Years of data are now available to test liberal activists’ insistence that the church “must” liberalize its values to avoid disastrous decline in a changing America. In short, we see that churches that go beyond compassion for self-identified members of the LGBTQIA+ community (which we could all do a better job of) to reject clear biblical teaching on sexual morality can expect a dramatic, long-term, and irreversible membership decline, as well as emptier pews and increasingly uniform liberalism among those who remain. Anyone considering the future prospects and decline expectations of congregations or denominations that embrace such a secularized identity should look especially to the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Seventeen years ago (almost to the day), it became the first mainline Protestant denomination to official embrace redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. It is widely understood that debates on this question reflect differences about far more fundamental matters like the authority of Scripture and the nature of humanity’s relationship to our Creator. When any church takes a stance like the UCC’s 2005 pro-same-sex marriage decision, it signals a wider cultural shift of drifting from its historic theological roots to embrace contemporary Western secular values and a common Progressive Christianity shared by those from different denominations.
Other mainline Protestant denominations later followed the UCC’s lead. But arguably no other denomination has had as much time as the UCC to see the longer-term effects of such a change on marriage.
As widely expected, the UCC’s mid-2005 marriage decision prompted a short-term exodus of more orthodox congregations and members. That year and each of the next two years saw the total number of UCC congregations reduced by over 100, which had not happened since the early 1960s, when a chunk of congregationalist churches did not want to be part of the then relatively newly formed UCC. In almost any church moving in this direction, many liberals are glad to see such conservatives leave (despite sanctimonious, performative protestations to the contrary), because liberals understand that if these people remained, they could resist and slow further liberalization.
Yet liberalization advocates incessantly claim that affirming homosexual practice is “needed” in order to appeal to the values of non-religious Americans, especially in younger generations, and suggest that after the dust settles from recalcitrant conservatives leaving, the liberalized church will become freshly appealing to new people. It was perhaps in that spirit that in its Annual Report the year after its marriage vote, the UCC announced (on page 7) the ambition of “planting and welcoming of 250 new congregations in the UCC by 2011 and over 1600 new congregations by 2021.”
To be fair, the UCC’s bold liberalism succeeded in attracting some new people. In 2006, the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, the self-described “world’s largest gay church” transferred in to the UCC from the LGBTQ-focused denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). The UCC’s 2013 Annual Report celebrated how since that 2006 goal, “more than 250 new United Church of Christ congregations have opened their doors” and described these as intentionally “progressive, justice-minded faith communities.” That same report cheered how, from 2011-2013, “more than 47 faith communities have joined the UCC.”
But none of these or other modest gains have been nearly enough to offset the major losses of members and congregations the UCC has continued to experience every year, without exception. There is simply no massive influx of young, gay, and/or liberal people rushing into UCC congregations to save it from its trajectory towards extinction.
In 2011, the total number of UCC congregations had continued to decline each year and the denomination’s own Pension Board admitted that that “the rate of decline is accelerating”—even several years after those initially upset by the 2005 marriage vote had had plenty of time to leave.
It cannot be overstressed how the decline that followed the denomination’s liberalization on marriage was NOT limited to just an initial exodus of those immediately upset by the 2005 decision. Rather, the decline that followed was much more long term, and with later years showing generally greater rates of UCC decline than those before the fateful 2005 marriage decision.
In analyzing the UCC’s own official statistics (here, here, here, and here), it is clear that while the denomination was already shrinking before 2005, many years after that fateful vote, it is still, over a decade later, losing members at faster rates than before that vote. In each of the 10 years before 2005, the UCC’s highest annual membership loss rate was 2.34 percent. Since 2014, the denomination’s membership losses have significantly exceeded that rate, every year. Put differently, in every five-year period that the denomination’s latest official statistical summary measures (on the final page), each half-decade after the 2005 marriage votes saw UCC membership declines of greater than 13 percent, while the membership decline of no half-decade before 2000-2005 exceeded nine percent.
In 2021, rather than celebrate the launch of 1,600 new congregations, the UCC was financially pressured into selling off its national headquarters.
By the end of last year, the UCC’s membership of 745,230 represented a loss of over 41 percent of the membership it had immediately before its 2005 marriage vote.
This is similar to what we found in a study within the United Methodist Church: that when congregations formally endorse LGBTQ+ liberationist ideology, they not only suffer significant decline, but it is rare to see such congregations later experience a “V-shaped curve” in which after initially losing some people, the regain enough new people to be back in as strong a position as they were before their shift.
In any denomination, it is difficult to see how such massive, long-term losses could ever be recovered.
