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.