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ALPB => Your Turn => Topic started by: D. Engebretson on December 11, 2019, 09:22:45 AM

Title: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: D. Engebretson on December 11, 2019, 09:22:45 AM
On another thread the decline of the ELCA was highlighted and this sparked a question for me about the general decline of the mainline denominations.  Since discussing that would have taken away from that thread's theme, I started a new one. Recently some predictions were floated that the ELCA could conceivably go out of existence within 30 years given current trends.  Similar predictions, as I recall, were also made for the Church of England and I'm sure others as well.  But why this steady decline? 

This study/paper is now over 20 years old and focused mainly on the Presbyterian Church, but it has some interesting insights about the question at hand: http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9303/articles/johnson.html (http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9303/articles/johnson.html). The decline in the mainline churches, the author notes, began back in the 1960s, so this is anything but a new phenomenon. The author identified then a problem of the weakening of the will or ability to teach the Christian faith in these church bodies, along with a declining commitment to witness and mission, with the opposite seen in the more fundamentalistic church bodies.  Admittedly there is an ongoing tendency of these more 'progressive' denominations to play down distinctive aspects of the Christian faith, embrace ecumenical connections with non-Christian faiths, and put a lot of focus on current social issues. These churches, which eschewed doctrinal distinctives, may actually have helped to undermine their own denominations by encouraging their members, unintentionally, toward a greater agnosticism.   

Now their are cultural and societal changes to factor into this broad issue, but ground zero still seems to be the conviction of the core doctrine of the faith: our salvation through Christ.  And even in a time when it appears that many want the old restraints of religion untied and abandoned, many also seem to need and want the to remain in place. 



Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Brian Stoffregen on December 11, 2019, 01:50:22 PM
There's been a post on Facebook (source not noted, but I've read the same thing elsewhere) that the high rate of church attendance in the 1950s-1960s was abnormal in the history of churches in the U.S. The declines we are seeing today is actually a return to what was normal before that bump after WWII.


An article I found that supports that to some extent is at https://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2010/03/26/a-christian-america-what-history-shows/


A graph from that article of church adherents from the beginning of the U.S. is attached.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Dave Benke on December 11, 2019, 03:06:59 PM
I used to teach religious history for adult learner college students, and my lectures included four or five "great awakenings" - to be clear, in Protestantism - in the US.  One was in the mid 18th century (so no US yet), another around 1790, another in the mid-19th century (Finney and the Anxious Bench, etc.), another in the beginnings of the charismatic movement out in California early-ish in the 20th century, and another one after WWII.  Either we're due for another one, or maybe Pat Robertson has redone his date for the end of the world and we can expect that soon (that date was 40 years after the founding of the modern state of Israel, so the "bear" was Russia, etc. etc.). 

Anyway, the Missouri Synod's high water mark was pretty much directly on the same line as the ELCA - our last year of growth was 1963.   A difference between the evangelical Protestants and the mainline is and has been, as Don indicates, the desire to teach the faith.  Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions remain strongly attached to catechesis among the sacramental groupings, as is the case with the Missouri Synod.

The Missouri Synod, however, joins the the mainline in a declining commitment to witness and mission (Don's words).  The turn away from Dialog Evangelism (the Kennedy Plan - Presbyterian, really, as morphed by Leroy Biesenthal), anything remotely connected to Billy Graham, and anything remote remotely connected to charismatic renewal, all of which are deemed doctrinally deficient and unworthy of adaptation, have all worked together to keep Missouri Synod Lutherans in their own sanctuaries as we age out alongside the mainliners, albeit at a slower pace. 

The mainline embrace of social issues and ecumenical/interfaith endeavors at the national level virtually to the exclusion of witness and mission and teaching the faith - all of which are deemed to be "proselytizing" - is a major fumble of the ball.  Major.

I don't see the mainlines as having a belief system that could receive a new Awakening.  You'd have to believe in something.  In the Missouri Synod, Awakening would have to go through Doctrinal Review for a couple decades and subsequent convention resolutions and bylaws.  Which would end up putting whoever was awake back to sleep.

Dave Benke
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Steven W Bohler on December 11, 2019, 03:33:08 PM
Dr. Benke,

What evangelism plan do you use at your church? 
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: peter_speckhard on December 11, 2019, 03:39:08 PM
I used to teach religious history for adult learner college students, and my lectures included four or five "great awakenings" - to be clear, in Protestantism - in the US.  One was in the mid 18th century (so no US yet), another around 1790, another in the mid-19th century (Finney and the Anxious Bench, etc.), another in the beginnings of the charismatic movement out in California early-ish in the 20th century, and another one after WWII.  Either we're due for another one, or maybe Pat Robertson has redone his date for the end of the world and we can expect that soon (that date was 40 years after the founding of the modern state of Israel, so the "bear" was Russia, etc. etc.). 

