The Decline of Mainline Churches in America

If you have read the news articles and editorials on Church attendance that pop up every so often in the United States, there’s one thing you know for sure. Churches are on the decline.

The Atlantic, November 25, 2018: America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches-Religious communities often face a choice: Sell off the buildings they can no longer afford, or find a way to fill them with new uses.[1]

Factsandtrends.net, January 16, 2018: Hope for dying Churches[2]

Occult Website Ancient Origins, November 19, 2018: Rapidly Closing American Churches Are Shadowed by The Meteoric Rise in Witchcraft[3]

What’s happening? Are churches as a whole declining in America? The truth is found in two additional bits of information. Yes, thousands of churches in America are closing each year, but additionally, thousands of new churches are opening, and maybe the most important bit of information is that the main source of closing churches is the theologically liberal mainline churches, while Evangelical churches are either declining slower, holding steady, or increasing in membership.

Let’s take a look at what have been called the “seven sisters” of mainline protestant Christianity.

First the United Methodist Church. The 2000 membership was 8,340,954. 2008 saw this decrease 5.29% to 7,900,000. Then another 12% decrease to 2016, to land at 6,951,278 – a decrease since 2000 of 16.66%

Then we have American Baptist Churches USA. Their membership in 2,000 was 1,436,909. By 2008, that had fallen 7.36% to 1,331,127. By 2016 the number was down another 12.89% to 1,159,492. Since 2,000 they are down 19.31%

The Episcopal Church began 2000 with 2,333,327 members. By 2008 they had fell 11.83% to 2,057,292. Then up to 2016 they fell another 15.17% to land at 1,745,156. Since 2,000 they have decreased by one quarter, 25.21%

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was at 5,125,919 members in 2000. In 2008 they were down 9.6% to 4,633,887. That was a 9.6% decline – nothing compared to the next 8 years, which brought a decline of 23% to 3,563,842 in 2016. Since 2000 that is a 30.47% decline.

Then the United Church of Christ. In 2000 there were 1,377,320 members. By 2008 they had fallen 20.13% to 1,100,000. They fell another 20% up to 2016, landing at 880,383 members. They are down 36.08% since 2000.

Next the Presbyterian Church USA. In 2000, they had 2,525,330 members. 2008 saw this number decrease by 15% to 2,140,165. The 2016 total was down 30.72% to 1,482,767. Since 2000, they have declined 41.28%.

Finally, Christian Churches Disciples of Christ. In 2000, they had 820,286 members. In 2008, they had declined by 17% to 679,563. By 2016, this was 411,140, a 39.5% decline. Since 2,000 they have declined by 49.88%

So why are mainline churches declining, and some more than others?

Mainline churches were already deep into theological liberalism in the 1920s and 30s, but they continued to grow until the 1960s. However, once the generation that had fought against the Fundamentalists began to die, there weren’t people in the pews to replace them. The next generation of that crowd generally went one step further and quit church and religion altogether. And the mainline churches had already abandoned evangelism, at least within the United States.

Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy said on this subject,

The leftward drift of Mainline Protestantism, typically disguised behin­­­d vaguely phrased sermons that utilized orthodox language with often very unorthodox meanings, was largely undetected by most actual Mainline Protestant church goers, who were uninformed about the machinations of distant seminaries and church agencies operating in their name and with their financial backing.[4]

So the mainline has continued on its adoctrinal moralistic march, following the social winds wherever they lead.

In 2013, the Christian Church Disciples of Christ endorsed homosexual clergy, marking a point in their steady advance away from Orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality.

In 2014, the Presbyterian Church USA changed their official definition of marriage, adding to its allowance of the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals in 2010.

In 2009, the Evangelic­­al Lutheran Church in America voted to allow non-celibate homosexual ministers to be ordained, and elected an openly Gay bishop in 2013.

Way back in 1985, the United Church of Christ had passed a resolution titled “Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming.” In 2005 the General Synod asked UCC churches to consider not considering individuals gender in performing weddings.­

The Episcopal Church appointed an openly Gay bishop in 2003, and in 2015, the church canons were updated to change their stance on marriage to allow same-sex marriages.

American Baptist Churches officially view homosexuality as “incompatible with Biblical teaching.”

Since 1972, the United Methodist Church has had an official position on homosexuality that states that homosexual practice is against Christian teaching. However, this might be changed in 2019, as this denomination is also moving more theologically liberal.

So what about denominations that not only are officially opposed to homosexuality, but have smaller numbers of theological liberals?

The second largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, had 306,156 members in 2000. They grew 8.7% by 2008, to 335,850, and in 2016 they were at 374,161, an 11% increase since 2008, and a 22% increase since 2,000.

