Mainline Decline

7 Insights about Mainline Decline from Rodney Stark

on February 21, 2017

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.

Rodney Stark explains various worldwide religious trends including U.S. Mainline decline in "The Triumph of Faith" (Photo Credit: ISI Books)
Rodney Stark explains various worldwide religious trends including U.S. Mainline decline in “The Triumph of Faith”

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was always referred to as the Protestant ‘Mainline’ … Today that designation, though still commonly used, is out of date; the old Mainline has rapidly faded to the religious periphery, a trend that first was noticed more than forty years ago.”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.”

  1. Comment by Been_There_Done_That on February 21, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    As far as I can tell the United Methodist Church is the only mainline denomination that may survive. Their exit from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was encouraging. The real test is if they will stand strong at next year’s convention and say NO to gay marriage once and for all. If that happens the UMC will actually grow and see an influx of disenchanted mainliners from UCC, TEC, PCUSA, etc. His will be done.

  2. Comment by Xerxesfire on February 21, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    Right you are, BTDT. For now at least. I too was pleased, if not a bit surprised that the conservatives rallied at General Convention. If 2018’s Bishops’ Meeting is not conclusive toward banning gay marriage, I fear the UMC will fracture and divide. It has long been happening in the TEC, PCUSA and Lutheran Church. I only wish the UMC would take a more active stand against sinful behavior in general and call it like it truly is and not gloss it over.

  3. Comment by Marcus Goldman on February 22, 2017 at 7:12 am

    I sincerely hope you are right. At the end of the day though, the only way to save the UMC from the liberals will be outright severing of any person and any church body who refuses to stop the whole so-called gay rights agenda dead in its tracks here and now.

  4. Comment by Lee D. Cary on February 8, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    “As far as I can tell the United Methodist Church is the only mainline denomination that may survive.”

    If this article at is accurate, other protestant denominations are statically faring must better than the UMC.

  5. Comment by Xerxesfire on February 21, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    Good article, Joseph. You stated in #4 that “modernist theology began to dominate mainline seminaries in the early 19th century”. But the early 1800’s was a time of great spiritual fervor. I wonder if Stark misspoke and perhaps meant to say the early 20th century (1900s)? I read once that modernism became something of a cancer during that period, with the tumultuous 1920s that truly saw a great divide between fundamental/conservative vs. liberal Christians in the denominations.

  6. Comment by Dr. Todd Collier on February 24, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Historically, he is correct. The modernist theology that has blighted the Church got its big start in the first half of the 19th century. Consider it an odd paradox: Great spiritual fervor led to growing congregations which required “better trained and equipped” pastors. Seminaries grew and began to focus more on theology as opposed to theopraxy. The emphasis became dissecting God’s Word instead of applying it. So we entered the 20th century with raging heresy in the leadership of the “Mainlines.” That fire has yet to abate.

  7. Comment by Shiphrah Puah on February 22, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    We left UMC after 2012 fiasco. It was clear who was running the show and we did not want to sit under abhorrent teaching or expose our teens to it. Happy with their recent choice regarding life. Still watching their choices on sexual practices.

  8. Comment by Dr. Todd Collier on February 24, 2017 at 9:15 am

    My concern is that saying “no” to a new heresy is not the same as returning to complete orthodoxy. Politically we are experiencing people fleeing places where progressive policies have made business or retirement difficult. This makes sense. But they bring the very ideas that made their prior situation untenable to their new locales and then proceed to reproduce their failure. I am concerned about the same thing happening on the denominational scale. If a Christian has not been taught a fundamental respect for the Word and basic discipleship, when the leave for a more agreeable fellowship, they will simply bring this dysfunction with them.

  9. Comment by Joseph O'Neill on February 26, 2017 at 1:17 am

    Stop US Muslim killing wars.
    End idolatry of US State over genuine religious principles of love and support for the oppressed including blacks, hispanics, and Palestinians.

  10. Comment by workingstiffdad on February 26, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Tell it to the jihadis. Jefferson,Churchill, and now Trump all get it right. Read a Quran.. gain understanding of the enemy.

  11. Comment by ethaba on February 26, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    wonder what Catholics can learn from this?

  12. Comment by Sashabill on February 27, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    I have been around since the 1960s to see these trends in operation, “up close & personal.” I was one of the first ones “out the door” along about 1968-69

  13. Comment by dan quinn on September 26, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    The decline of Mainline Protestant churches is absolutely stunning to me. But you can’t isolate yourselves as white upper middle class suburbanites who do a few good things here and there for others and pat yourself on the back and feel like you are destined for heaven. It is way too self congratulatory and totally self absorbed

  14. Comment by Lee D. Cary on February 8, 2019 at 10:45 am

    Protestantism is not declining; it’s growing, reflecting a shift in lay expectations favoring independent, entrepreneurial, “non-denominational” church ventures driven by self-reliant congregations. They avoid the hierarchy of bishops, superintendents, jurisdictional officers, and multiple boards and agencies that operate essentially autonomously while requiring local church funding.

    Comparatively speaking, the Southern Baptist Church – the largest protestant denomination – is holding steady. Early-on, they recognized that the mindset of the laity was moving away from lifelong devotion to denominational ecclesiolatry. In response, some Baptist churches altered the language on their street signage to downplay their denominational affiliation by putting the franchise label in small letters at the bottom of their street sign. Their annual “Convention” is significantly different from the UM “General Conference.”

    Today, the array of non-denominational independent congregation, added together, are the second largest protestant “denomination.” And they’re spreading like weeds.

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