Are Mainline Denominations Sustainable?

Where Are All the Children?

However, neither of the above two reasons is the main reason for mainline church declines. More affluent, socially mobile, and educated mainliners are having children at a rate that is not replacing the population at a sufficient rate. A related effect is the higher likelihood of birth control in these cohorts. More conservative evangelical congregations tend to have more babies for the opposite reasons, i.e., they tend to be less educated and tend to have more children at a higher rate. They may also retain members better due to a clearer theological urgency to reach out for new people. Couple this evangelistic outreach with higher social demands for people to remain connected with a conservative congregation, and there is a mixture of both theology and demographics that leads to more stable growth rates.

The polity in non-denominational evangelical churches tends to be more localized and therefore more adaptive to often very different geographical regions characterized by different cultures and social structures in which people are embedded. This phenomenon has been called the demographic imperative. It is really a mathematical problem. If a community does not replace its population, much less increase it over time with more kids, that population will decline. This is perhaps the single biggest factor that explains all mainline denominational decline.


Given that numbers will continue to decline for all of these reasons, is the mainline denomination a sustainable entity? It is very hard to find any sound argument to say that it is. This is not a theological problem as much as it is a failure to adapt to changed social and cultural phenomena, something new churches are able to do with more flexibility. With increased ability to adapt to changing social phenomena comes a willingness to take more risks in how to reach changing populations. Meanwhile, among mainline churches, endowment funds will continue to dwindle, financial giving will continue to be a challenge, and all of the beautiful, large buildings we see in our towns of the once mighty mainline establishment churches will continue to be sold off as warehouses and even dance clubs, as was the case of the church pictured above.

So what can be done? Is there a way to reverse the current gravity of the church downward? Or have we passed the tipping point of no return and are now facing the inevitable? Are mainline denominations going to die out with the exceptions of a few large congregations?


Drew Tatusko is an academic administrator and grant activity director at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He also earned M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary where he also was awarded the Fellowship in Practical Theology. He is working on a Ph.D. dissertation in the study of Higher Education from Seton Hall University focusing on secularization and religiously affiliated higher education. He is also a semi-professional drummer and percussionist who has performed all over Pennsylvania, New York City, and New Jersey. He lives in Duncansville, PA. Drew also blogs regularly at Notes from Off Center.

4/12/2010 4:00:00 AM
  • Community
  • History
  • Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • Andrew Tatusko
    About Alonzo L. Gaskill
    Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.