The Demise of Mainline Christianity

The failure of many mainstream Christian churches to embrace social movements of recent decades from gay rights to women’s equality to peace activism has alienated young people who see the contradictions with Jesus’s teachings of tolerance. Is it too late for established churches, asks Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The statistics continue to pour in. The churches in America that were once thriving and considered mainline are shrinking and struggling to stay alive. Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians are melting away before our very eyes. Not only are they shrinking in numbers, they are getting very gray. Funeral statistics are up, and wedding numbers are going down.

When total membership is going down, and the only growing statistic is funerals, you have to conclude that something is happening. And you’d be correct.

Understandably, I have special feelings for my own Protestant denomination, American Baptist Churches USA. I grew up as an American Baptist and pastored American Baptist churches for 50 years. However, with few exceptions, American Baptist churches are no longer exciting places.  The denomination of pioneering missionaries — the likes of Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King Jr. and Tony Campolo — no longer represents cutting edge social concern in the name of Christ.

Nothing illustrates today’s dynamics of change more dramatically than the demand for full equality for our gay population, but the history of that struggle over the past several decades has underscored the lack of courage among many mainline Christian denominations.

Over 40 years ago, I became convinced that the Gospel of Christ demanded inclusion of gay persons rather than rejection. Perhaps naively, I thought that my denomination would respond in the spirit of the love that Jesus taught. I did my homework. I looked at the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. I wrote about my views regarding equality and justice for gays. I found some support, but more often I found hostility and rejection.

In 1993, the church of which I was pastor was the first signer of the founding document of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The Association demanded full inclusion of gay persons in our churches. A total of 20 churches signed the charter. We published information and made ourselves known at denominational gatherings until we were excluded from the premises.

Still, we found allies. Groups like ours were forming in other denominations, partners such as Affirm (Episcopalian), More Light Presbyterians, Open and Affirming Ministries (Disciples of Christ), Reconciling Ministries (United Methodist), ReconcilingWorks (Lutheran), Open and Affirming Program (United Church of Christ), Affirm United (United Church of Canada), and other similar groups.

All met stout opposition. Several American Baptist churches were “disfellowshipped” by their regional bodies. The church of which I was the pastor was “disfellowshipped” by the American Baptist Churches of Alaska. Pastors, who should have known better, remained silent, and denominations chose discrete discussions over vigorous advocacy.

Thus, mainline Protestantism opposed one of the most important justice issues of the late 20th Century. Many churches also lost their voice for women’s rights. They walked away from Christ’s passion for peace and erected American flags in their sanctuaries. The poor and the hungry were given no priority.

Not surprisingly, the emerging young began to look elsewhere for guidance in the search for a meaningful life. Yet, interest in religion and interest in Christianity, in particular, are not waning. Interest in the Bible and interest in the prophet Jesus from Nazareth are booming, but mainline denominations are not a significant part of the action.

Young people are still asking questions about meaning, morals and values. They have an incredible amount of information available to them in their handbag, purse or pocket. Not too many years ago, the local parish minister or priest was the community’s source of knowledge about the Bible, Church doctrine and Christian Faith. Now everything the well-educated minister learned in seminary is available on the Internet.

The ability of an ordained clergyperson to turn wine into blood and bread into flesh, according to the Sacraments, is not selling well to the modern mind. Ordained clergy were not necessary for the vital spiritual well-being of the earliest Christians, and many modern Christians are asking, why should priests be necessary in today’s world?

Because of the Internet and instant communication around the world, these dynamics for change are world-wide. The world is indeed flat. What is emerging in our modern culture is a full-scale rejection of institutions and hierarchies as we have known them in America for centuries. It is not simply the churches that are on a downhill slide. Rotary, the Lions, Kiwanis, VFW, American Legion, Masonry and labor unions are suffering the same plight. American political parties also are feeling the pressures of “deinstitutionalism.”

What lies ahead? Home churches, discussion groups, missional groups, bar rooms and cyber church are replacing the inherited church from the past. The emergent energy is enormous and will be spent in some way. Just as emergent Christianity was not foreseen, its future cannot be predicted. It has no hierarchy and is not motivated by power, growth or dominance.

