In his now notoriously controversial speech at Ave Maria University in 2008, Rick Santorum warned that Satan had attacked the mainline Protestant churches in America, leaving them "in shambles" and "gone from the world of Christianity." Pundits and commentators on the 24 hour news cycles pounced, mocking Mr. Santorum's fiery religious rhetoric and questioning his electability. But putting his laughable qualifications for judging who the "real Christians" are to the side (including President Obama's [mainline Protestant] "phony theology"), no one is really arguing whether or not the mainline churches are in shambles. The decline of the mainline is just one part of a larger demographic shift that is reshaping American religion in a breathtakingly short period of time. White Catholics are leaving their church in droves. Evangelical growth is stalling. And in what TIME magazine dubs the "rise of the nones," the fastest growing "religion" in every single state of the union is - no religion at all.
And yet, this fascinating shift in the public life of our country is undeniably having the most dramatic and immediate effect on the old, historic Protestant churches dubbed by sociologists as "the mainline" (a term derived from the WASP stronghold along the Main Line railroad in Pennsylvania): the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, northern Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Disciples of Christ. In the world my parents were born into, these churches still served as the flagship institutions of the nation's conscience and provided society with a common religious language and moral framework. Fifty years ago, their combined membership numbered 30 million; today, they total around 20 million, losing a third of their members even as the country grew by 125 million!
Of course, 20 million people is still a lot of folks. Larger than the New York City metropolitan area, for example. And in religious identification surveys, the number of people who claim some kind of connection to these churches is much higher than their actual membership. But beneath the surface, things are actually about to get much worse. Here's why:
From Mainline to Oldline
Most people have some vague sense that there are a lot of Catholics in the Northeast, the Southern Baptists abound in the South, and the Mormons hang out in the mountain West. While not dominant in one particular region, drive along any Main Street across the USA and you'll find the mainline churches. Step inside one of these beautiful buildings on a Sunday morning, though, and you're likely to notice a couple things - a lot of empty pews, and even in the churches where the pews are packed, a lot of gray hair. The average age of your typical mainline Protestant is so high, that some are beginning to refer to the "oldline." In the country's largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church, the average age has risen to 57. For years, struggling mainline churches have stayed afloat as fewer members increased their giving. But in about a 15 years, as aging baby boomers lift the US death rate to its highest point since the advent of antibiotics, many of these older congregations will be effectively wiped out. The Rev. Lovett Weems, who studies these depressing numbers, has coined the phrase "death tsunami" that has been floating around in mainline circles. Sounds rosy, doesn't it?
The End of the Big Tent
Even more sadly, the mainline may end up self-imploding before the so-called death tsunami gets here. For decades, mainline leadership in seminaries and church bureaucracies have trended left (theologically and politically) of most laypeople, leading to squabbles at denominational assemblies on everything from the authority of the Bible to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is over issues related to sexuality that conservatives in the mainline have chosen to draw a line in the sand. The Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Presbyterian Church (USA) have each voted to ordain clergy in monogamous, lifelong homosexual relationships. And in each church, disgruntled conservatives have walked out - forming the Anglican Church in North America (2009), the North American Lutheran Church (2010), and most recently, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (2012). These splits have only served to hasten the mainline's decline as smaller and more liberal denominations risk being marginalized within their own larger Protestant traditions.
All eyes are now on the United Methodist Church, the last large mainline church that has managed to hold liberals and conservatives under one tent, claiming that all people have "sacred worth," but that "homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching." With a growing proportion of its membership in Africa and Asia who hold to more traditional views on sexuality, this position seems unlikely to be repealed, putting progressives in the US in a unique position among their mainline peers. Will they split the denomination by leaving as their conservative counterparts have done in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches? For years, they have opted to stay, working together in a reconciling network of churches to change the official church policy from within. But that may be about to change. Hundreds of clergy have signed on to statements pledging to bless same sex unions in spite of the denomination's ban, effectively challenging the bishops to discipline them en masse. In response, hundreds more clergy have called on the bishops to enforce the church's position, before the promised disobedience occurs. All of this has the potential to come to a head at General Conference next month in Tampa, where lay and clergy delegates from around the world meet every four years to set church policy.
