What has become of the mainline?
More than 20 million Americans still hold membership in mainline churches. The largest mainline denominations are the United Methodist Church, with 8.7 million members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5.2 million members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), with 2.6 million members; the Episcopal Church, with 2.5 million members; and the American Baptist Churches USA and the United Church of Christ, each with 1.5 million members.
Mainline membership is down (by nearly 6 million members) since 1965. Some critics argue that the decline is the result of too-liberal theological and social policies. In addition to their work promoting civil rights, mainline leaders have also aggressively promoted women's rights and political issues such as nuclear disarmament. During the 1990s, every mainline denomination battled over homosexual rights, a fight with no end in sight. At the same time, evangelical churches--while not immune to the gay rights and women's rights struggles--have largely toed a conservative line by limiting women's roles and by calling homosexuality sinful.
But contrary to what some critics argue, the mainline decline is not over disagreements with theology or social policy. The reason is mostly demographic. In the 1960s, mainline members were better educated and more likely to be employed in professional and managerial occupations than members of fundamentalist or evangelical churches. Like other upper-middle-class people, mainline members married later, had fewer children, and had them later. These children, in turn, went to college, postponed their own marriages and childbearing, and had smaller families. For these reasons, there were simply fewer offspring to populate the mainline churches.
Fortunately for the mainline, those demographic problems have pretty much run their course. During the 1990s, membership in the six largest mainline denominations declined only modestly, and some figures suggest that attendance has actually gone up.
One might suppose that mainline members have become discouraged in recent years, as they have sustained membership losses and seen evangelical leaders reap most of the political attention. But this does not seem to be the case. Only 24% of mainline members think the public influence of their denomination is weaker now than it was in the 1960s; 29% say it is just as strong now as then; and 33% believe it is stronger now than then.
Although the decline in membership during the 1970s and 1980s caused mainline denominations to tighten their belts, most have done so effectively. Budgets were trimmed and national bureaucracies reduced.
Today, most of the action is at the congregational level. And with some 75,000 congregations scattered across the country, the mainline is an important presence in most communities.
At the national level, mainline denominations have also been active. Each of the six denominations maintains an office in Washington that lobbies policy makers on behalf of the denomination. Within the last year, the Washington office of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has supported the Foster Care Independence Act (renamed the Chafee Bill), proposed revisions to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and encouraged members to sign petitions in favor of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. Mainline leaders are actively promoting debt relief for Third World countries and a wide variety of environmental protection initiatives.
Still, mainline leaders face significant challenges if they are to be strong public voices in the future. Their preference for quiet influence at the local level may work well for some issues. But many issues have to be addressed at regional, national, and international levels as well.Legislation providing earned income credits to the poor may be as important as local food pantries; and clean air bills can hardly be effective if they apply only to local communities.
Another significant challenge is figuring out what it means to be "mainline," "Protestant," "Episcopal" or "Methodist," or even "Christian" in an era of growing religious pluralism. As mainline leaders work increasingly with leaders of other faiths, they will have to clarify what their distinctive Christian witness is.
Whether mainline Protestants will figure out how to meet these challenges remains to be seen. But around the country, the mood in mainline churches is optimistic. Most members--left, right, or center--have long since given up expecting everyone in their denominations to agree with them.
Most are in it for the long haul, disagreements and all.