Can mainline Protestantism participate in this new, somewhat chaotic phenomenon? Can a leopard change its spots? Can new growth emerge out of a nearly dead stump? Can a new kind of leadership/clergy impact the inherited bricks and mortar?

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].

9 comments for “The Demise of Mainline Christianity

  1. Carl Stoll
    February 17, 2013 at 17:44

    You must be living on a different planet, Reverend.
    The fact is that the liberal mainstream churches that are open to homosexuality and other trendy movements are the ones that are dying off, e.g. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, regular Baptists, etc.
    And the reactionary SOBs are growing. Please try to obtain more accurate data.

  2. gregorylkruse
    February 16, 2013 at 14:42

    Religion is everything everybody says it is. Eliminating religion from human history would be like removing the memory of the first five years from each human being when they reach 18 years old or so. Rev. Bess’s article doesn’t broach the subject of religious veritability, but its viability. It doesn’t matter how many atheists make fun of me, I am still interested in religion, and I love the church. It was unimaginable to me in my youth that it would decline so fast when I was hoping that it would grow up. I could make a long list of reasons why young people have abandoned the mainline churches, but won’t, because I really don’t know why. One mainline denomination not mentioned by Bess, Lutheran, is also declining, even the liberal ELCA which now ordains openly gay clergy, and tries to actually be Christian. There is no assurance that a real Christian church would ever be more than a gaggle of losers on society’s fringe.

    February 16, 2013 at 11:32

    What we know as Christianity was cobbled together from a welter of competing cults in the fourth century, according to the dictates of the Roman emperor Constantine. Now, as science has thoroughly undermined its core premise and shown that we are not orphans on a hostile planet ruled by invisible spirits, it is fragmenting back into the sorts of cults from which it arose. Good riddance!

  4. Caspin Lange
    February 14, 2013 at 12:38

    It’s clear that most live in a black and white world, where we attempt to put everything into one group or another. There are many different types of spiritual exploration. And Zen is far different than Christianity. One tends to believe mythological stories as literal. The other is interested in having a gander at your own mind and coming to some deep conclusions that cannot be taught, read about, or learned from anyone else but your own direct experience.

    I think it’s important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yeah, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have been responsible for hundreds of millions and millions of deaths. But they have nothing to do with mind-exploratory practices of personal liberation, so they shouldn’t be lumped into one group encompassing all religions. There are mythological belief systems, and there are freedom technique sciences. I’ve even hear that some take the stories of Christianity to be simply stories, and instead they look to find the wisdom conveyed within the stories.

    So, the issue here isn’t Christianity, per se. The issue is that millions take the stories to be literal and miss the wisdom within the stories altogether. Something to consider.

  5. Hillary
    February 13, 2013 at 20:31

    Isn’t all this Bible history just Stone Age fiction turned into religion ?

    Today it is only accepted by present day “Stone Age”people”

  6. Jacob
    February 13, 2013 at 00:56

    It’s strange how “other” sources have seen the exact opposite. Where the Bible is clearly taught is where the church is growing RAPIDLY.
    The movements that have seen massive growth, such as churches associated with the Gospel Coalition, Passion movement, Hillsong, etc are all mainline evangelical.
    It’s certain mainline denominations that have gone extremely to the left or extremely to the right, that have noticed decline…
    Rev. Bess, one could definitely write a Thesis (or 100’s… seriously) about how this has been true.

  7. Ted Kircher
    February 12, 2013 at 18:46

    Spam Free WordPress is a joke – by not publishing my reply hence retaining the status quo.

    • gregorylkruse
      February 16, 2013 at 14:43

      It helps to log in.

  8. Ted Kircher
    February 12, 2013 at 18:43

    Eventually, the masses will finally understand that religion is just one more
    temporary, albeit important, concept to provide a global society in which all people are given the opportunity to become “as good as they can be”. As such,
    religion has been important like the wagon trains were in the 19th century to allow Americans to reach the west coast. We now understand that light can go around our earth in milliseconds in a universe in which light would require over 500 years. Also, we have multiple religions (all of whom “come from God”)
    because they started when communications over the “next mountain” was impossible. Let’s start to have a global society in which ALL humans will have an opportunity to be “as good as they can be”. This, of course, requires birth control so that parents are qualified to provide appropriate guidance for their children. PS: More info available to those who are interested.

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