More Bad News for the (Mainline) Church

More Bad News for the (Mainline) Church October 10, 2011

I spent some time last week with a group of mainline clergy.  They were truly great people who really wanted to change their churches.  I was speaking about preaching, and they wanted their preaching to be more relevant and contemporary.  But, they reported to me, they are handcuffed.  Their aging congregations simply will not abide change of any kind.

These clergy were in a predicament: their congregations are so small that to lose any of the old-timers virtually ensures closing the doors to the church, but without dramatic changes, the congregations are bound to continue their decline.  The question is, can these clergy both satisfy the elderly members and also reach out to new, younger members?

The answer seems to be no.

Hartford Seminary, an authoritative voice regarding trends in the American Church, has released a study about what happened in the forst decade of the millennium.  The news all around is not good, and it’s particularly bad for the mainline church.  In fact, the report, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010” (PDF), suggests that the phrase to describe these congregations should be changed to oldline Christianity.

As seen in the above graphs, innovation in worship directly correlates to congregational health and vitality.

White churches in general, and oldline churches particularly are doing a horrible job at keep young adults interested in faith:

As a result both the spiritual and financial vigor of American congregations are rapidly declining:

The summary of the research, below, shows a decade of decline in the church, with some notable exceptions: there are more megachurches, and immigrant/ethnic congregations are growing.  But this is not enough to contravene the overall trend of decline.

Conducted in 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2010, the FACT series shows that the decade brought:

  • A continued increase in innovative, adaptive worship
  • A surprisingly rapid adoption of electronic technologies
  • A dramatic increase in racial/ethnic congregations, many for immigrant groups
  • A general increase in the breadth of both member-oriented  and mission-oriented programs

It also gave witness to:

  • An increase in connection across faith traditions
  • A twist in the historical pattern of religious involvement in support of the electoral process

But the decade also saw:

  • A steep drop in financial healthContinuing high levels of conflict
  • Aging memberships

The net, overall result:

  • Fewer persons in the pews
  • Decreasing spiritual vitality

Surely, this will cause more hand-wringing in the mainline church.  But what what I find frustrating is that, as I travel and speak to mainline groups, they are unwilling and/or incapable of making the changes that the emerging church movement has pioneered, even in the face of these dire statistics.

The emerging church movement has shown that mega-church evangelicalism is not the only way to congregational vitality: a congregation does not need to sacrifice progressive, open theology for growth and health.

But I don’t know that the mainline church will ever get this message, because the commitment to their bureaucracies and liturgies is as strong as evangelicals’ commitment to their doctrine.

Whether you’re mainline, emergent, or evangelical, what do you think: Can mainline Protestant congregations in America make the necessary shifts to survive, and possibly even thrive, into another generation?

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  • I’m a minister trying to walk this line. I’ve blogged about the state of the Church at I’m convinced that this divide will kill most small churches over time. The Church, of course, will not die (after all, life after death is kind of our thing), but what it will become will have to rise anew beside the old church. Probably means I’m out of a job, but at least I’ll no longer be in the constant turmoil of trying to help a church that recognizes its need to be relevant, but attacks you every time you are beginning to be successful doing so.

  • Yes. The mainline/oldline churches will HAVE to change, and in fact I’m seeing enough signs of it that I remain hopeful and optimistic. The majority of them may not, but still a large number of them will (and already are).

  • Zach

    I am a seminarian at an old (1806) Lutheran church. The theology has never been progressive, but we were suffering from the staleness described. Change was hard, but we pulled it off. We even managed to keep the liturgy, just revamped. It can happen.

    • lock

      If only you would rap the liturgy, Zach, then you’d be hip with the yoots.

  • Michael

    Their are pockets of renewal within the mainline/oldline denominations that are beginning to sprout. Within the United Methodist Church we have our Wesleyan roots that many emergent/missional movements have adopted with success. I see that denomination going back to the future for renewal. But, it won’t be without major pain, upheaval and even death to much of the status quo. But as was posted above, we are a life after death kind of people.

    • Michael

      Note to self-learn to spell “there”

  • Scot Miller

    I recently left a “downtown” mainline church which refused to change to reach out to new members. “If we change, we won’t be there when newcomers to town seek our a church like ours, and we’ll lose members.”

  • The issues raised here are congregational ones, not denominational/traditional ones. I can only speak for the Reformed, Presbyterian side of things, but it is precisely the fruits of our tradition that are allowing a host of new Presby congregations to redefine what worship and fellowship look like.

