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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mainline Denial

The United Methodist Reporter recently ceased publication. Although not an official United Methodist Church publication, the Reporter has covered the denomination's activities for 166 years. Part of its demise was due, no doubt, to the switch from print to on-line publications.  However, I doubt that's the only reason. I suspect that it is also the result of a much larger trend, not just for the United Methodist Church, which is the largest mainline Protestant denomination, but for all Protestant mainline denominations: Unlike their more theologically conservative counterparts, mainline denominations have been shedding numbers in droves. In terms of raw numbers, they have been losing members since the 1960s as the two graphs below illustrate. The first plots membership numbers for the United Methodist Church; the second, membership for the other six mainline denominations (data downloaded from the Association of Religion Data Archives). One doesn't have to be a statistician to see that for the last 50 years the trend has been downward.

However, in terms of a proportion of the population, mainline denominations have suffered much longer and steeper declines. Indeed, there's strong evidence that the decline began for some mainline denominations (e.g., Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians) as far back as the 18th century (see graph below--from Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, "The Churching of America: 1776-2005").

Part of the decline is due to the fact that the demand for theologically liberal religion is not as great as it is for more conservative forms of religion. To illustrate this, imagine (see the graph below) that the demand for religion in the US as following a bell curve, with groups such as the Amish and others most people haven't thought of on the right and mainline denominations on the left, with a number of thriving groups (e.g., Southern Baptists, Four Square Gospel) in the middle (to be sure, for mainliners those groups in the middle seem conservative but mainliners would be mistaken if they thought they represented the theological mainstream).

Mainline leaders appear to be in denial about this, however. I've heard more than one explain away the losses in a variety of ways. For example, I heard a United Church of Christ (UCC) denominational leader argue that since UCC membership patterns mirrored those of a more conservative denomination, theology clearly had nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, this leader had cherry picked his comparison case and ignored all of the other conservative denominations that are growing (and the fact that there are far more conservative denominations than liberal denominations). Another common explanation is that mainline denominations aren't the only denominations that are declining; so are conservative ones. However, as I pointed out in a previous post, that isn't the case ("The Myth of Evangelical Decline"). For better or worse, evangelicalism is alive and well in the US.

So what should mainline leaders do? Well, instead of pretending that decline isn't happening or trying to recapture lost market share (an unlikely proposition), they should focus on ministering to those in their theological niche, providing them with the concepts and narratives that allow them to live faithfully as Christians in today's world.

That said, while theology is almost certainly one factor, another may simply be the reluctance of members of mainline churches to invite family, friends, and acquaintances to church. Their reluctance probably stems from a sense that "inviting" sounds too much like "evangelizing," but as I pointed out in a recent post ("Why Do Some Churches (and Synagogues, Temples, Mosques) Grow?"), successful movements (religious and otherwise) recruit through social ties. To be sure, it probably makes sense to first invite friends to less threatening events, such as choir concerts, church picnics, or forums on popular books (e.g., The Da Vinci Code), contemporary issues (e.g., poverty, violence) or historical events (e.g., Japanese Internment). But inviting friends is necessary if churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques want to grow.

Thus, while it's unlikely that mainline churches and denominations will be able to compete numerically with their more theologically conservative sisters and brothers, they can probably do a lot better than they currently are if they'd simply focus more energy on inviting friends and family to church.


  1. How do "non-denominational" churches compare? The mega churches, which are non-denom largely, and the small-group and house church movements, also non-denom, seem to have exploded and continue to. I haven't looked at any data on it, but that's my observation as an on-and-off church goer since childhood. In my view, these churches have refocused the discussion from legalistic to personal relationship. They have also adapted to the dress and cultural changes...some also adapting their take on biblical principles and others finding ways to present those principles in a more relevant way. Thanks for the post!

  2. Theologically the mega-churches tend to be moderately conservative, but they are tend to be more technologically savvy and are more likely to include newer forms of music in their services (e.g., rock, rap). As you sense, they also have a more personalistic message than in the past.

  3. Sean -- where did you originally find the first graph on UMC membership?