When American soldiers returned from World War II, the so-called mainline churches were pillars of Protestantism in the United States. (The six denominations typically considered to be "mainline" are the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church.) In the 1950's, there were around 80,000 mainline churches in United States. Today, there are only around 72,000 American mainline churches. Subsequently, a quarter of mainline church members called it quits. This, despite massive population growth and substantial growth among evangelical denominations over the same period.
Theologians, historians, sociologists, and cultural commentators have speculated about what may have caused this decline. Some say that mainline churches have abandoned their historical commitments to orthodox Christian tenets such as scriptural authority, gospel-centered preaching, and evangelism. Others claim that these denominations have failed to attract minorities and young people to replace their greying ranks. More than a third of all mainline members are 60+ years old. Research indicates there is some truth in both claims. Any church that abandons the gospel and scriptural authority will have a hard time differentiating itself from other socially-sensitive community groups; any organization that fails to capture the hearts of the next generation simply won't survive. (For a fair and interesting look at these trends, check out David Shiflett's "Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.")
Over the last decade, the number of adults who attend a mainline church on a given weekend has been relatively stable. Leaders in mainline circles have harbored hope that the numerical hemorrhaging might be coagulating. Evangelical skeptics say that the credit belongs to America's population growth, and we shouldn't read into this. Much to the chagrin of mainliners, it appears the once-powerful Christian bodies may once again be fading.
According to a recent Barna study examining the state of mainline denominations, "demographics suggest that the mainline churches may be on the precipice of a period of decline unless remedial steps are taken." According to the report, population growth in America has provided just enough new members to maintain attendance levels similar to when the U.S. population was considerably smaller. Among the studies other findings are the rise in women pastors, an aging clergy in the mainline denominations, and swelling church budgets. Perhaps most telling, the study also found that only 49% of mainline adults say they are "absolutely committed to Christianity" and 72% say they are "more likely to develop their own religious beliefs than to adopt those taught by their church."
I have a unique perspective here even though I am a committed evangelical Christian and a Southern Baptist minister because I currently attend a mainline (UMC) seminary and I have many close friends who attend mainline churches. I've learned a lot from interacting with people in these circles, which now informs my perspective. On the on hand, I've found many of the portrayals of mainliners as crusading Bible-haters are mere caricatures. My experience is that many people in these traditions love Jesus and hold the Bible in high regard. Evangelical Christians must be careful not to over-generalize when speaking about our mainline brothers and sisters. On the other hand, I've found that many of the common stereotypes about mainliners are not baseless. Many of the mainline clergy I speak to unashamedly swim in a pool of heterodoxy. I have entered into friendships with people who accept universal salvation, deny the resurrection, and most commonly, fail to recognize the cross of Christ as central to Christian theology. I love these friends of mine, but I often encourage them to reconsider orthodox Christian teachings.
In my opinion and experience, mainline churches have become a mixed bag. Many hold fast to helpful traditions, ancient Christian practices, and meaningful liturgies. Yet more often than not these congregations lack strong leadership, strong convictions, a strong sense of identity, and vibrant populations of young people. All four of these things are essential to surviving the challenges of post-modern, post-Christian America.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer and author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet. He blogs regularly at http://www.jonathanmerritt.com.