Have Americans lost faith in the old "mainline" churches?

Millions are attending unaffiliated churches that lack liberal, irrelevant and even litigious national hierarchies. Will Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians gradually fade away?

BY: Rob Kerby, Senior Editor


Do Americans have less faith in God?

Or is their crisis of faith in the professional bureaucracies claiming to represent Him — particularly in the old, historic “mainline” denominations — the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, Methodists and what remains of the Congregationalists? 

The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Schori

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat a few days ago observed that the Episcopalians’ and Presbyterians’ recent conventions didn’t “seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.” In other words, why bother going to such a church when you can get more at the Rotary Club or your favorite sports bar? The same week, Gallup released a new poll showing that Americans have decreasing faith in organized religion as an institution.

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat

However, their disinterest isn’t in the Almighty. Gallup consistently shows that an overwhelming majority – more than three-fourths – of Americans say they are Christians.

Worldwide, church membership is up – and growing. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for Global Christianity reports that there are 1.1 billion Roman Catholics – and in the next 12 years, the number will increase 15.5 percent to 1.3 billion. In the same period, traditional mainline Protestants are expected to grow by 11.22 percent – from 346 million to 385 million.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

However, another unsung group of Christians is eclipsing the traditional mainline Protestants. Evangelical independents are projected to grow 15.8 percent by 2025 to 437 million – 50 million more than the traditional mainstream Protestants. These are churches that don’t answer to any central hierarchy.

Sign in front of an independent congregation

Reporting the numbers of these generally conservative and Bible-based Christians is tough since independents don’t turn their numbers in to any central headquarters.

Such independents have already outstripped the traditional mainline Protestants, according to Gordon-Conwell, which estimated their numbers at 377 million. But it’s not easy for religion writers to report on this nonconforming group. And so in the last week, the old mainline churches continued to get the big headlines – debating cross-dressing clergy, same-sex marriage and other liberal causes such as supporting the Palestinians over the Israelis.

But, how relevant are they? Do their announcements and pronouncements mean anything to anybody outside of their ever-shrinking circles? Why are they even newsworthy these days? After all, more kids play baseball than the entire membership of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. There are 10 times more stamp collectors in America than Congregationalists.

The old mainline churches have been in sharp decline for the last 50 years, according to the National Council of Churches Yearbook. Membership of America’s “big five” mainline Protestant denominations, the Episcopal, United Methodist, Presbyterian (USA) and Christian (Disciples of Christ), all combined – has shrunk until their numbers together are smaller than the Southern Baptists.

The Southern Baptist Convention reports 16.2 million members. Again, it is difficult to report actual Baptist numbers due to all the unaffiliated and independent Baptists that dot the countryside – Alliance Baptists, American Baptists, Bible Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Continental Baptists, Evangelical Free Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Full Gospel Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, General Baptists, Indian Baptists, Landmark Baptists, Missionary Baptists, National Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Regular Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Six-Principle Baptists, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, United Baptists, Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and Unity Baptists.

An independent Baptist church

Given the rise in such non-mainline groups, will the old Protestant churches soon fade away? Their defenders roll their eyes in boredom at assertions that they are approaching irrelevancy. But, frankly, if somebody announced that all 150 of the Shakers left in the U.S. had voted against funding NASA, who would care?

Today’s old mainline Protestant churches have shrugged off such baggage as the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the divinity of Jesus. Their apologists sigh impatiently at any talk of sin or repentance or hell – making the casual observer wonder why they don’t remove the stained glass windows, too – which eventually are going to offend somebody.

Douthat suggests that the Episcopalians and Presbyterians “pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.”

The Episcopal Church’s NYC headquarters, now up for sale

While indignantly denying their impending demise, the Episcopalians quietly voted to sell their Manhattan headquarters because they can’t even pay for its upkeep. Yet, the big media headline was their approval of transgender clergy and homosexual marriage. At their own convention, the Presbyterians seemed headed in the same direction, then hesitated, falling short of the votes needed to embrace same-sex weddings and shunning anybody who does business with Israel.

“At its biannual conference,” reported the Huntington Post’s Robert P. Jones, “the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) debated for more than three hours before narrowly rejecting a bid to modify the definition of marriage in the church constitution as ‘a covenant between two people.’”

“Today the Episcopal Church,” mused Douthat, “is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” Members have responded by voting with their feet – demonstrating

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