Assemblies of God USA was at 1,637,665 members in 2000, up 9.91% to 1,799,987 by 2008, and up 11% to 2,004,897 in 2016, a 22.42% increase since 2000.

The Southern Baptist Convention had 15,900,000 members in 2000, up 2% to 16,228,438 by 2008, and down 6.23% to 15,216,978 by 2016, down 4.3% since 2000.

As for Episcopalians, a new denomination formed called the Anglican Church in North America in 2009 due to the trends in the Episcopal Church, and they have 134, 593 members as of 2018.

The Evangelical Free Church of America has seen an increase from 2003, when they had 300,000 members, to 2014, when they reported 371,191 members, a 23% increase.

Non-denominational churches are hard to track, but in 2010, they represented the third-largest bloc of Christianity in the USA, behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. Most non-denominational churches are Evangelical in flavor, considering homosexuality to be sinful, and they are a growing segment of US Christianity.

Joseph Rossell, a writer for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, mined seven concise statements  about the state of Mainline Protestantism from the book “The Triumph of Faith” by Rodney Stark[5]. Here they are:

(1) “Protestantism is as strong as ever in America—only the names have changed.”

(2) “Not many years ago, a select set of American denominations was always referred to as the Protestant ‘Mainline’ … Today that designation, though still commonly used, is out of date; the old Mainline has rapidly faded to the religious periphery, a trend that first was noticed more than forty years ago.”

(3) “Some religious institutions—but not all—fail to keep the faith. In an unconstrained religious marketplace, secularization is a self-limiting process: as some churches become secularized and decline, they are replaced by churches that continue to offer a vigorous religious message. In effect, the old Protestant Mainline denominations drove millions of their members into the more conservative denominations.”

(4) “The wreckage of the former Mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that began to dominate the Mainline seminaries early in the nineteenth century. This theology presumed that advances in human knowledge had made faith outmoded… Eventually, Mainline theologians discarded nearly every doctrinal aspect of traditional Christianity.”

(5) “Aware that most members reject their radical political views, the Mainline clergy claim it is their right and duty to instruct the faithful in more sophisticated and enlightened religious and political views. So every year thousands of members claim their right to leave. And, of course, in the competitive America religious marketplace, there are many appealing alternatives available.”

(6) “Even though so many have left, most of the people remaining in the former Mainline pews still regard the traditional tenets of Christianity as central to their faith. As a result, the exodus continues.”

(7) “Many liberals have attempted to make a virtue of the Mainline decline, claiming that the contrasting trends reflect the superior moral worth of the Mainline… Meanwhile, the Mainline shrinks, and conservative churches grow.”

So the mainline is declining, and Evangelical ism isn’t yet. But it could be next. Mark Tooley said in 2015,

Meanwhile, evangelical liberals, as they have increasingly replicated the Mainline Protestant experience, seem oblivious or indifferent to Mainline implosion and its causes. The Evangelical Left has become increasingly bold in departing from evangelical and Christian orthodoxy on sexual issues. Obama’s endorsement of same sex marriage effectively gave permission or provided retroactive political cover for some professing to be evangelical to follow suit. (…) Mainline Protestants have declined for decades yet survive however diminished because they had 350 years of history and often generous endowments, with extensive institutional networks. Evangelicalism is mostly a modern American phenomenon and, for better or worst, lacks Mainline ballast. Liberal post-evangelicals likely will not endure for many decades, unlike liberal Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

But before their demise, liberalizing egalitarian post evangelicals may wreak a lot of damage in the church, mislead a lot of people, inflict spiritual harm in society, and portray a disfigured face of Christianity to the world far more erroneous than any of the mistakes of old style rambunctious conservative evangelicals. For this reason, we are all called to avoid the passivity and silence of orthodox Mainline Protestants 80 and 90 years ago who were mostly too polite to resist the subversion of their venerable church institutions.[6]

Mainline today is just a name. These denominations no longer hold the power they once did and they make a smaller and smaller share of American Protestantism year over year.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/what-should-america-do-its-empty-church-buildings/576592/ (Accessed 12/17/2018)

[2] https://factsandtrends.net/2018/01/16/hope-for-dying-churches/ (Accessed 12/17/2018)

[3] https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/witchcraft-0011017 (Accessed 12/17/2018)

[4] https://juicyecumenism.com/2015/02/19/evangelicals-must-resist-mainline-protestant-trajectory/ (Accessed 12/17/2018)

[5] https://juicyecumenism.com/2017/02/21/mainline-decline-rodney-stark/ (Accessed 12/17/2018)

[6] https://juicyecumenism.com/2015/02/19/evangelicals-must-resist-mainline-protestant-trajectory/ (Accessed 12/17/2018)

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