There’s a pervasive narrative today of conservative Christian demographic decline. This narrative is partly based on reality and partly based on wishful thinking by some. But this narrative typically ignores the far more dramatic implosion of liberal white Mainline Protestantism.
The popular conventional narrative asserts that young people in droves are quitting evangelical Christianity because it’s too socially and politically conservative. Of course, the implication is that if only Evangelicalism would liberalize, especially on sexuality, then it might become more appealing.
But all the available evidence as to what happens to liberalizing churches strongly indicates the opposite. Mainline Protestantism is in many ways what critics of Evangelicalism wish it would become. And yet the Mainline, comprised primarily of the “Seven Sister” historic denominations, has been in continuous free-fall since the early to mid-1960s. Its implosion accelerated after most of these denominations specifically liberalized their sexuality teachings over the last 20 years.
The facts of Mainline Protestant decline are easily available. And yet the Mainline, once the dominant religious force in America, has declined so calamitously that for many it’s become almost forgotten. Often, when I speak to young people, I must explain what the Mainline is. Many young people, when they think of non-Catholic Christianity, are only familiar with Evangelicalism, which displaced the Mainline decades ago as America’s largest religious force.
So it’s necessary to repeat what’s happened to the Mainline. The Episcopal Church peaked in 1966 with 3.4 million and now has 1.7 million (50% loss). What is now the Presbyterian Church (USA) peaked, in its predecessor bodies that later merged, in 1965 with 4.4 million, and is at 1.4 million (68% loss). The United Church of Christ peaked in 1965 with 2.1 million and now has 850,000 (60% loss). What is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in its predecessor bodies that later merged, peaked in 1968 with 5.9 million and now has 3.5 million (41% loss). The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) peaked in 1964 with over 1.9 million and now has just over 400,000 (80% loss). United Methodism, in its predecessor bodies, peaked in 1965 with over 11 million and now has 6.9 million in the USA (nearly 40% loss). The American Baptist Church peaked in 1963 with over 1.5 million and now has less than 1.2 million (25% loss.)
During the Mainline implosion the percentage of Americans belonging to the Seven Sister denominations declined from one of every six Americans to one of every 22. If the Mainline had simply retained its share of population it would stand today at about 55 million instead of about 16 million.
Nearly all the Mainline denominations have liberalized their sexuality standards over the last 15 years, precipitating accelerated membership loss. For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned its disapproval of homosexual practice in 2011 and declined from 1.9 million to 1.4 million in 2017, losing half a million members, or 25% in just 6 years. The Episcopal Church elected its first openly homosexual bishop in 2003 and declined from 2.3 million to 1.7 million, or 26%. The two Mainline denominations that have not officially liberalized on sexuality, United Methodism and American Baptists, have declined the least.
So the proposal from some that conservative stances on sexuality precipitate church decline is not of itself supported, as the fastest declining denominations in America, and throughout the West, have liberalized on sexuality. Some conservative denominations are declining, but all growing denominations in America and the world are conservative theologically and on sexuality.
Recently I have tweeted some of these statistics about Mainline decline, with respondents insisting that Evangelicals are declining too. But by some counts, Evangelicalism is retaining its share of the American population while liberal Protestantism is plunging.
All growing denominations in America are conservative, including the Assemblies of God, which in 1965 had 572,123 and now has 3.2 million (460% increase), the Church of God in Cleveland, which in 1964 had 220,405 and now has 1.2 million (445% increase), the Christian Missionary Alliance, which in 1965 had 64,586 and now has 440,000 (576% increase), and the Church of the Nazarene 1965, which in 343,380 and now has 626,811 (82% increase).
Common responses to reference of Mainline decline are BUT THE SOUTHERN BAPTISTS! And it’s true that America’s largest Protestant body has been declining for 18 years. But its decline from 16.4 million to 15 million represents an 8 percent loss, not comparable to the average Mainline loss of nearly 50%. Southern Baptists displaced Methodism as America’s largest Protestant body in 1967 and now outnumber United Methodists by two to one.
Southern Baptists leaders commonly bewail their 18-year membership decline and urge more focus on evangelism. Their aggressive church planting resulted in 270 additional congregations in 2017 and a twenty percent increase in congregations over the last 20 years, with a strong focus on creating new black and Hispanic congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention likely is more racially diverse than Mainline Protestant denominations, which are over 90% white. And Southern Baptist worship attendance, even amid membership decline, increased by 120,000 in 2017.
Mainline Protestantism shows no sign of any institutional desire to reverse its 53-year membership decline, instead doubling down on the theological and political stances that fueled much of this decline. Some of its denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), at current rates of decline, may not exist in 15 years or less.
Sometimes the demise of Mainline Protestantism is equated with the demise of American Christianity. Media sometimes report dying Mainline congregations without citing different stories at newer evangelical churches. But just as common if not more so is the narrative of ostensible Evangelical decline. White Evangelicalism maybe in decline, but Evangelicalism is increasingly multiethnic. Some evangelical denominations, like the Assemblies of God, which has no racial majority, successfully reach immigrant populations, while Mainline Protestantism fails to do so.
Here’s my suggestion on why there’s lots of focus on supposed Evangelical decline based on its purportedly unappealing moral stances. Evangelicalism surged during the 1970s through 1990s, including growing campus ministries, creating new generations of evangelical young people, some of whom later recoiled from the conservative religious upbringing of their youths. They sometimes blog and pontificate on the failures of evangelical culture, commending an idealized more liberal Christianity, usually unaware of already preexisting liberal Christianity’s dramatic collapse.
Meanwhile, Mainline Protestantism, when its implosion started in the early to mid-1960s, began losing baby boomers and barely had representation among subsequent generations. In recent decades there have not been many young people left in the Mainline who could subsequently complain or pontificate about experiences in their liberal denominations.
It’s important to reiterate the details of Mainline Protestantism’s long and ongoing spiral as a warning to other churches. Whatever the problems of evangelical Christianity, becoming more like liberal Mainline Protestantism is not a remedy.