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Every denomination needs one of these...

What's Wrong with the Mainline Church?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

By Pastor Ted Weis, Congregational Church, Little River, KS

40 years of unrelenting decline.

40 years of unrelenting decline.

No, I'm not repeating myself. Rather, I'm repeating what Dr. David Greenhaw, President of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis said twice about the mainline church during a workshop at the annual meeting of the UCC Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, held in Wichita, September 28-30.

Have you ever heard such honesty about the state of the mainline church?

While some might be able to ignore the situation, Greenhaw and other mainline education leaders cannot. Institutions are competing for a mainline pie that's getting smaller. They're staring directly at shrinking enrollments and budgets. If they don't do something different-- finding new ways to bring in students and balance budgets-- they won't last much longer. The crisis is now.

So what has contributed to the decline of the mainline church?

There are many factors, but Greenhaw believes the biggest is changing demographics.

According to Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, the debate over Darwinism in the 1920's split the American church into two groups-- mainliners and evangelicals. "After the divorce," said Greenhaw, "the mainliners got the house and the kids." The mainline kept most the church buildings and the educational institutions. The evangelicals moved out. Meanwhile, a dramatic shift started in where people lived. In 1920, 67% of the US population lived in communities of 3,000 or less. 33% lived in places of 8,000 or more. But in 2000, 80% of us live in metropolitan communities, while only 20% live in rural places.

Greenhaw maintains that evangelicals moved to and settled into these rapidly growing population centers, while mainliners remained in the smaller areas-- places that got even smaller over the last 80 years.

Changing demographics is certainly one factor contributing to mainline decline.

But I would contend that there's a bigger factor-- one that that's not discussed enough:


More specifically, how people of faith read their Bible.

For Christians in 1925, wasn't the Scopes Monkey Trial actually a debate over how the Bible is authoritative? As Balmer observes, it ended up creating two distinct camps. Today, if you look at evangelicals and mainline Christians, you'll see more than just differences in style, you'll see real differences in how the Gospel is interpreted and proclaimed.

Differences that are influencing people's decisions on where they go to church.

NEXT TIME: What's Right about the Mainline Church?
posted by Living the Biblios, Wednesday, October 03, 2007


You speak of a different Gospel between mainliners and evangelicals.

I hope you are not committing a false dichotomy, as if there are not evangelicals in the mainline. There are.

But what I really wanted to say was that the decline of the mainline can be brought into clear focus by examining differing definitions of 'evangelism' found in various churches

In the common mainline/oldline definition, evangelism is seen as advertising and eventual recruitment of members who will tithe and serve on committees.

In the evangelical tradition, evangelism is exposing people to the truth of the Gospel and teaching them to live their lives following Christ.

Business is booming in the evangelical church precisely because those churches have more to offer than committee work.

Google 'Missional Community' and get a sense of where God is leading many fruit-bearing churches.
Yes, of course the church has been in decline. For years, the "rats" have been jumping ship when they realized their prejudice and ignorance was no longer welcome. Personally, I'd love to see all non-ONA congregations leave. If only Cleveland could excommunicate them.
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 7:53 PM  
"Personally, I'd love to see all non-ONA congregations leave. If only Cleveland could excommunicate them."

Your vision of 90% of all UCC congregations departing is (a) probably not shared among other progressives in the UCC (b) probably not consistent with Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one" (c) not quite a '50-years-bold' statement since you chose to claim total anonymity in your comment (d) all of the above.

commented by Anonymous Richmond T. Stallgiss, 6:39 PM  
"But I would contend that there's a bigger factor-- one that that's not discussed enough:


Yeah...because Joel Osteen's theology is so incredibly deep and Biblical.
commented by Blogger Coffeepastor, 10:08 PM  
It's demographics: you're going to be even worse off in the future because only about 2.5% of those 25 and younger in the US belong to Mainline Protestant congregations. Your median age is around 58-and rising. The fastest growing demographic segment of those 18-30 is "None of the Above".
commented by Blogger Brad Evans, 5:38 PM  

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