A Vision for the Future
In spite of all the challenges and ridicule from presidential candidates, I am a proud mainline Protestant. In a context where Christianity is too often defined in the public sphere by our noisy evangelical cousins, the moderate and sensible voice of the mainline is needed more now than ever. As Frank Schaeffer points out in an excellent column, the mainline is missing a key opportunity to reach record numbers of disaffected young ex-Christians. Given the present realities of demographics and broader cultural changes, it may also be our last opportunity. I do not doubt that, even in the worst case scenario, individual former mainline congregations will survive in America. But what would it take for the shambles of mainline Protestantism to not only survive, but to thrive? As a young pastor in the mainline, I offer up two simple suggestions:
1. Remember Who You Are. Too often, mainline Christians don't know what they believe. They're nice people, but they are indistinguishable from the United Way or the Lion's Club. We are well liked by the general population, but that doesn't mean they want to get up on a Sunday morning and spend an hour with us if what we believe makes little difference for their everyday life. Furthermore, in mainline congregations that do have an identity, it either aligns more closely to the Democratic Party than to Christian tradition - or it is a lame attempt to copy the megachurch down the street. Unlike many evangelical and nondenominational churches, who pay little attention to anything more than 10 years old, mainline Protestants have a deep well of tradition from which to draw. As a former evangelical myself, I almost gave up on the church out of frustration. It was only by the chance discovery of the writings of John Wesley in a dusty corner of my college library that I discovered the mainline Protestant tradition that manages to balance the head and the heart, scripture and sacrament, the personal and social dimensions of faith. If a young recovering evangelical wanders into your church, will they find a thoughtful and engaged community of Christians or an apathetic chapter of the United Way? Be proud of your liturgy! Welcome a diversity of views! Resurrect the ghosts of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley! Don't just preach about social justice, show people what it looks like in your community!
2. Reject the Sin of Schism. Much is being made in mainline churches over the practice of homosexuality. Conservatives should recognize that the homosexuality described in the Bible bears little resemblance to the monogamous, faithful relationships advocated for in churches today. Furthermore, the same kind of attention and lack of grace is rarely applied by conservatives toward heterosexual sins like sex before marriage, adultery, pornography, or serial divorce. In fact, if God's best for human sexuality is indeed "one man and one woman within marriage for life," than a loving homosexual couple may approximate that standard much more closely than many of the aberrant heterosexual relationships in our churches. Also, if the sole problem with homosexual relationships is that they lack the biological possibility to reproduce, then conservatives in the church must also be willing to reexamine the morality of heterosexual contraception with the specific intent of never having children. On the liberal side, progressives should be willing to acknowledge that, as Christians and as Protestants, the Bible has primacy for our theology - and that (unlike debates over slavery or women in leadership) in every single biblical reference to homosexual practice, it is expressly forbidden. Given the longstanding history of Christian interpretation on this subject, progressives should not be too quick to follow the shifting winds of culture and place more value on the latest episode of Glee than on the faithful interpretation of Scripture. On both sides, there must be a commitment to stay in Christian community together, to do the difficult work of talking to each other, working together, and loving each other - even when we disagree - so that "the world might believe" in the One who calls us all children. The sin of schism and the scandalous compromise of our witness to Christ's reconciling love is far more important than our disagreements over sexuality. For United Methodists, Wesley has a good sermon on this. But perhaps the infamous Saint Paul says it best,
"(Dear mainline Protestants,) I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourself with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all who is over all, through all, and in all." (Ephesians 4.1-6)
If we will be faithful to that higher calling, to Jesus' prayer that we might be one, then we may indeed see the mainline rise from its shambles as a vibrant Christian movement in the United States once again.