Mainline Decline: Loss and Possibility


This is a picture of an ecumenical campus ministry I was involved with at North Dakota State for a time. Now it’s sold off and is someone’s private home

Derek Penwell writes what I take to be the dominant advice for mainline Protestants who are dismayed the precipitous decline in church membership and affiliation, a process that has an over forty year history. The advice? Don’t worry and stay faithful. There is wisdom to be found here. A generalized fear never has helped individuals or groups move forward, fulfilling one’s calling in changing circumstances does.

I have nothing to contend with in such advice and I recommend Derek Penwell’s book “The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denomination World” as well as Christian Piatt’s new book “Post Christian: What’s Left? Can We Fix it? Do We Care?” Both do an excellent job of laying out the religious landscape as well as situating a faithful progressive Christian response to this. And yet something appears missing from both accounts that I wanted to highlight.

First is the sheer numbePCUSA2rs. Take the Presbyterian Church USA.  In 1960 the various denominations that made up the current PCUSA recorded 4.2 million members. I was baptized in 4th grade in the PCUSA in 1983, the year of their union when they had 3.1 million members. In 2013 they recorded less than 1.8 million members. This graph gives you what that looks like per year.

The United Church of Christ which I serve recorded in 1960 2.1 million members. In 2013 the membership was less then 980,000. 8,300 churches were listed in 1960, today over 5,100 churches remain. Some may exist in other denominations, the large majority I suspect simply don’t. The mainline protestant bodies in Canada face much the same issue. Here’s a graph from the United Church of Canada, from when I was finishing high school to today to what this will look like ten years from now.


I raise these numbers because in concrete terms, they affect both the denomination’s possibilities and what structures it can support to further those possibilities. We may be heartened by the rise of religious progressives among the young, but without institutional ways of relating, it’s hard to see how they will be organized. The loss of numbers means seminaries close, campus ministries shut down, the chance for a progressive church to be near by continues to diminish.

For example, In Indiana there were a dozen progressive and mainline campus ministries 20 years ago. Now there are 2, Butler and ISU. Notice that the largest universities in the state, including IU have no such presence. In Kansas we had a dozen ministries and in the same period we’ve been reduced to 2. Compare that to what evangelical para church groups and secular student organizations are doing.

I know from my own story that the reason I found a way to stay in the church was because there were religious progressive campus ministries where I found a way connect my values and faith. But given the expense of the old model, they required denominational funds that simply are not there, given the membership declines.

Many of the theologians I read, that opened up faith to me, taught at progressive seminaries, which are endangered. When I was first diving into progressive Christianity I read Christianity and Crisis, the Other Side, and other journals that don’t exist now. Mainline publishing houses face an uncertain future, a source of progressive ideas for the wider society.

I suspect my experience will grow increasingly unlikely. A full ride to seminary. Campus ministries that connected me to theologians and ideas that came out of seminaries and places of higher education ( itself a threatened institution.) Maybe there will be progressive areas where folks will spontaneously create progressive religious bodies, or maybe individuals will find their own way to be spiritual apart from any groups and institutions. I’m open to what the future brings.

And I don’t have impressive ideas on what church growth looks like. But I feel like an unusual gen x’er who believes that institutions will matter in that growth. Not simply repeating the past. Instead new configurations will have to make their way. But whatever that looks like it will not be devoid of institutional life and the needs that were addressed by past institutions will remain.

For instance, the need for theological education. I’m pleased to serve in a church that takes that need seriously, in the speakers we bring to share their expertise, in our adult education courses, in the discussion group we have been building on campus. Expensive graduate education may not be plausible as a requirement for church leadership, but the need for theological education will not disappear as a result.

I’ve been interested in the fellowship/house church movement that UUs developed in the 1950s and which have grown into vital congregations across the country. They started with lay people, not ordained clergy. They started in living rooms and not sanctuaries. I suspect mainline protestants will want to look at that as the need for a progressive space continues to be felt in many areas of the country.

I raise this, not to detract from the ideas of many reformers. I think they are laying the template for our future. It is just to recognize that whatever comes out will require institutions. And that a genuine loss that affects real people and real lives has followed with the decline of the mainline. Out of that will produce the future possibilities that we are negotiating now as we sort out where we go from here.

Where I serve is an example. We are a new church plant that started with progressives wanting a religious alternative here in Oklahoma. We don’t own a building. We instead rent what was a former mainline ecumenical campus ministry building. Out of the husk of the old something new is emerging. I suppose this blog post is wanting to not just celebrate that fact but to note what is left behind as well.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Culture, Religion

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s