    This post also assumes that reviving individual congregations is the goal. But that is silly and short sighted. Everything dies. It is what eventually rises in its place that is of importance. “Emergent” congregations have not had nearly the history that the establishment churches have had, so, while I do believe the witness of the “Emergent churches” that Tony mentions is certainly present and true, it seems a little arrogant for teenagers to be telling their grandparents the best way to die.

    • Bluetexan

      Problem is the “grandparents” have the money. They shouldn’t be so short sighted as to deny the inevitable. They should be supporting emergent worship within their churches so that there will actually be someone to hand over to rather than figuring out how to sell the church property when everyone leaves.

      • lock

        Emergent churches that are hosted by these “grandparent” churches tend to have an intent to progress out of these older churches facilities once they are strong enough to do so. A lot of emergent churches tend to meet in old Christianity churches.

        • Bluetexan

          I am not advocating a seperate church within the church. I believe the older mainline churches should be including emergent worship under their umbrella…not renting out the space to a completely different church. The point is for the emergent worship members to eventually take over the reins from the older folks and STAY in the current (usually paid for) facilities.

          But unfortunately, a lot (not all) of the older folks are resistent to the emergent movement and will not allow this to take place. But I can say that I have met and know of a growing number of older folks that are coming around on emergent. Maybe they will work on convincing more of their peers that the emergent movement might just save their shrinking denominations and older, dying churches.

  • Curtis

    I’m not sure if this is bad news or part of some larger cycle — sorta like looking at all of the dead leaves outside and declaring it “Bad News for Trees”.

    Overall, Mainline Church numbers are dropping. But hidden in those numbers are a small number, maybe 5 or 10%, of growing, vibrant congregations. Those vibrant congregations tend to have Contemporary Worship options and follow a newer, “emerging” theology.

    Just as with trees, the deadwood will pass and the newer, vibrant shoots will flourish. We may not be observing the end of Mainline Christianity, but another cycle of Christian rebirth. A new “reformation” as some authors have speculated.

    The exciting thing is this emergent teaching is also taking root (or shooting out of) traditional Evangelical churches as well. The newly reformed movement is going beyond the old Mainline / Evangelical dichotomy. Maybe it will bring some Catholics along as well?

  • This is over-generalizing I’m sure…but it seems that the traditional narrative about the modernist/fundamentalist split in the early 20th century requires more nuance than is usually given. It’s often been depicted as a fight over the future and the past, while in reality it was a debate about alternative ways of being modern while still having some sort of anchor in the past. While the mainline denominations accepted progressive theological ideas, they remained conservative on structure and experience. Meanwhile, a number of the more conservative evangelical or fundamentalist groups remained conservative theologically, but were progressive in regards to their structure and experience. Not surprisingly, in the past one hundred years, the churches that have shown the most growth (or at least the lowest rate of decline) are those that can more easily adapt to changing cultural developments. Mainline denominations CAN make the shifts needed to continue to be relevant, but it will require their structures, programs and communities to catch up to their theology.

    • lock

      Throughout the OT, the Israelites where constantly getting rebuked for synthesizing their beliefs with the cultures that did not worship Yahweh. Many of these “progressive” theologies want the church to synthesize their theology with culture. I keep harping on GBLT (there are more sexual identity groups out there now than this acronym can hold), but it is the foremost example. You want to say the Gospel affirms monogomy and love. Bisexuality does not fit for that mold. I am seeing “age of consent” tagging itself from within the LGBT movement. Pat myself on the back, I am currently having to stand down an aging congregation myself. Cheesy churches like Watermark, Dallas are the ones that grow – personally the form of worship makes me nauseous, but then again everyone goes and sees Michael Bay’s movies too.

      • Todd

        Bi folks can be monogamous and loving. Being attracted to both sexes does not imply that you cannot be monogamous. Straight and gay people are also usually attracted to multiple people (especially if they’re male!), but no one questions their capacity for monogamy.

        • Todd, don’t feed the troll.

          • Seriously? How did we get from mainline to biphobia? Cripes.

          • Give me your definition of trolling, Tony, and I will abide by it.

          • On second thought, if you consider my post to be a troll post, then please delete my posts, Tony. I would assume it easy as you are monitoring your posts.

            • I consider your comments helpful for the most part, Lock, and I rarely delete comments. It just seemed that your comments here were dominating the thread, which is a form of trolling.

          • The reason for so much commenting by me on this thread/post is that this is the weightiest post you have done since before the release of your book, Tony.

  • lock

    In general these growing congregations are theologically conservative.

    The mainliners tend to be more open to GLBT acceptance, and other stuff. The churches that are growing are ones with pastors that come out of schools of conservative thought, and who’s congregation is conservative.

