Are Mainline Denominations Dying?

Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.

“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”

Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.

My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.

Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.” 

But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Mainline denominations are dying. If the trends hold true, as they have over the past forty years, we’re careening toward a post-denominational world—a world in which the structures that supported progressive theology, a social justice orientation toward faith, and institutionalized mission and administration is crumbling before our eyes; a world in which the printed media that has supported denominational ministry (publishing houses, curricula, magazines, journals, etc.)—over which denominations could exert control—is being overtaken by electronic media (ePub, blogging, social media)—over which denominations exert only minimal control; a world in which mainline cultural ascendancy and domination isn’t only a relic of the past, but no longer even a desirable goal for the future.

The purpose of this book, however, is not to lead cheers for the death of mainline denominationalism. But neither is the purpose to help mainline denominations hang onto dying systems just a little bit longer. My purpose is to help mainline denominations and their congregations get a correct read on the situation, embrace death as a liberation from having to “succeed,” and learn how to live.

After all, the gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of the crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

[Note: This is an excerpt from my book, The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, by Chalice Press, which will be in bookstores on August 15th—though I know people who've received it already via online orders (*winks slyly*). You can order it here and here and here. If you're a blogger and would like a review copy, email me at dlpenw01@gmail.com.]