The Return of the Living Dead (or maybe just sleeping)

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?

2 thoughts on “The Return of the Living Dead (or maybe just sleeping)

  1. aly hawkins

    Huh. Very interesting reading. And creative journalism, since the premise of the article was completely undermined by the numbers.

    In answer to your question, I believe the majority of EC-types hail from conservative evangelical backgrounds. Not that there’s a “typical” story for all of them (us), but many came of age at the height of the conservative/liberal (theologically) wars and couldn’t bring themselves to throw in their lot with either camp, seeing the good and bad of both, and wanting to claim the good and lose the bad of both. A minority have come from mainline backgrounds and would identify themselves as “post-liberal” as opposed to “post-evangelical.” (I noticed that one of Mike’s new taglines is “90% evangelical by-product” and I laughed heartily.) Regardless of “family of origin,” I think the unifying factor is a conviction that the Gospel has been bastardized, polarized and ad hominem-ized on both sides, to the detriment of the kingdom of God.

    I can’t say that I’m glad about the decline of the mainline churches, though the compromises under which they came to political and cultural prominence were — in my estimation — bought at too high a price. I have great respect for the scholarship that’s come out of the “liberal” branch of the church, and love for the liturgy that they’ve kept alive.

  2. harmonicminer

    So, an update:

    The Presbyterian Church USA is busy self-destructing, it seems.

    Mark D. Roberts is a very thoughtful man, and I am impressed by much of his writing.  Shoot…  he even advertises Scot McKnight’s book “Praying with the Church” on his site, and thoughtfully reviewed McKnight’s recent essay on the “emerging conversation”.

    Nevertheless, his assessment of the prospects for the PCUSA is pretty dim, and he is a PCUSA pastor of many years, and a very successful one, by all external measures.

    The discussion, to no one’s surprise, is whether the sexual standards of the New Testament and historic Christianity should be upheld as absolute requirements for ordination.  Roberts points out that the General Assembly of the PCUSA voted by a “strong majority” to affirm that officers of the church must practice “fidelity within the convenant of marriage between a man and woman or chastity in singleness”.  He seems happy about this.  He is, however, distinctly unhappy that a (smaller) majority also voted to allow “local leadership bodies” to decide whether any particular behavior actually violates those standards.  In other words, the “rules” are there, but a local group is free to decide that a particular behavior does not violate them, if it so chooses.


    “To put it in a nutshell, the rules state clearly that persons who engage in sex outside of marriage may not be ordained. But, according to today’s action of the General Assembly, leadership bodies are now free to decide whether they must follow the rules or not.”

    The devil is in the details, though (maybe literally, this time).  The majority vote to affirm the rule of chastity outside of marriage was 405-92.  That means that almost 20% of the membership (mostly pastors!) disagrees with this historic standard.  How were they ordained?

    Roberts, again:

    “In the past, General Assemblies have voted to allow the ordination of people who engage in sex outside of marriage, but these votes have been in response to motions to change the church constitution. Since constitutional change requires the concurrence of the Presbyteries (regional bodies), every one of these General Assembly votes has been rejected by the whole PCUSA. Last time the vote of Presbyteries was almost 3-1 in favor of the constitutional commitment to fidelity and chastity. ”

    In other words, a majority of the General Assembly, in times past, has voted to repeal the rule, and been overturned by a less than 75% vote of it’s constituents (think state legislatures responding to a Congressional move to amend the Constitution).

    The point is simple:  a majority of the clergy, and 25% or more of the membership, do not adhere to historic Christianity’s moral teachings. 

    Pastor Roberts, who I think is a fine man, thinker and writer, doesn’t comment on the backstory of just how disastrous those numbers are, except indirectly as he discusses the divide in the PCUSA.  In fact, he quoes the numbers as proof of hope for unity in the church. 

    For my part:  I’m wondering how things might have gone in Jerusalem a few weeks after the Resurrection,  if 6 of the 12 had believed sex outside of marriage was just fine for apostles, and if 1 out of 4 of those converted on Pentecost had believed the same.

    Despite Pastor Robert’s reluctance, I can only believe that the best thing for many PCUSA churches is to split off in some way, or they will simply lose their identity.

    Sidebar:  just what is it about seminary training that causes people to lose their minds? 

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