the decline of membership has more to do with refusal to pay attention to the demands of being a follower of God and Christ, rather than some sort of bland and rigid orthodoxy. I am a mainliner and have been for over 50 years. Yes, my denomination has lost a significant number of its members, but those that remain are trying to do the work of God in the world as well as keep themselves deeply connected to the call of the One who has always called them to service. I am suspicious of the siren calls of “return to orthodoxy,” since that too often means a haven of “old time religion,” which was never, in fact, “good enough for…,” and definitely not good enough for God.

  • james warren

    The problem with today’s Christianity is that it has become a religion Jesus would have rejected.

    Unless the faithful can stop worshiping Christ on a pedestal and start taking Jesus seriously and following his teachings, the faith that I love will “vanish and shrink”–as John Lennon once said.

    The ancient theology and the exalted titles bestowed on Jesus after the crucifixion are no longer compelling, credible or persuasive to people living in a global culture surfing the rapids of change.

    We should be committed to helping to establish Jesus’ Kingdom of God [ON EARTH] .

    “Without God we cannot; without us, He will not.”

  • craig

    As a pastor in a “Mainline” denomination, we have been worrying/discussing this topic for many, many years. Honestly, the old “liberal bad, conservative good” argument is kind of out of date and far too simplistic for this demographic trend. There are “conservative” mainline churches who are struggling for members, and their are “liberal” churches doing well. It just isn’t that simple. For instance, one major cause is that for some reason “mainline” denominations have a lower birth-rate (no one knows why). Also, one factor supporting the “evangelical” denominations numbers is that many of immigrants to the US are drawn to the pentecostal/evangelical churches they attended in their home countries.

  • Robert Campbell

    Declining birth rate among Protestants is the major reason for the decline in church membership, for maybe 50 years among Mainline Protestants, and maybe 15 years for Evangelicals. I think the mainline parishes which have a distinctive mission are the ones who are surviving the best, whether it is a particularly well run Sunday school, a great music program, good and persuasive preaching, attending to difficult issues in their community and getting those issues resolved. In the mission area, one must look well beyond people who are somewhat like you, and to welcome them into leadership positions.

  • Spot on my friend. It does make more sense of Jesus’ words that there be few, not many that will be saved (Matt 7:21-23). Persevering till the end gets harder in isolation. Contending for the faith that was once delivered is easier when its not being done alone (Jude 1:3-4). Thank you for your article.

  • jekylldoc

    It is typical of evangelicals the way this article identifies “easy sex” as the social force to be differentiated from. Jesus was more concerned about money, as were the prophets. And still more concerned about anger. It may seem appealing, for a while, to women to be told that resisting easy sex is what God cares about. But what mainline churches have to offer is a more well-rounded picture of how to approach life in a godly way, including a caring, nurturing approach to our sexuality.

    Actually lots of evangelical churches manage the same thing, even if their “brand” of it is packaged more in black and white terms that appeal to someone looking for clear answers. What they will miss is the people who want to take meaning seriously, and understand their sexuality within a meaningful framework that doesn’t go silent after “obedience” is settled.

  • Norman Ravitch

    Evangelical Christianity, according to scholar Harold Bloom at Yale, is less orthodox Christianity than self-indulgent gnosticism. The mainline churches are declining as people are more educated and learn more about the faulty foundations of this religion; the evangelicals are declining as well but they will always have the advantage of catering to the emotionally weak, the ignorant, the distressed, and the gullible.

  • swbarnes2

    a subculture that prioritizes waiting for marriage is not one where people are going to feel free to engage in the behaviors linked to a hook-up culture.

    Andy Savage sexually assaulted one of the teens in his ministry the day before he gave a “True Love Waits” seminar. And how did his boss react? He sent Savage on a ski trip with more potential young victims. And when the pastoral leadership feared the inconvenience and embarrassment that would come from publicly defending his behavior, they threw him a goodbye party. But it’s all okay for evangelicals, because everyone acted ‘biblically’.

    This is what your sexual ethics actually lead to. You know it. Everyone knows it.

  • Wayne Borean

    Fascinating. But I have a major issue with what you have written. You make assertions without providing citations to back them up. Take the issue of marriage. You may be right, or you may be wrong, but no one can evaluate what you say because you provide no way to check what you are saying.

    Also calling Evangelicals or Protestants ‘Conservative’ is inaccurate. They don’t act conservative. Conservatives believe in only changing laws when necessary. Most Evangelicals appear to want legislative changes made without any evidence that the changes would be beneficial.

    Conservatives also conserve. At least normal ones do. In the USA things are different. I know the USA really well, spent a lot of time in most of the lower 48 making sales calls. One year I was in the USA for over two months. My wife was less than impressed!

    Just curious, why don’t you use Discus on your blog? Most of the blogs I’ve seen on Patheos use it.

  • cc

    I think you make interesting points that are well worth thinking about. I’m going to say this, however: comparing the actual, literal genocide of Native Americans to the decline in church membership (caused by people choosing to leave or, as pointed out by other commenters, lower birth rates) is extremely tasteless. These two are not the same thing.

  • Newton Finn

    Who, more than evangelicals, have conformed their faith to embrace perpetual war and plutocracy? In standing up to this demonic drift of American foreign and domestic policy, and the perverse culture that celebrates or ignores it–the boldest mainline churches have indeed taken a hit…on earth but not in heaven.