  • Tim

    We can be faithful and decline.
    We can be unfaithful and decline.
    We can be faithful and grow.
    We can be unfaithful and grow.

    Eventually, we all die.

    The choice is to love well before we die, or we can be apathetic/nasty before we die.

    Let the others here listen: love is defined by the cross.

  • Richard

    I’m currently trying to lead a congregation that left the UCC and was in serious decline. Now, as a nondenominational congregation that utilizes fairly traditional liturgy with a low church sermon that emphasizes faithful following of Jesus, we’ve been growing. To be honest, we’ve grown despite our musical abilities, not because of them.

  • The elders in my congregation appreciate innovative worship that attracts young people. (Contemporary, not so much.) They appreciate being in worship with young people–it feeds their souls. I don’t think we’re facing an either-or choice. We just need to help people of all ages appreciate multigenerational community.

    • DVG

      Amen. In my congregation, the older generation, with some exceptions (hey, difficult people are everywhere) have been very open to change. I am much more frustrated with the ageist attitudes of 20 and 30 somethings assuming their opinions are of more value. If I hear my pastor say one more time, “That young couple with the preschoolers is exactly the kind of people we want to appeal to” one more time, I may scream. Really reminds me of the passage in James about everyone fawning over the rich person and ignoring the poor one. Ummmm, the church is for all. The young family is of no more value than that 80 something husband struggling to care for his wife with dementia. Are there obstructionist retirees? Yes. Are there egotistical, get out my way, pastors? Yes. Is one of the purposes of church to try to learn how to get along and love no matter what? I think so. But I digress. I agree with Michael that it’s not either-or.

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  • Alan K

    Great post, Tony. As a minister in a small town in an aging mainline church, some “middle-aged” folks came to me some years ago and suggested a contemporary worship service. To make a long story short, the service has survived and thrived and is now a permanent part of our church. What seems to have been critical to the acceptance and survival of the new service was to keep our traditional service intact and to not attempt to alter its culture. The existence of the two worship cultures existing in the one church has resulted in conversation and the giving and receiving of gifts between both services. As others have said above, nothing can give older people a shot in the arm quite like the presence of young people can. This presence was more than enough for the older traditionalists to be thankful for the contemporary service.

  • Tony,

    This is an important study and I’m glad you’re posting parts of it.

    Frankly, though, I think the issues relating to worship may be the least important observation of the report. The reality is that despite all these changes in worship and the increase in the # of megachurches and ethnic congregations, Christianity is still on the decline in terms of average numbers of worshipers per week and finances. In short, these “adaptations” that we “think” are making some difference probably aren’t. At best, some of them may stanch the flow out.

    The two biggest population trends noted by this report and predicted by the Congressional Research Office based on 2010 census data are these.

    1) The population of the US as a whole will be older than ever by 2050, with 20% or more of the population over age 65.

    2) The “white” population will become a “large minority” (that is, less than 50%), with Hispanic/Latino populations approaching 30%, Asian populations doubling to about 8% and African American populations staying about the same (13%).

    The first issue will be bring major social networking, social structure and financial challenges to this country and our churches. As we seem to be intent in this decade on unraveling our safety net, including for older adults, I don’t think we can look to society as a whole or government to address these issues. We’ll have to find ways to do so ourselves– as churches.

    The second means, at a minimum, that no church that seeks to have influence beyond its own ethnicity in this country can afford to allow its members to speak only one language fluently. Language is the key to cultural fluency, and cultural fluency is the key to missional effectiveness (at least if we pay attention to the incarnational principle here).

    One of the ways and venues we must begin speaking more languages is worship– but since we actually worship less typically a tiny fraction of each week, we need to look at this more in terms of how we get our folks learning and speaking more languages with their neighbors (and future neighbors!) for whom those languages are native.

    Generating meaningful responses to both of these major challenges requires some sort of major coordinated effort– something denominations COULD do— and maybe even could do cooperatively– if they were of a mind to.

    Here’s hoping some of us do.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • By the way, URL for the Census/Congressional Research Report cited above:



  • Barnaby B

    I belong to a very theologically-liberal mainline church. Our liturgy is pretty traditional, though — the only real difference between our music and the that of the extremely conservative midwestern church I grew up in is that we include a lot more African-American spirituals (which makes sense not only because the songs are amazing but also because we are a racially diverse congregation). Aside from the music, we have a few non-traditional practices but nothing really groundbreaking. However, I don’t believe for a second that that’s what keeps local young people from joining up.