Anyway, the Missouri Synod's high water mark was pretty much directly on the same line as the ELCA - our last year of growth was 1963.   A difference between the evangelical Protestants and the mainline is and has been, as Don indicates, the desire to teach the faith.  Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions remain strongly attached to catechesis among the sacramental groupings, as is the case with the Missouri Synod.

The Missouri Synod, however, joins the the mainline in a declining commitment to witness and mission (Don's words).  The turn away from Dialog Evangelism (the Kennedy Plan - Presbyterian, really, as morphed by Leroy Biesenthal), anything remotely connected to Billy Graham, and anything remote remotely connected to charismatic renewal, all of which are deemed doctrinally deficient and unworthy of adaptation, have all worked together to keep Missouri Synod Lutherans in their own sanctuaries as we age out alongside the mainliners, albeit at a slower pace. 

The mainline embrace of social issues and ecumenical/interfaith endeavors at the national level virtually to the exclusion of witness and mission and teaching the faith - all of which are deemed to be "proselytizing" - is a major fumble of the ball.  Major.

I don't see the mainlines as having a belief system that could receive a new Awakening.  You'd have to believe in something.  In the Missouri Synod, Awakening would have to go through Doctrinal Review for a couple decades and subsequent convention resolutions and bylaws.  Which would end up putting whoever was awake back to sleep.

Dave Benke
I agree with this assessment. But it is not easy to figure out what to do about it. Without rigorous doctrinal review we simply become Protestants. Liberal Protestantism is basically dead. Evangelicalism is alive, and is the low corner the billiards balls roll to in our context unless something gives resistance.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Charles Austin on December 11, 2019, 05:01:44 PM
Peter, gracious as always:
Without rigorous doctrinal review we simply become Protestants.
Me:
Ask 100 people from academicians to chimney sweeps who Lutherans are and they will say Protestant. And on what basis do you say the protestants have no “doctrinal review.”? Just because our review comes out different from yours doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Peter:
Liberal Protestantism is basically dead.
Me:
You wish. But millions of us are in worship on Sunday, at work in the world, and living in the name of Jesus.

Peter:
Evangelicalism is alive, and is the low corner the billiards balls roll to in our context unless something gives resistance.
Me:
The country periodically goes through “evangelical” or “great awakening” periods. They do not last. And this one is in decline.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: peter_speckhard on December 11, 2019, 05:48:21 PM
Peter, gracious as always:
Without rigorous doctrinal review we simply become Protestants.
Me:
Ask 100 people from academicians to chimney sweeps who Lutherans are and they will say Protestant. And on what basis do you say the protestants have no “doctrinal review.”? Just because our review comes out different from yours doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Peter:
Liberal Protestantism is basically dead.
Me:
You wish. But millions of us are in worship on Sunday, at work in the world, and living in the name of Jesus.

Peter:
Evangelicalism is alive, and is the low corner the billiards balls roll to in our context unless something gives resistance.
Me:
The country periodically goes through “evangelical” or “great awakening” periods. They do not last. And this one is in decline.
My comments about Protestantism and Liberal Protestantism we’re simply agreeing with Dave Benke’s assessment. My basis for saying you have no “doctrinal review” is decades of experience Liberal Protestants and the fact that you agree to teach mutually exclusive doctrines, which is, of course, something doctrinal review prevents.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Dave Benke on December 11, 2019, 06:03:46 PM
Dr. Benke,

What evangelism plan do you use at your church?

We've been reading and training folks in the relational outreach through LHM (Lutheran Hour Ministries) - spiritual conversations.  Good stuff.  The encouragement is for all laity to be able to bring the narrative of their life in Christ to the situations they encounter when talking to friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.  We are blessed with a laity highly committed to Lord and church, and they do a lot of invitational outreach - bringing relatives and friends. 

A second plan is leadership development - a guy from the other side of the Mississippi recently told me one of the bigger measuring sticks these days is not simply attendance or other stats, but how many people you have sent from your congregation into church work.  We are pretty solid in that regard, but there's always room for improvement, and I got some encouragement in that direction.

The third set of plans is assiduous outreach to families/children through events and catechesis, and then community outreach in mercy and justice with partners including NYPD.  The combination of those things helps bring the Good News and new people into reach.

