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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members to 66.4 million since 1960. The Southern Baptists are up 67 percent in the same period, from 9.7 million to 16.2 million.

A historic AME church in Manhattan

Significant growth has been seen in two very conservative and traditionally African-American denominations, the Church of God in Christ (reporting 5.5 million members compared to 393,000 in 1960) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, reporting a 103% increase from 1.9 million to 3.9 million. The Assemblies of God churches report 2.6 million members, compared to 509,000 in 1960.

And the big boom — spawning many of the new and growing megachurches across the countryside — is in the independents. What’s their secret? They preach the Bible instead of denying it or explaining it away. They also focus on energetic outreaches to youth and young adults — and families.

On the other hand, “Instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace,” noted Douthat. Their defense, he says alternates “between a Monty Python-esque ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued ‘the stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves.)”

“When people leave mainline churches, they go somewhere else,” writes Michael De Groote for the Salt Lake City Deseret News. “As Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas describes it, they are not leaving religion so much as they are looking for religion. About 44 percent of Americans say they have a religious affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s ‘U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.’

Michael De Groote

“Everybody knows that the so-called ‘mainline’ is now the sideline,” writes De Groote. “’The United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Methodists and the Episcopalians have been shrinking at a rather prodigious rate. But that isn’t because people left church, it is because people left those churches,’ says Stark. ‘Groups like the Assemblies of God have doubled and redoubled in size in the same period of time.’”

Baylor University’s Rodney Stark

Stark, however, sees the explanation as simple.

“People go to church for religion, not for all these social things. Strange as that may seem. If you get up in the morning and go to a church where religion is not being taken seriously, you go someplace else. I don’t think that is very surprising.”

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