    Our church, like the rest of the mainline, has many more elders than youth, but I don’t think this is because we don’t have electric guitars, nor is it because our “old folks” won’t put up with any new-fangled craziness — trust me, they’re not that kind of old folks.

    In our case, I think that if local young people were looking for a place to worship and visited us, there’s a decent chance they’d find our worship beautiful and a very good chance they’d find themselves exuberantly welcomed in our community.

    Trouble is, they don’t visit. Because they’re not looking. They’re not looking for a church. And we feel weird asking them to start looking: we are not exactly in the business of peddling eternal salvation like it’s a door prize and threatening everybody else with a literal lake of eternal fire. We’re a whole bunch of people who’ve found salvation in Christ but can’t figure out how to convince the very people we best know and love (who can totally be persuaded to participate in a charity event or service project with us, but not persuaded to come on Sunday mornings) that they totally need what we’ve got. We’re not even sure it’d be appropriate to do so when we know our motivation stems at least in part from a selfish desire to remain culturally relevant. Not to mention that we’re big ole bleeding-heart religious pluralists, so we tiptoe like truants around the whole evangelism business.

    Our problem is not the lack of guitars. It’s not a lack of faith. It’s not the black spirituals or our boring baptism rite or the fact that we marry gay couples. It’s not even that our dance moves are kind of pathetic. It’s that liberals suck at evangelizing. Thoughts?

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  • Tony – I consider myself an emerging/missional type person although I am 65+ years old. We recently moved to a new town and surprisingly find we are attracted to a small, theologically liberal church with a beautiful building and quality choir – lots of vitality and friendliness in spite of an aging population. I think some readers of Faith Communities Today’s Decade of Change Study could miss some important conclusions that get lost in generalizations and assume that vitality is necessarily about shifting to contemporary music. If you read between the lines the study also suggests that more liberal churches with local mission orientation, interfaith involvement and little conflict can still be thriving. It is a separate issue that younger people in particular increasingly have “no religious preference.” Mainline churches will not be able to attract them with contemporary music; networked, virtual communities may be part of the answer and they probably won’t be attracted into older church buildings, regardless of how much aging traditional churches try to retool.

  • Geraldine

    It really seems not possible. Working in a traditional (anglican) rural church setting you always get “this is nice, but I don’t want it every sunday” answer from the older generation in parishes. Even though they too see the decline. But most of them do not want to comprise on their experience of church. But I over the years I also understood that it has not so much to do with the music why young people don’t come to church anymore, it has more to do that they don’t have ownership! They are not valued, especially if they have questions about faith and theology. If a church community is open to the question of their young people and willing to open church for them and what they can give, that’s where they will go!

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  • Lamar Carnes

    I am elderly, to be more specific I am 75. I have never felt any aversion to the style of music, clothing, and/or changes the younger generation has brought into our Church meetings. I am 100% for all of it as long as it shows respect and honor toward God and our Lord Jesus Christ. Bands, vocal groups, (I still love choirs), orchestra’s, loud playing, raising of the hands in our praise and worship time, along with any and all instruments played is certainly very, very Biblical.
    My only concern now is that when a spiritual gift is given to a person “age” doesn’t suddenly disqualify the person or nullify his or her gift! Yet, I find the younger generation seems to ignore and not use the elderly any more for some reason. Certainly if they are sick, disabled, etc., that is understandable. But if not, that gift is still there and GOD expects it to be used in the body of Christ and the leaders of the local Church should acknowledge that and make sure they have the opportunities to serve Christ! I was applying for membership in a new reformed Church some time back when I moved into an area, and the requirements stated one could NOT serve in the ministry leadership of the Church unless they believed in the Dispensational approach to last things. I asked the Pastor if that were the case, how could I exercise my spiritual gift of teaching in his Church if I were a member since I did not embrace Dispensationalist teachings at all and many Godly Reformed people do not either. Should I just accept the Churches efforts to block the “gifts” of God because of this and join anyway and not exercise my gift? To me that was unreasonable rules applied for membership and service for Christ in the local Church. I noted they used Wayne Grudens Sytematic Theology book in one of their courses and he certainly wasn’t a Dispensationalist. I trust they have changed that stance by now, because he did say they would re-visit that issue.
    God help us all to work together to forward the work of Christ in the local Churches by following Jesus and His word in all things!
    Lamar Carnes

  • Doug Johnson

    If you observe plants on this good earth, you’ll notice that they devote their entire existence on making, preparing, and supporting the next generation then involuting themselves and becoming fertilizer out of which that new growth arises. What if “Church Plants” did the same? I have no patience for anyone who sucks all the life out of Church workers, leaving the young to fend for themselves.