What I have found other congregations and ours have in common is a lack of thorough follow-through.  We are inviting and happy in worship and fellowship, but folks' lives are tough, time is not available, and follow-up often falls short. 

Finally, a weakness is insufficient opportunities for Bible Study during the week for adults.  Because they're just not available.  Lots of third shift workers, home care attendants, two job individuals, plus the commute from the City to Brooklyn can be a bear by train.  Much less car. 

I think the best plan in that regard is to spot weaknesses in the overall spiritual composition of the congregation and address them in Word and prayer and conversation.  Too easy to go along and get along.

Thanks for asking.

Dave Benke



Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: WJV on December 11, 2019, 06:07:31 PM
Peter, gracious as always:
Without rigorous doctrinal review we simply become Protestants.
Me:
Ask 100 people from academicians to chimney sweeps who Lutherans are and they will say Protestant. And on what basis do you say the protestants have no “doctrinal review.”? Just because our review comes out different from yours doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Peter:
Liberal Protestantism is basically dead.
Me:
You wish. But millions of us are in worship on Sunday, at work in the world, and living in the name of Jesus.

Peter:
Evangelicalism is alive, and is the low corner the billiards balls roll to in our context unless something gives resistance.
Me:
The country periodically goes through “evangelical” or “great awakening” periods. They do not last. And this one is in decline.
An appropriate song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBN4sOQbYxk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBN4sOQbYxk)
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: J. Thomas Shelley on December 11, 2019, 06:10:50 PM
Why?

Short answer smorgasbord:

https://juicyecumenism.com/ (https://juicyecumenism.com/)
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Brian Stoffregen on December 11, 2019, 07:23:02 PM
From Facebook.



"The percentage of Americans who claimed membership in a church had been fairly low across the nineteenth century, though it had slowly increased from just 16 percent in 1850 to 36 percent in 1900. In the early decdes of the twentieth century the percentage plateaued, remaining at 43 percent in both 1910 and 1920, then moving up slightly to 47 percent in 1930 and 49 percent in 1940. In the decade and a half after the Second World War, however, the percentage of Americans who belonged to a church or synagogue suddenly soared, reaching 57 percent in 1950 and then peaking at 69 percent at the end of the decade, an all time high." -- Kevin M. Kruse, "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America". 


In light of this, we can stop panicking about the "decline" of religious affiliation and recognize the U.S. is just returning to normal after an artificial bump in the post war years.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Richard Johnson on December 11, 2019, 07:38:48 PM
From Facebook.



"The percentage of Americans who claimed membership in a church had been fairly low across the nineteenth century, though it had slowly increased from just 16 percent in 1850 to 36 percent in 1900. In the early decdes of the twentieth century the percentage plateaued, remaining at 43 percent in both 1910 and 1920, then moving up slightly to 47 percent in 1930 and 49 percent in 1940. In the decade and a half after the Second World War, however, the percentage of Americans who belonged to a church or synagogue suddenly soared, reaching 57 percent in 1950 and then peaking at 69 percent at the end of the decade, an all time high." -- Kevin M. Kruse, "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America". 


In light of this, we can stop panicking about the "decline" of religious affiliation and recognize the U.S. is just returning to normal after an artificial bump in the post war years.

Oh, thank heaven!
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Steven W Bohler on December 11, 2019, 07:49:43 PM
Dr. Benke,

And what kind of results are you seeing from this evangelism approach?  How does it compare with what you have done in the past?
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Steven Tibbetts on December 12, 2019, 10:43:00 AM
From Facebook.



"The percentage of Americans...." -- Kevin M. Kruse, "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Created Christian America". 

I'm struck that you found it useful to introduce the quote with the citation, "From Facebook."  Given that such a citation is only slightly less inclusive than, "found on the Earth," I almost didn't bother to read it. 

It helped that you did, finally, cite the actual author -- though the title of his work from what I know of American churchly and corporate history (granted, titles often come from an editor to grab a potential reader's attention) doesn't particularly impress me as much of an improvement.

Pax, Steven+
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: peterm on December 12, 2019, 11:43:50 AM
Dr. Benke,

What evangelism plan do you use at your church?

We've been reading and training folks in the relational outreach through LHM (Lutheran Hour Ministries) - spiritual conversations.  Good stuff.  The encouragement is for all laity to be able to bring the narrative of their life in Christ to the situations they encounter when talking to friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.  We are blessed with a laity highly committed to Lord and church, and they do a lot of invitational outreach - bringing relatives and friends. 

