Mainline Protestantism — Once Central In American Culture — Keeps Collapsing

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(ANALYSIS) Until the 1960s, more than half of Americans identified with the “mainline” Protestant churches that “have played an outsized role in America’s history,” says a Sept. 13 report from the Public Religion Research Institute.

No longer, as is well known among clergy and parishioners who pay attention, scholars and religion journalists.

Is this news? Throughout America’s history, no religious community has suffered anything remotely like the mainliners’ unremitting collapse (click here for waves of Ryan Burge ink) over the past six decades — even as the national population grew.

Several recent reports indicate that this remarkable situation is continuing and well worth updating.

Definition: “Mainline” denominations, the most prominent of which are known to sociologists as the “Seven Sisters,” have roots in the Colonial or Early Republic eras, memberships that are mostly White and relatively affluent and well-educated, affiliations with the National Council of Churches and World Council, and a shared doctrinal commitment to pluralism or liberalism that contrasts sharply with conservative and “evangelical” Protestant groups (including many believers in their own pews).

Last week, bishops of the Episcopal Church discussed the latest statistics during an online meeting. Though offering income has held steady, there was a 6% drop in membership from 2021 to 2022, the worst ever, and that total is down 23% over the past decade to the current 1,584,685. Average worship attendance nationwide rose a bit to 373,000, a slight bump as the COVID-19 crisis waned, but is down 43% over the decade. The median local congregation now has 111 members and Sunday attendance of 35.

This denomination maintains and issues good statistics, and The Guy suggests a more thorough look would cover telltale indexes of vitality, such as trends in infant and adult baptisms, weddings, Sunday School enrollment, ordinations and foreign mission staffs and spending. For additional info on this, see this new post from Burge: “The State of the Episcopal Church in 2022.”

There’s a noteworthy Sept. 14 report on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), whose troubles get little media coverage because congregations are free to leave without the noisy conflicts and lawsuits of other mainliners.

In 1970 this freewheeling denomination reported 1,424,479 members. JuicyEcumenism.com, a conservative site that monitors mainline developments, reported a decline to the current 277,864 members, a 21% fall in just three years, with average attendance nationwide of 89,894. The Disciples are now smaller than many younger evangelical denominations.

The United Church of Christ, which likewise lets congregations leave at will, suffered a similar pattern. In 1960, years after its formation by merger of two groups, it had 2,246,610 members. As of 2020, it reported 773,539, with a loss of 285,000 over the past decade.

With the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), political scientist Ryan Burge (a part-time mainline pastor and GetReligion contributor) portrayed a dire situation in the May 9 edition of his Substack column (an essential source on U.S. religion). He said this denomination is “dying (at) an incredibly rapid pace.” Membership has plummeted fully 63% since 1984, from 3.1 million to 1.14 million, and annual losses have accelerated since 2012.

The most dramatic losses at the moment, as covered by GetReligion, are in the United Methodist Church, currently experiencing what’s likely the biggest U.S. schism since the Civil War. JuicyEcumenism reported Aug. 8 that 6,225 conservative congregations have left thus far, and special meetings in a couple dozen regions will handle further dropout bids before a Dec. 31 deadline. Conservative Methodists complain that other conservative attempts to leave are being unfairly hobbled in some regional bodies, per this from last week.

Shrinkage in the other two “sisters,” the American Baptist Churches and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is less drastic.

There’s more news in two major studies bearing on political activism within mainline groups. Along with the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where,” journalists should want to know “WHY.” In particular, is politics harming the mainline in an era of rampant U.S. polarization?

The first study was issued July 21 by Mark Chaves and Joseph Roso at Duke University in the online journal Politics and Religion. There’s much to analyze, but here we’ll focus on the bottom-line numbers for the three major categories of Protestants: White evangelicals, those in historically Black churches and the mainline Protestants.

With evangelical and Black Protestants, there’s pretty close affinity on politics between the clergy and laity. But with the mainline, there’s a sizable gap.

Among the mainline clergy, 53% said they’re more liberal in politics than their parishioners, including 21% who said “much more liberal.” The same was true with voting patterns in 2016. With mainline laity who regularly attend church, 49% voted for Trump, compared with a 16% Trump vote among mainline clergy.

The Duke scholars call this a “political (mis)alignment” of the sort other experts have discussed since Jeffrey Hadden’s prescient 1969 book “The Gathering Storm in the Churches.” Chaves and Roso conclude that their findings help understand “which clergy are positioned to motivate — or fail to motivate — their people for political action.”

The Guy adds this question: Did the political gap contribute to the massive mainline slide?

The second study, released Sept. 13 by the aforementioned PRRI, covers the mainline “seven sisters” and demonstrates the same clergy-laity political gap. Here also, the mass of data warrants a thorough read.

PRRI found a mainline clergy party identification of 49% Democrat, 28% independent and a mere 14% Republican (71% Democrat in the United Church of Christ). By contrast, mainline lay members identify as only 24% Democrat, 36% Republican, and 35% independent. On political ideology, the clergy identify as 55% liberal, 22% moderate, and 22% conservative. The laity breakdown is liberal 23%, moderate 31%, and 43% conservative.

Especially don’t miss this in the internal numbers. With mainline clergy, 38% agreed, “I wish my church talked more about political division in this country,” but only 15% of lay churchgoers agreed. Are mainline churches downplaying spiritual substance that people want and need?

Finally, The Guy calls attention to an intriguing article about the mainline “collapse,” posted Aug. 21 by Jake Meador, editor-in-chief of MereOrthodoxy.com, with this follow-up. His website advocates conservative and biblical “sanity” as opposed to partisan “extremism” and the “shameless” Christian Right.

“The old Mainline is dead,” Meador proclaims, U.S. Catholicism “is likely terminal” (#SayWhat) and evangelicalism is sliding and losing influence. Instead of Christians “building a new evangelicalism, I think we should build a new mainline.” He hopes for a constellation of “reformed” Catholic churches, both longstanding conservative denominations and recent groups that have broken from the mainline. (The burgeoning independent nondenominational evangelicals get no attention.)

The mission of this coalition will be to heal the national spiritual crisis of individual Americans who distrust everything and are caught in “loneliness, anxiety, depression and despair,” he says.

To The Guy, all this is stronger on description than prescription, but what do other journalists think? It’s time to start talking to the experts on both sides of these crucial debates.

This piece first appeared at GetReligion.org.





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