While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out.
The trajectory, which has been a discussion among researchers for years, is partly related to demographics. Mainline Protestants, which has been the tradition of several U.S. presidents, aren’t “multiplying” with children as rapidly as evangelicals or others of differing faiths. And geography matters. Places where Protestants live are now in socio-economic decline, and parts of the country like the Sun Belt are become more evangelical with every passing winter.
And as Episcopal researcher Kirk Hadaway explained in 1998, “nontraditional groups, including once-marginal Protestant churches, smaller sects and non-Western religions, have increased. At the same time, a growing number of people have shed their particular religious affiliations, saying they are just ‘religious, spiritual’ or have no religion at all.”
But I think something deeper is going on.
Recently released data from the General Social Survey, sorted by what is called the RelTrad, shows that mainline Protestants are in the midst of a decades-long decline, and it has intensified in its most recent survey.
The top line shows mainline Protestant identification, and fewer say they go to churches affiliated with mainline denominations. The bottom line shows attendance, and now less than one of 33 people you meet on the street regularly attends a mainline Protestant church.
Both markers, self-identification and regular attendance, are imperfect, as are the GSS and the RelTrad, but these are among the most widely cited and trusted tool researchers use to measure religious trends. Those trend lines into the future gives us a glimpse of what could happen if patterns don’t change.
If the data continues along the same pattern, mainline Protestants have an expiration date when both trend lines cross zero in 2039. If the trend line continues, they have 23 Easters left.
It’s not the whole story, but here’s an argument for at least part of what has happened. Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed “offensive” to the surrounding culture: Jesus literally died for our sins and rose from the dead, the view of the authority of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and more.
Some of mainline Protestants leaders rejected or minimized these beliefs — beliefs that made the “protest” in Protestantism 500 years ago — as an invitation for more people to join a more culturally relevant and socially acceptable church. But if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers.
I’m an evangelical (which, I assure you, has its own set of problems). However, I became a Christian in the (very mainline) Episcopal Church. I take no delight in mainline Protestantism’s decline and am hoping and praying for a reversal. And I know many in the mainline Protestant tradition seek to follow Jesus and are working to change the trend line of decline.
And, ultimately, mainline Protestants likely do have many more than 23 Easters left. Churches will be restarted and revitalized and there will be advancement initiatives. Mainline Protestants won’t cease to exist completely in 23 years because they trend will probably slow, but the data does not give us good hope for their future.
My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.
The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.
Belief within the mainline
In the 1970s, Dean Kelly wrote an often-cited book on why conservative churches are growing, stating that even amid hostility toward organized religion, conservative churches seemed to grow.
Is part of the answer for mainline Protestantism to grow more conservative?
It depends on how you define “conservative.” For some, they hear a call to become Trump supporters, deny climate change science or support huge tax cuts. That’s not what I’m talking about.
But a recent study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, based upon a Canadian sample, goes into the theology of the mainline. As David Haskell explained in The Washington Post, “[W]e found 93 percent of clergy members and 83 percent of worshipers from growing churches agreed with the statement ‘Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.’ This compared with 67 percent of worshipers and 56 percent of clergy members from declining churches.”
Of course, you can’t say, “Mainliners all believe this or that,” but the numbers above suggest a theological gap, even on something as basic as what Easter means, and that gap has both theological and statistical implications.
If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.
I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.
And 2039 is just not that far away.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair at Wheaton College and is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center there.