A second plan is leadership development - a guy from the other side of the Mississippi recently told me one of the bigger measuring sticks these days is not simply attendance or other stats, but how many people you have sent from your congregation into church work.  We are pretty solid in that regard, but there's always room for improvement, and I got some encouragement in that direction.

The third set of plans is assiduous outreach to families/children through events and catechesis, and then community outreach in mercy and justice with partners including NYPD.  The combination of those things helps bring the Good News and new people into reach.

What I have found other congregations and ours have in common is a lack of thorough follow-through.  We are inviting and happy in worship and fellowship, but folks' lives are tough, time is not available, and follow-up often falls short. 

Finally, a weakness is insufficient opportunities for Bible Study during the week for adults.  Because they're just not available.  Lots of third shift workers, home care attendants, two job individuals, plus the commute from the City to Brooklyn can be a bear by train.  Much less car. 

I think the best plan in that regard is to spot weaknesses in the overall spiritual composition of the congregation and address them in Word and prayer and conversation.  Too easy to go along and get along.

Thanks for asking.

Dave Benke

A number of years ago now, when we still lived in the Twin Cities, we attended Christmas day services at an LCMS congregation near us where the Pastor was the son of the Lutheran Hour speaker.  The speaker, whose name I can't remember now was good friends with my inlaws, and was in town as well.  This congregation had some of the best follow up I have ever experienced.  They were welcoming while we were there, and followed up a week later with a gift basket of cookies and information about the congregation, as well as several phone calls; all very friendly.  Were we not ELCA pastors and beginning to transition into our current calls, we would have definitely considered joining based on the follow through.  We don't do anything that formal in my current congregations but individual members have picked this up on their own.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Brian Stoffregen on December 12, 2019, 04:01:24 PM
A number of years ago now, when we still lived in the Twin Cities, we attended Christmas day services at an LCMS congregation near us where the Pastor was the son of the Lutheran Hour speaker.  The speaker, whose name I can't remember now was good friends with my inlaws, and was in town as well.  This congregation had some of the best follow up I have ever experienced.  They were welcoming while we were there, and followed up a week later with a gift basket of cookies and information about the congregation, as well as several phone calls; all very friendly.  Were we not ELCA pastors and beginning to transition into our current calls, we would have definitely considered joining based on the follow through.  We don't do anything that formal in my current congregations but individual members have picked this up on their own.


That sounds like a congregation where the members are committed to welcoming and growing members. Too often I've found members who talked about wanting to grow, but also feared the changes that would happen with growth, so they actually worked against inviting and welcoming. For example, talking to other members about the visitors, "Who are they?" with suspicious looks, rather than going and talking to the visitors.
Title: Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
Post by: Dave Benke on December 13, 2019, 09:02:02 AM
Dr. Benke,

And what kind of results are you seeing from this evangelism approach?  How does it compare with what you have done in the past?

"Past" for a pastor who's been in the same parish for over forty years is a load of memory-unwrapping.  There was a year in the 80s when St. Peter's was in the top 3 congregations in the denomination in new adult member accessions - large immigrant families from the Caribbean.  57 adults plus all the kiddies.  That was nice, and my way of stating it then was that we were operating on all 8 cylinders.  The bad guys were leading the charge in the crack cocaine drug wars, and we promised that if they were at it 24/7, we would be out with the Good News 24/7.  We added staff, transportation options,etc. and the results were a doubling of the worship body and a tripling of the "prospective" list.  Overall we were looking at a dozen new families a year as a mission goal.

In retrospect from my own perspective
a) I was all in all the time
b) I was right there - we lived a block and a half away
c) all of us were highly energized with deep spiritual convictions - a very strong prayer ministry and walking the neighborhood kind of visitation modality

So the change is that for me the spirit is willing but the flesh is 30 years older, and I live a dozen miles away from the nerve center, the church facility.

Plus - the original immigrant groups - 3 or 4 specific Latino/African-based patterns - have changed.  The original migrants moved again for the most part, making their way to Queens or Long Island.  And the incoming newcomers have been predominantly Muslim from Bangladesh (10-15000 near us) - which is in some ways a harder reach than Hindu from our experience over the decades - although we do have Bengali worship once a month; and gentrifying young adults not accompanied by large families, so tougher in both regards.

We're doing OK and have a half dozen or more adults in process of coming in plus their kids.  And I believe we're a welcoming presence as a Body, which is a substantial positive - we'll take 20-25 folks to Kennedy Airport's International Air Terminal (#4)  to sing carols at the arrivals level tomorrow, meaning we're still interested and motivated.  But overall, it's tougher.  On Advent III, however, all we do is rejoice with expectation and hope!

Dave Benke