UCC Shows Mainline Protestantism’s Future: Unrelenting Decline

John Lomperis on July 13, 2022

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 2016, UCC leaders reportedly projected a membership decline of 80 percent by 2045, which could be enough to drive the denomination to the point of dissolution.

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.

  1. Comment by David on July 13, 2022 at 7:22 am

    The Gallup people have this online:

    “WASHINGTON, D.C. — Seventy-one percent of Americans say they support legal same-sex marriage, which exceeds the previous high of 70% recorded in 2021 by one percentage point.

    These data are from Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted May 2-22 [2022].

    When Gallup first polled about same-sex marriage in 1996, barely a quarter of the public (27%) supported legalizing such unions. It would take another 15 years, until 2011, for support to reach the majority level. Then in 2015, just one month before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision, public support for legalizing gay marriage cracked the 60% level, and last year it reached the 70% mark for the first time…Americans who report that they attend church weekly remain the primary demographic holdout against gay marriage, with 40% in favor and 58% opposed.”

    https://news.gallup.com/poll/393197/same-sex-marriage-support-inches-new-high.aspx

    It would seem that a denomination that supported such marriages would be more appealing to the general population. There seems to be many “post hoc” fallacies in explanations of denominational decline. Who is doing well these days when there is a general decline of Christianity in Western culture?

  2. Comment by Steve on July 13, 2022 at 10:58 am

    Who is doing well? Here’s one:

    “Each day, 35,000 people are born again though baptism with the Holy Spirit. Since its beginning in Los Angeles in 1900, Pentecostalism, a branch of evangelical Protestantism, has spread over the world. The acceptance of Pentecostalism from other Christian traditions through the related Charismatic movement in the 1960s marked the beginning of a true global sprawl. Pentecostal Christians emphasize a direct personal experience of God and believe that the Holy Spirit acts here and now to bring inspiration, health and wealth to believers. Today, one quarter of the two billion Christians in the world are Pentecostal or Charismatic. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religion in the world.

    While the Pentecostal movement’s growth has been enormous, it has been taking place over several decades and in relative silence. With new members being baptized every three seconds its steady expansion has become normality, taking place in the background unnoticed by the daily news cycle.”

    https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/pentecostalism-massive-global-growth-under-radar#:~:text=Today%2C%20one%20quarter%20of%20the,decades%20and%20in%20relative%20silence.

  3. Comment by David Mu on July 13, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    I have nothing in common with the right church, but I can plainly say – the left church only becomes an ever more vile place to waste one’s time. As the church empties – the feminist and now ‘queer’ gain ever more control with the direct result – more of them showing themselves out for what they are – disordered monsters. Putting one’s hand in garbage unit is be preferred over time wasted with these creatures. These places can’t die fast enough.

  4. Comment by David S. on July 13, 2022 at 5:05 pm

    This is why those of us from other mainline Protestant traditions say that the leaders of those denominations fool themselves about the decline, when they start saying but look at everyone else! I remember the current Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) putting a positive spin on a slow down in the rate of membership decline last year, yet when the latest membership numbers were released this year, indicating similar rates of decline, no comment was made. Of course, this was right after the PC(USA) leadership trumpeted a rather subject to manipulation survey of religion in America, which indicated that Evangelical Protestant was slightly eclipsed by Mainline Protestant.

    In regards to pushing out the remaining traditionalists, this year’s PC(USA) General Assembly was abundantly clear that that is the goal. HSB-11, a resolution regarding abortion, made it clear in the support that if you are prolife, you are no longer welcome in the denomination. Another matter to establish an LGBT advocacy committee, well, very telling. I could go on about all the basis of all the various other overtures and agenda items, making it clear that traditionalists are no longer welcome in what has become a false church institutionally.

  5. Comment by Phil on July 13, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    Yet you’ve repeatedly dismissed progressive churches as being more interested in popularity and contemporary relevance than in following their own convictions. Wouldn’t this data challenge that assumption? One could also argue that by constantly pointing to declining membership within these churches, you’re appealing to some unspoken concern over success on the part of conservative churches.

  6. Comment by Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret. UM clergy) on July 13, 2022 at 6:42 pm

    With regard to church affiliations, laity vote with their feet.

    What remains of the UMC is hollowing out. Long-time members, whose children married there, and whose spouses were buried there, will hang on, to and beyond the end.

    Others, not so deeply entrenched, will fade away like the von Trapp family. Just as ‘out-door-theaters” closed when more movie theaters opened. Today, Netflix, Amazon Prime, along with other options lead. Red Box is a passing fad.

    Signs of devolution will come in the inability of UMC seminary graduates to find employment. Graduates will join the alumni in other disciplines forced to carry debt. But university grads with markable skills will fare better.

    Employment opportunities for graduates from woke UMC seminaries will decline, and those that find work will experience limited advancement opportunities.

    We are witnessing a once significant Protestant denomination self-destruct. See National Cash Register, Zerox, and Rambler cars for commercial comparisons.

    The decline can be traced back to two sources: (1.) seminary instruction (and weakness thereof) and (2) episcopal management incompetence.

  7. Comment by Star Tripper on July 22, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    I recall before the 2019 General Conference that our liberal UMC pastor said he was sure the One Church Plan would pass (what false advertising that was). A long time female member stated, “We used to keep women out of the pulpit, too.” I wish I had said what I thought at the time: “And how has church membership fared since we let them into the pulpit?” The splodey heads would have been impressive.

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