Why are Mainline Churches in Decline?

Recently Rachel Held Evans announced that she had joined the Episcopal church, favoring its progressive theology and liturgical tradition, arguing that millennials want community and sacramental life rather than “cool” church with strobe lights, loud music, and a rock band. As a millennial like Evans who is also in the process of joining the Episcopal church in my home town, I resonate and agree with her on this.

Evans’ announcement has caused something of a stir in the conservative and evangelical worlds, prompting even such a magazine as National Review to weigh in, arguing that liberal theology is destroying the mainline churches. This is a tired old argument, largely pushed by neoliberal sociologists like Rodney Stark in the 1980s, and picked up with renewed enthusiasm by younger right-wing writers recently like Ross Douthat. But the fact that the argument is three decades old does not make it right. In fact, associating the decline of the mainlines with their teachings is most likely a simple statistical fallacy. Correlation does not imply causation, after all – this means that just because two things happen to correspond to each other doesn’t mean they caused each other. Conservatives like David Barton show us graphs that purport to link the loss of prayer in school in 1963 with rises in student crime, teen pregnancy, and other social ills. But the 1960s were a period of massive social realignment outside the school system, and thus the two claims are unlikely to have much in common. Correlation does not imply causality.

So what are some of the reasons for mainline decline?

1) Religious affiliation across the board has declined. Christians are now the minorities in 19 states, while it is commonplace to note the drop in millennial attendance (something that alarms conservatives and mainlines alike), and Protestants make up only 47% of the American population for the first time in at least a hundred and fifty years. This decline revolves around cultural shifts that are beyond the culture war politics of conservative vs. mainline churches.

So why, then, do conservative denominations seem to be growing?

2) Demographic shifts and the history of mainline churches. The mainline churches are the oldest denominations in America, and their historic buildings were typically built a long time ago in urban population centers. In the 1980s, white middle-class families started migrating out of the cities and into the suburbs, where there were no churches. Enterprising evangelicals built churches in suburban areas specifically to cater to white, middle class suburbanites. In short, conservative evangelical denominations had no competition and drew in record numbers by offering services and programs, and by being the only business in town. If you look around at the locations of mainline churches, they are typically in urban areas and town centers, surrounded by buildings and businesses now, not houses. A substantial reason for the decline, then, is population movements away from towns and cities and into suburban areas.

What other reasons are responsible for the decline of the mainlines?

3) Mainlines have not had strong community commitments. The tenacity of authoritarian and pseudo-groups to survive and endure have puzzled many people over the decades. But these groups tend to offer certainty, authority, and a sense of place. They have strong educational programs and maintain rigid boundaries between the “in” and the “out.” The structure of such groups, regardless of the content they teach, are what give them such power. Mainlines have not asked much of their parishioners, and have often gotten little in return besides attendance. More positively, they tend to have more open borders and have been more hesitant than their evangelical brothers and sisters to speak in authoritarian ways about theology, allowing for a diversity of opinion.

4) Evangelicalism and capitalism go hand-in-hand. That is, the vision of the middle-class consumer as the ideal corporate worker and purchaser developed first, and evangelical doctrine grew out of free market economics. The Protestant reformation emerged at the same time as capitalism in Europe, and represented nothing short of a redefintion of humanity as a rationally-minded individual. Covenant theology and federal theology emerged as the religious version of the legal contract between businesses. Charles Finny’s revivals utilized emerging marketing and branding techniques to turn religious conversion into a sales pitch. Conservative evangelicals have been, since Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday, shills for capitalism and funded by major corporations. The revival of supply-side economics since the 1950s has paralleled the growth of conservative denominations, largely, I believe, because they go hand in hand. Capitalist businesses and capitalist Christianity attract capitalist-minded people. The mainlines have, at least in part, resisted this theologically (if not always in practice). They stand, therefore, somewhat against the grain of what people want and expect out of a church.

5) The mainline’s social policy is critical of the status quo, not supportive. Historically, the mainlines have been filled with progressives since the Social Gospel movement in the 1800s, and have been working to change the American system. They can be critical of our government, our foreign policy, our wars, they are sensitive to the abuses which conservative evangelicals are more eager to ignore, they have stood for sexual, racial, and gender equality long before those things were popular, even in some of their own congregations. This is, to say the least, uncomfortable, and if the history of the Christian Right provides us with any lessons, it is that many American Christians would rather listen to virtually anything but their own culpability in the social ills and problems of our nation. In other words, the mainline social policy is prophetic, and has tried to speak truth to power, even when this is annoying and inconvenient. More than anything else, this seems to have enraged conservative envangelicals, who have, since the 1950s, accused the mainlines of being socialists, communists, secret Marxists and, through the Institute of Religion and Democracy, employed covert attacks to destabilize and take over mainline congregations against the wishes of their parishioners.


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