There are folks who tend to focus on the “numbers” taking place in Mainline Protestantism with concern. One example is an article written in 1987 by William Willomon and Robert Wilson. They looked at the numbers and didn’t like what they see:
The Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren Churches each began to experience a decrease in membership in the 1960s. This was obscured by the optimism engendered by the merger of these two denominations in Dallas in 1968. The details of the merger took a couple of years to be worked out and several more years for the overlapping annual conferences to combine. During the early years, a number of EUB congregations, largely in the Pacific Northwest region, withdrew to form a separate denomination.1 However, by 1970 The United Methodist Church was in place with a total membership of 10,671,744 and 40,653 organized churches.2
The decline, which began in each of the denominations before the merger, has continued. By 1984, the total number of members had decreased to 9,266,853; a loss of 1,404,891, or 13 percent. We had lost members equal to almost twice the number of EUBs who had united with the Methodists in 1968. The United Methodist Church, in the fourteen-year period 1970-1984, lost an average of 1,930 members every week. (This decrease is illustrated in Graph 1).
The downward trend has not yet been reversed. Preliminary figures for 1995 give the lay membership as 9,105,046.3 During calendar year 1985, the total number decreased by 75,692, or an average loss of 1,455 persons each week. This is the equivalent of closing a church of 207 members every day for one year. The average attendance at the principal service of worship has also shown a downward trend, although at a somewhat slower rate than the membership decline. There were over 442,000 fewer persons attending worship in 1984 than in 1969, a decrease of 11 percent. (This trend is illustrated in Graph 2.)
Nor is the picture regarding the number of congregations is encouraging. During the period of 1970-1984, United Methodism closed a total of 2,665 local churches, or an average of slightly under four congregations per week.
An examination of the membership trends of several other mainline denominations for the decade and a half from 1968 to 1983 reveals equally dismal pictures. The Episcopal Church had a membership decline of 17 percent.4 The decrease in the United Church of Christ was 16 percent.5 The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) dropped by 29 percent. The recently created Presbyterian Church (USA), the result of a merger between the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, in 1983 had 25 percent fewer adherents than the combined membership of their component parts a decade and a half earlier.
It is difficult to conceptualize the extent of the membership declines suffered by the mainline churches during the 1970s and early 1980s. Every week these denominations averaged a decline of over five thousand; this is the equivalent of mainline Protestantism’s closing one local church of almost seven hundred members every day for a decade and a half.
The significance of this downward trend in membership on these historically prominent denominations and their role in the larger society is great. It may mean a realignment of the religious bodies in America. For example, there are now more members in the Assemblies of God than in the United Church of Christ, a fact that will influence both denominations.
Willomon and Wilson notes that the drop off does have a result on the morale of both pastors and congregations and fosters a sense of self-preservation and maintainence.
Another person that has watch these numbers with some worry is Presbyterian Pastor John Vest. Earlier this year, he wrote an emotional post about the rate of decline taking place in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and urged the church to do something:
Last week the Office of the General Assembly released the 2012 statistics for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The numbers aren’t good, more signs of our rapid decline (and the similar decline of all mainline Protestant—and even evangelical—denominations).
- Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.
- This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.
- 86 churches were dissolved.
- 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.
- While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.
I’ve said it before: this is simply not sustainable.
I’ve always appreciated posts like this, not because I want to wallow in despair, but to know what we are up against. Mainline denominations are facing some serious challenges that need to be taken care of. But not everyone sees things this way. Whenever you hear an arguement like John’s there is usually a counter argument coming.
That counterarguement is one that thinks that those who obesses over numbers are putting numbers of above people. They are the folks that dismiss the talk of doom and gloom and instead see this time as a time of possibility.
Ann example of this second view is aptly represeted by Jim Moss, another Presbyterian pastor. He notes the following in a recent blog post that has gone viral:
Why aren’t young people coming like they used to? In all our collective hand-wringing, perhaps the best answer is one we haven’t considered: It’s simply not about us.
Perhaps it has nothing to do with how relevant we are, what style of worship we use, how hypocritical we might seem, or anything that has to do with us and the way we do things. Perhaps it has everything to do with how the world beyond the church has changed, and not necessarily for the worse.
We need to get over our ego-centrism that tells us that the church is still at the center of the culture, and that if someone doesn’t go, it means they have rejected us and rejected God. We need to get past the arrogant notion that we are the only place people can find spiritual truth and community. And we need to bury the all too-common belief that people are hopelessly lost without us, that they are miserable until they stumble through our doors – especially since much of the pain and alienation in the world has been caused by us.Instead, let us be honest about the fact that the church is not for everyone. Some folks are better off the day they walk out our doors and never come back. In today’s fast-paced, high-tech, postmodern, and globalized culture, we are merely one among many options that are out there for people to find fellowship and spiritual connection, and it’s time we get real about the fact that we no longer hold a monopoly. If we expect to return to 1955 levels of membership, and then look inward for explanations when we don’t achieve them, we are destined for disappointment, disillusionment, and defeatism.
Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up because the world has changed and so has our place in it. Perhaps we should just remain true to our faith and our traditions, interpreting them for new generations with new ideas and practices the best we can.
Moss’ response is one that I’ve heard before. Instead of trying to answer why people no longer darken our doorways, we are told to be faithful and just ignore the numbers. Now, there is something to this. Church is not a numbers game and it definitely isn’t about us. We are never going back to the church the way it was in 1955. But there is something rather troubling in Jim’s comments. While the church should not seek to be at the center of culture, you get the feeling that church is rather optional. Moss notes that other activities jockey for what was once the mantle of the church and that is true. But we are viewed as just one option among many, not something that really matters.
Maybe one of the good points of Mainline/Liberal/Progressive Christianity is that it is tolerant and really tries to be inclusive. Another strength is that it tries to be “with it” when it comes to the surrounding culture. But sometimes too much of a good thing can do great harm. The message here that seems to speak here is that church isn’t really that important or even necessary.
If that’s what Jim is hinting at, then it’s a pretty common mode at least in Liberal Protestantism. Late last month, Connor Wood shared his views on why it seems like Liberal Protestantism is dying. He noticed that in comparison to evangelical churches, liberal congregations are not as demanding and have weak social ties. As Wood notes, when faith becomes optional, you lose cohesion and vitality.
Of course, a lot of what is going on in Liberal Protestantism is not the fault of churches. As Moss notes, there are changes going on in the wider culture that are fueling the decline. We are no longer a prominent voice in our society and while some may mourn that, I’m not too sad about that.
But this means that we have to really think about why anyone would want to come to church. We no longer have culture to back us up. We need to talk about why church matters. This is where I think Moss falls short. He’s correct that we will never get back to the 1950s when mainline churches were full. That said, we still should be concerned. Do we have congregations that are flourishing, let alone sustainable? And again, does church matter? Does it matter that we have healthy congregations?
Back in 2010, Walter Russel Mead wrote a series of blog posts on the sorry state of Mainline churches. Mead, an Episcopalian notes in one post that while societal change is inevitable, some of the baggage that comes with it are not helpful to the whole church, for example the anti-institutionalism found in so many mainline churches:
…to stoutly insist that the mainline churches are healthy today strikes me as despair masked in denial. It is not OK that more and more local congregations are grimly struggling with deferred maintenance, dwindling membership and marginal budgets. It is not OK that the mainline churches no longer play the kind of role in public debate or intellectual discourse that they did thirty or fifty years ago. It is not OK that the mainline churches have gotten locked into an antagonistic relationship with most of the church in the developing world. It is not OK that the decline of old models of organization and ministry are far gone in decay but that new alternatives are still struggling to emerge. It is not OK that so many young people raised in the church leave never to return, and that few come from outside to replace them. It is not OK that two generations of theological and liturgical innovations introduced with a conscious intention of making the church more relevant, more approachable and ultimately well, larger, have left the churches smaller and less relevant than before.
There is no one single solution to the problems of the mainline church — or if there is, it has not been revealed to me. But there is something that the mainline churches tend to undervalue, especially in the last two generations, and I think our failure to take it fully into account has cost us dear. It is not the cause of all our problems, but our failure to take it into account is one of the reasons that so many of our challenges has become so daunting.
That something is the principle of sustainability: an institution, an organizational model, a congregation must be on a sustainable path. In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours is, one must constantly test and retest institutions and structures to see if the assumptions underlying them remain sound, if they have a viable economic base, if their strategic direction offers promise.
At the deepest level, this involves the sustainability of the church itself. The mainline churches do not seem to have thought through some of the basic conditions that allow religious organizations to thrive. Religion will not long prosper as a luxury good; it is not primarily a way that comfortable people who are basically happy with their lives can make their lives even richer and more rewarding. A sustainable religion must convince people that it is necessary to life, health and spiritual coherence. A church cannot be one club among many or one leisure activity among many; it must present itself as a bedrock necessity. Not all of its members will take the church at this estimate, but unless a critical mass of its members and leaders feel this way, a denomination (or a congregation) will be entirely dependent on outside cultural and economic forces for its health and even in the long run its survival. A successful church is not one whose pastors and other leaders think a life in church is one calling among many; a critical mass must deeply believe that it this vocation is so critical that they would do it, if need be, for nothing — that they would do it if actively persecuted and flogged from town to town.
I think this is what has unsettled me concerning Moss’ post. When I read the text, the sense that I get from it is that faith, church, God are all optional, they are luxury goods. Bling.
Mead is correct in stating that we will not have a vital Liberal Protestantism so long as it views faith as just one choice among many. Our evangelical sisters and brothers have their issues, but they seem to get that this whole Jesus thing matters. Which is why evangelicalism isn’t suffering the same collapse that mainline churches are facing (they are seeing their numbers fall, but that decline is not as steep and began rather recently), they know that church is not just a fashion accessory, but it is vital to their lives, vital to a sense of who they are and vital to all creation.
It’s time that we stop treating the faith optional. It has to matter. Otherwise, we should just give up.