If you read most of this article in USA today, you’d think that the mainline churches are having a resurgence. That’s because most of the article is a puff-piece about how well those “liberal churches” (that’s the article’s term, not mine) are doing, and how great they are.
But the telling paragraphs, buried in the body of the article, are these:
By comparison, total membership in the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations — United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (USA), Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches — fell a total of 7.4% from 1995 to 2004, based on tallies reported to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
Meanwhile, the total membership count for Roman Catholics, the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention, Pentecostal Assemblies of God and proselytizing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) reported to the Yearbook is up nearly 11.4% for the same period.
While I’m not quite sure how the LDS got put in with Roman Catholics, Baptists and Assemblies (the only “conservatism” they share is political… not theological in the slightest), these are revealing stats that basically undermine the rest of the article. So while the author of the article found some “vibrant, growing churches” from the “mainline protestants”, they are emphatically not the trend.
Sociologist Barry Kosmin, a lead researcher for the American Religious Identification Survey, done in 1990 and 2001, says, “The mainline is never going to be the dominant cultural group again.
In 2001, 17.2 million people named a mainline denomination [as their church], down from 18.7 million in 1990…………
Still, the experts say hold off on playing taps for the mainline. “Numbers aren’t the only story,” Lindner says. “We still have to talk about what really counts — cultural hegemony.”
Here’s what’s not in the USA Today article, because it would further undermine the perspective of the author: There are about 163 million “protestants” in the USA. Since it seems doubtful that most of those are unitarians, one assumes they must mostly be the more conservative denominations. So who’s mainline now?
An important point: the shift that’s still happening between former mainline and more conservative affiliations seems to be speeding up, not slowing down, and it isn’t just a sort of “market adjustment”.
Which naturally leads to the question: why? What is causing such hemorrhaging (true confessions… I looked it up in the spell check) in the “mainline denominations”? DO they still have “cultural hegemony”? If they do, will they keep it?
Does anyone know of any studies on the typical affiliation (or former affiliation) of members of the “emergent church” ?
Fascinating questions, to me…. and I’m not too sure I have ready answers… just some wild guesses.
How about you?