More Bad News For The Mainline

tallsteepleA December 7, 2009 report from the Barna Group details the continued slide of the mainline churches (i.e. the American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church, and Disciples of Christ, the so-called “Seven Sister” of American Protestantism). They are still wealthy but their membership continues its decline.

The Wikipedia page gives these membership statistics:

Does anyone think that there are actually 7 million mainline Methodists or 2 million mainline Episcopalians or an equal number of mainline Presbyterians?

Once more, those groups rushing toward the declining mainline might want to reconsider their destination. The mainline isn’t what it used to be.

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  1. Perhaps the numbers of mainline Presbyterians are inflated a bit. I suspect that since church discipline is waning in the PCUSA that there are a lot of people on membership rolls of its churches that no longer attend (possibly even for years now). Just speculating…

  2. I was one of those “members” who stopped attending for almost 10 years before I transferred my membership elsewhere.

  3. There is a story in today’s Courier-Journal (Louisville KY) about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) seminary in Lexington KY cutting back on students actually going to the campus. They also cut faculty, but 2 have files lawsuits saying they were terminated unfairly.

  4. I watch Episcopal attendance figures closely.

    Amongst surveyors I’ve read, the repeated figure–for TEC–used for regular and faithful attendance is about 722,000 versus 2.2 million on the books.

    Of those attending, “gray hairs” increasingly dominate the pews. Where I attend, there are some young families, but that’s due to the Marine Base nearby. It’s still “gray hairs.”

    From my limited experience, I might add that ones I’ve known appear:

    1) to be functional congregationalists, that is, so long as the bishop doesn’t push his agenda here, we’re fine,

    2) to know that profound troubles exist amongst leaders, but “that’s them, not us,” (and there’s embarrassment about the lampoonery they get about being a “gay” bishop friendly church)

    3) to rely more on the liturgy and hymns for their direction than the pulpit or sermon.

    4) to know there is a “disconnect” between the liturgy/hymns and the sermon-content. I’ve heard this a number of time.

    I will never forget a godly, kneeling, and elderly (84-years old) who prayed near me, Sunday by Sunday. She was 0ld school. She knew the old 1928 BCP—a very imperfect product compared to the 1662 BCP. One Sunday A.M. prior to Morning Prayer, I introduced myself and we talked. Her eyes welled-up with tears and she grabbed my hand with her clubbed-fingers. “Please help me get my church back.” My response was kind, but direct. “It won’t happen unless the seminaries are re-staffed, the bishops swept from office, and a generation of new Theologians and Pastors arise, teaching Reformation theology.”

    2.2 million may be on the rolls, but 722K appears to be the functional Episcopal church.

  5. Phillip –

    The 4 points you make about TEC are some of the same things I’ve heard from ELCA-types, almost verbatim. There seems to be a common thread running through these mainliners consisting of a look-the-other-way attitude until it’s too late. Like that elderly woman you met, many of the gray-hairs clung relentlessly to their “habits” (not confessional beliefs necessarily, which is a different thing) as things deteriorated around them, from CW worship styles, pluralism preached from the pulpit, increasing indifference toward wayward lifestyles, and broad ecumenism that spanned once rival denominations.

    I, too, wonder about the validity of those statistics. I’ve sat in elders meetings where once a year they sifted through the membership roles, crossing off some names while placing question marks by others. The final edit was still a far cry from what one observed in attendance on a given Sunday. I have to smile sardonically and shake my head when I surf into the LCMS website, for example, where I see a ten-year graphic depiction of various congregations’ membership numbers some of which I know can’t be correct.

  6. The LCMS isn’t mainline, is it? Is there somehow some affiliation with LCMS and this discussion? Why is there suspicion that the LCMS inflates its roles anyway?

    • No, Barna omitted it. I added it. It’s one of the 7 Sisters. The Disciples are fairly described as liberal. The other wing, the “Christian Church” wing is more conservative.

    • Pastor,

      The documentation of the decline of the mainline is well established. Mainliners themselves have been writing about since the 70s. Yes, there are active mainline churches but is the faith in mainline churches? In my hometown one could hardly miss all the mainline churches, some of them influential, prestigious tall-steeple congregations but it was nigh unto impossible to hear the law or the gospel in those places. I tried. Why? Because the mainline anticipated contemporary evangelicalism by becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of the culture. Mainliners are owned by the cultural elite, to a large degree, and evangelicals by the suburbs but it’s the same phenomenon.

      Machen diagnosed the mainline in 1923, in Christianity and Liberalism, and it seems that the mainline is willing to listen to any and every remedy (especially activism, which is another facet of the cultural captivity of the church) except his.

  7. I’m a member of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and I and my other church members have considered ourselves to be nothing but a mainline denomination (though admittedly right of center). At the moment, there appears to be a creeping evangelical influence in my church body, which I and others fear will threaten our Lutheran theology. Some of us have even conceded that as a denomination, we had taken a wrong turn with the Seminex controversy. I live in the Pacific Northwest, a region where both religion and politics are a bit more left leaning than maybe the rest of the country, which may explain why we don’t seem to fit the LCMS stereotype.

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