Membership in Mainline Protestant denominations continue to decline year after year in America. But Mainline decline doesn’t mean American Protestantism is doomed. Liberal denominations have simply driven members to more orthodox congregations that remain faithful to the core tenants of Christianity.
Author and religious researcher Rodney Stark discusses worldwide religious trends in his recent book The Triumph of Faith. I reviewed the book last week, and also referenced his research in another blog post about why the Church should not fear the seeming rising tide of “nones” in the United States.
While Stark spends most of his book describing the religious awakening in other parts of the world, he makes some of his most insightful observations about the state of Christianity in America. Specifically, Stark diagnoses why Mainline denominations have been sliding into obscurity for nearly half a century.
But it’s not all bad news. Like religion globally, faith in American has maintained a healthy trajectory. Renewal of Christianity has occurred through the obsolescence of liberal denominations and the dramatic growth of orthodox conservative and nondenominational congregations.
With the best available research at his disposal, Stark delves into Mainline decline with exceptional clarity, incisiveness, and perception. I trust others will find Stark’s observations as on point as I did. So here are seven insights about Mainline decline and Church renewal from Stark in his own words:
(1) “Protestantism is as strong as ever in America—only the names have changed.”
(2) “Not many years ago, a select set of American denominations was always referred to as the Protestant ‘Mainline’ … Today that designation, though still commonly used, is out of date; the old Mainline has rapidly faded to the religious periphery, a trend that first was noticed more than forty years ago.”
(3) “Some religious institutions—but not all—fail to keep the faith. In an unconstrained religious marketplace, secularization is a self-limiting process: as some churches become secularized and decline, they are replaced by churches that continue to offer a vigorous religious message. In effect, the old Protestant Mainline denominations drove millions of their members into the more conservative denominations.”
(4) “The wreckage of the former Mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that began to dominate the Mainline seminaries early in the nineteenth century. This theology presumed that advances in human knowledge had made faith outmoded… Eventually, Mainline theologians discarded nearly every doctrinal aspect of traditional Christianity.”
(5) “Aware that most members reject their radical political views, the Mainline clergy claim it is their right and duty to instruct the faithful in more sophisticated and enlightened religious and political views. So every year thousands of members claim their right to leave. And, of course, in the competitive America religious marketplace, there are many appealing alternatives available.”
(6) “Even though so many have left, most of the people remaining in the former Mainline pews still regard the traditional tenets of Christianity as central to their faith. As a result, the exodus continues.”
(7) “Many liberals have attempted to make a virtue of the Mainline decline, claiming that the contrasting trends reflect the superior moral worth of the Mainline… Meanwhile, the Mainline shrinks, and conservative churches grow.”