Notebook > Religion
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Mainline rides the pine

Religion | The old Protestant denominations continue their decades-long decline

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

When a leader in the National Council of Churches wrote in 1972 that the mainline churches were shrinking while conservative churches were growing, he was furiously criticized. Yet Dean Kelley's thesis has gone from controversial to confirmed in less than 40 years.

Witness the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, which the National Council of Churches released in February. The yearbook presents information on 227 church bodies, on the basis of data collected and submitted (or estimated in the case of uncooperative groups) over the previous two years. The Catholic Church remains the largest religious body by far, with 68.5 million members, followed by the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.2 million. Yet the most striking figures in the 2011 yearbook are the continued declines among mainline denominations.

Among those who updated their membership totals, the biggest gainers were the Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, with annual increases of 4.37 percent and 4.31 percent. The Mormon church (LDS) saw an increase of 1.42 percent, and the Catholic Church and Assemblies of God came in fourth and fifth, with 0.57 and 0.52 percent growth, respectively.

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The five biggest drops in membership were among mainline denominations. The 2011 totals dropped for the United Church of Christ by 2.83 percent, the Episcopal Church by 2.48 percent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) by 2.61 percent, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) by 1.96 percent, and the United Methodist Church by 1 percent. Yet the news gets worse with a longer frame of reference. Membership in the United Methodist Church has declined by over 600,000 members, or over 7 percent, from the 2001 to the 2011 yearbooks. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost nearly 800,000 people, or over 20 percent of its membership, in that span.

Rounding out the top 25 are mostly Baptist, African-American, and Pentecostal denominations. As renowned sociologist Rodney Stark told me recently, mainline denominations have been in decline for many generations, yet the decline in their "share" of the American religious marketplace was masked until the 1960s by general population growth. Stark blames the rise of modernist theology and the transformation of mainline churches into centers for progressive political action. Whatever the reason, evangelicals no longer stand on the periphery, outside the prestigious mainliners. "The periphery is the mainline" now, says Stark, "and the mainline is the sideline."

Long division

"To say the Presbyterian Church (USA) is deathly ill is not editorializing but acknowledging reality." So begins a stunning open letter signed by numerous prominent PC (USA) pastors and leaders, including noted figures such as John Ortberg, and Vic Wentz of Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, the largest congregation in the denomination. What has sapped the health of the denomination, the letter states, is not only "unending controversy" on issues like gay ordination but also more fundamental differences on the authority of Scripture, the nature of Christ, and whether salvation can be found in other faiths.

The letter invited like-minded pastors and elders to a meeting in August where participants will form a "Fellowship" to bind and serve their congregations in new ways. It is time to acknowledge that the churches within the denomination are "divided already," says the letter, and to question whether denominations in their current form have outlived their usefulness.

The response to the letter echoed the "unending controversy" of which it spoke: Many rejected the list of signers as insufficiently diverse. The signers later affirmed the importance of a diverse movement-and renewed their invitation to begin forming "new realities in our fractured denomination."

Timothy Dalrymple
Timothy Dalrymple


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