Author Topic: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?  (Read 1250 times)

D. Engebretson

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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. 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. 



« Last Edit: December 11, 2019, 09:24:45 AM by D. Engebretson »
Pastor Don Engebretson
St. Peter Lutheran Church of Polar (Antigo) WI

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #1 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.
"The church … had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

Dave Benke

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #2 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

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2019, 03:33:08 PM »
Dr. Benke,

What evangelism plan do you use at your church? 

peter_speckhard

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #4 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.

Charles Austin

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #5 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.
Retired ELCA pastor. Iowa born. Now in Minnesota. Missing NY/NJ and trips to Europe. I despise Daylight Savings Time which serves no purpose, disrupts my quotidian body clock and (I am reliably told) severely troubles cows and other huggable farm animals.

peter_speckhard

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #6 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.

Dave Benke

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #7 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




WJV

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #8 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

J. Thomas Shelley

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #9 on: December 11, 2019, 06:10:50 PM »
Why?

Short answer smorgasbord:

https://juicyecumenism.com/
« Last Edit: December 11, 2019, 09:15:40 PM by J. Thomas Shelley »
Greek Orthodox-Ecumenical Patriarchate

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Brian Stoffregen

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #10 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.
"The church … had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

Richard Johnson

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #11 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!
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Steven W Bohler

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #12 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?

Steven Tibbetts

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #13 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+
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peterm

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Re: Why are the Mainline Churches Declining and What is Their Future?
« Reply #14 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.