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


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increasingly irrelevant to anybody but themselves?

Retired Bishop Spong

For one thing, Douthat had dared to cite yet once again John Shelby Spong’s 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “The reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark,” wrote the Times columnist, “was a uniquely radical figure – during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition – but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

“And in the process, they have provoked a historic schism” with entire dioceses going to court attempting to separate their churches from the denomination — and losing. At the convention, the hierarchy reported headquarters had spent $18 million suing its own congregations – forcing them in court to leave behind buildings they’ve built over the last 250 years with their own sacrifices, labor and love. At last count, nine bishops had decried the convention’s actions in a formal statement. Entire congregations have ceremoniously filed out of the buildings they lost in court and walked down the sidewalk to new facilities where they have started again, liberated from the dictates of a headquarters that had dramatically failed them — attempting to force failure and death on their congregations.

“The Episcopalians are hardly alone,” observes Joseph Bottum. “Many commentators, analyzing the decline of liberal denominations in recent decades, have pointed to the gains of conservative churches.” He, again, cites Kelley, who started the discussion of why people go to church. Is it to be told that sins listed in the Bible really aren’t wicked anymore? To hear that the the Bible is a compilation of Babylonian fairy tales? To listen to doubts over whether Jesus rose from the dead? To debate whether it’s OK to appoint as bishop a man married to another man?

No, reported Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald A. Luidens in their analysis, Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline.  “In our study,” they wrote, “the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief – orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.”

The Episcopalians aren’t the only old mainliners vanishing. Disappearing at a record rate are the Disciples of Christ – the liberal branch of the Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement that began on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. That same movement spawned the arch-conservative and militantly locally autonomous Churches of Christ, which remain annoyed with the arch-liberal and shrinking Congregationalists who now call themselves the ”United Church of Christ.” The two groups could not be more disimilar. 

One of the first Churches of Christ

Some of the conservative Churches of Christ (which as a tenet of faith allow only a capella music) and their just as independent Christian Churches (which do allow musical instruments) insist that the word “church” remain lower case in their names — that Christ alone should receive that honor. The independent Christian Churches decline to organize nationally beyond holding their annual North American Christian Convention. Nevertheless, the two conservative groups are growing in numbers while the liberal Disciples are dwindling.

Similar conservative factions are thriving within the Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. In January, the Orlando Sentinel reported that members of the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando had voted overwhelmingly to break away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

“The 1,759 to 185 vote exceeded the two-thirds majority needed,” reported the Sentinel. “The 3,600-member First Presbyterian is the largest Presbyterian church in Florida and fourth largest in the nation. First Presbyterian has been losing membership in recent years and blamed some of that on PC (USA) doctrines that permitted the ordination of gay deacons, elders and clergy. Some also blamed the decline on doctrines that quest questioned the Bible as the literal word of God and Jesus Christ as the only salvation.”

Artist’s rendering of Orlando’s First Presbyterian, which dominates a city block.

Unlike the litigious Episcopalians, the Presbyterian Church (USA) released the prestigious congregation – which is now in the process of formalizing its relationship with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Why make the switch Local elder Cleat Simmons told the Sentinel “The PC (USA) has turned its back on God and is a denomination dying in the wilderness.”

So, which churches are in trouble? According to Gordon-Conwell’s figures, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have suffered a 56.4 percent loss in membership since 1960. The United Church of Christ (Congregationalist) is down 35.9 percent. The Episcopalians have lost 32.6 percent of their members since 1960. The United Methodist Church is down 23.6 percent and the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost 21.1 percent of its membership.

That’s 6.2 million people no longer sitting in the old mainline pews.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has swelled from 42.1 million

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