This decline has taken a toll of emptying the pews of remaining UCC congregations. In 2002, just three years before the 2005 vote, less than 30 percent the denomination’s congregations had average worship attendances of 50 or fewer (see page 8). By 2017, this became true of over half of UCC congregations (see page 11). The portion of UCC congregations in this lowest-size category continued to grow in subsequent years, even before the pandemic (see page 11). By 2021, over 61 percent of UCC congregations reported 50 or fewer average worship attendances. In less than two decades, the portion of the denomination’s congregations in the lowest-size category has jumped from 29 to 61 percent!
Amidst all of this UCC decline, there is one metric for which the denomination has seen steady, even dramatic growth: congregations who have formally chosen to become “open and affirming” (ONA), aligned with the denomination’s LGBTQIA+ liberationist caucus. The month after the denomination’s decisive marriage liberalization decision, this caucus (then called the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns) listed a total of 542 affiliated UCC congregations and new church starts, which would have been fewer than ten percent of the denomination’s 5,633 total congregations that year. But less than two decades later, the number of “ONA” UCC congregations tripled to 1,630 active congregations, representing some 34 percent of all of the denomination’s congregations (see page 48)!
We can expect the rest of the denomination’s congregations to become increasingly pressured to also declare their formal support for the ONA cause, with any remaining pockets of those with more conservative theology driven out of the denomination. A couple weeks ago, the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ celebrated another “recently certified ONA church” and solicited donations for “getting toward our goal of making the UCC #100PercentONA!” In 2019, the Coalition’s executive director Andy Lang, noting that the percentage of ONA congregations was still a minority in the denomination, declared, “It’s a long-term goal, but the Coalition won’t rest until every congregation in the UCC is a safe, welcoming, and supportive spiritual family for LGBTQ seekers.”
We can expect similar pushes for totalitarian liberal uniformity in other mainline Protestant denominations. After all, when activists sincerely believe that congregations with a more traditional biblical morality cannot possibly be “safe” or “supportive” for people who are same-sex-attracted or who struggle with their gender identity, it makes little sense to expect them to aim for anything less.
And again, when U.S. churches adopt a liberal, secularized identity, their theology becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish from that of similarly liberalized churches with different denominational histories. The UCC’s Open and Affirming Coalition has long worked in partnership with similar caucuses in the United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominations, including by co-publishing the now-defunct Open Hands magazine, whose Summer 1998 issue notoriously celebrated adulterous, bisexual threesomes as among the marginalized “alternative lifestyles” whose behaviors should be accepted, because its practitioners say, “we believe God made us that way” (see page 14).
The United Methodist Church can expect more dramatic decline to follow it liberalizing its position on marriage than what the UCC has experienced since 2005. While that year was widely cited as a turning point for the UCC, the denomination was already quite liberal before that. Back in 1985, the UCC’s General Synod overwhelmingly passed a resolution “Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming.” While that resolution’s actual language was arguably a bit vague and ambiguous in some places, it was likely widely understood by many on opposing sides as supportive of ONA ideology. So if 1985 was an earlier turning point for that denomination, one UCC-sympathetic writer has produced charts showing increased rates of subsequent UCC decline in members and congregations. By the UCC’s own official statistics, the denomination has lost over 26 percent of its congregations and over 56 percent of its membership since 1984, the year immediately before the denomination’s adoption of the relatively mildly ONA-friendly resolution.
In contrast, the United Methodist Church today, in both its official positions and its grassroots constituency, is a much more theologically traditionalist denomination than the UCC was in 2004. Yet the UMC’s slow-motion denominational split is widely expected to result in the “post-separation United Methodist Church” adopting similar values to the UCC on marriage and sex, at some point in the next decade. This will make liberalization much more of an abrupt change for the UMC, with greater disruptive shockwaves in affiliated congregations.
There are important discussions and debates to be had about why the UCC has experienced such dramatic decline after its liberal shifts. These include theological questions, such as if God has removed his blessing from the UCC (in contrast to U.S. churches and denominations that have continued growing in recent years). There are more sociological questions about what secularized churches offer people that they cannot already find elsewhere.
But in terms of objective data, there is no debating the mere fact that dramatic, ongoing, unrelenting, long-term decline has indeed followed the UCC’s liberal moves on marriage and sexuality. Nor can anyone debate the fact that no other similarly liberalized mainline Protestant denomination has escaped this basic pattern.
The UCC has expressed great pride as a pioneer in liberalizing church values. As the mainline denomination with the longest history of embracing same-sex marriage and a secular liberal culture, it offers other denominations a preview of what to expect from following their example: a significant initial exodus of theologically orthodox dissenters, followed by many years of sustained, accelerated losses of congregations and members, dwindling attendance in remaining congregations, and it becoming painfully obvious that this decline is irreversible.
And meanwhile, activists “won’t rest until” every last local congregation in the denomination submits to their liberal ideology.