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Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Myth: Liberal theology caused mainline decline.

Also at the top of my reading list: the Christian Century, which has an annoying habit of publishing really compelling essays that never make it onto their website. Such as the cover story a few weeks ago that debunked the often-cited claim that the mainline churches — the liberals — have been in decline because their people have fled liberal theology for more conservative churches. Um, that's a story that I would have thought the magazine would have wanted a lot of people to see.

Sociologists Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde developed models for identifying factors that could account for the declining number of mainline Protestants (traditional home of liberal Christianity) and the rising number of conservative Protestants. They tested the various models against the trend lines in the various churches over the 20th century to see which ones most closely matched what has actually happened. The only two factors that could have played a statistically significant role? Birth-rate and slower traffic from conservative into more liberal churches.

Essentially, mainline Protestants adopted contraception earlier than conservative Protestants did, although by the late '70s conservatives' families were finally getting smaller, too. And, as no one will be surprised to learn, conservative churches do a better job of retaining members overall. But the study does show that the "culture war" issues in the churches are unlikely to have been a major factor in the decline of the mainline churches; the demographic trends in fertility were already shrinking the next generation of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Lutherans.

Although the Christian Century didn't hawk its own story, the Baptist Standard offers a pretty thorough synopsis, from which I quote:

The researchers investigated other possible causes for mainline decline — support for homosexual and abortion rights, a lower view of the Bible, a higher "apostasy" rate, and fewer conversions from outside the Christian fold. But they dismissed these other factors as irrelevant because none could produce numerical changes significant enough to explain the shift in church membership.

"Higher fertility and better retention thus account for the conservatives' rising share of the Protestant population," they concluded.

Because the birthrates only achieved parity in the last generation, though, the conservative churches will continue to grow for another generation as my peers — born in the '70s — have their own children.

("Fertility, Not Theology, Cause of Decline," Greg Warner [ABP], Texas Baptist 10.28.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 9 November 2005 at 7:45 AM

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Chris T.:

November 9, 2005 09:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think we need to be very, very careful where we place blame for the decline of the mainline. I'm very skeptical of this Christian Century article, and any other article that tries to place the blame on anyone but the denominations and their churches.

I work in campus ministry now, and the dirty, ugly truth is that the mainline has completely abandoned higher education to the fundamentalists. There's a very real perception that my generation will return to the mainline eventually, just as the boomers did. I actually spoke to one campus minister who was proud she had no students—she thought that indicated she was taking appropriately unpopular stands on social justice issues.

I think our theology does place us at something of a disadvantage compared to evangelicals. We need to own up to that, because we need to develop strategies for attracting students without supplying easy answers. But that disadvantage can be made up for, if the denominations would step up to the plate and do more than throw money at campus ministers. Firing the vast majority of unproductive campus ministers would be a good first step, followed by hiring people who actually care about attracting undergrads.

Chris T.:

November 9, 2005 09:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

I meant to point out that I think the perception that my generation will return to the mainline is probably a false one. Many of the folks who would be attracted to liberal Protestantism, who have been burned by more conservative expressions of Christianity, are leaving for Paganism, Buddhism, and other religions. I wouldn't expect many of those folks to make their way back to liberal Christianity. They're being fed spiritually by other people, even though they grew up in our churches.


November 9, 2005 10:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Both of your observations are right, Chris, but they point to something that has happened in the aftermath of the decline the mainline churches. The demographic slide took place in the 1960s and '70s, causing a shortage of clergy, funds, and other essential ingredients and leaving the mainline vulnerable to all kinds of things -- including melancholy and self-defeating justifications for bad forms of liberal behavior. ("Righteous remnant" social justice work, for example.)

Obviously very creative work would have to be done by any liberal church to overcome resistance to any Christian message, and I'd hope it could be done with genuine interest in the other great religious traditions. And, frankly, I suspect that the arm's-length relationship UUs have to Christianity has actually accounted for some of Unitarian Universalism's incremental growth over the last twenty years. After all, we've been the church most receptive to East Asian religious practices and to neo-paganism.

Clyde Grubbs:

November 9, 2005 12:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

Some other hypothesis that need research.

The mainstream in the middle of the twentieth centry had more economically successful people, the female spouse was the church lady. That demographic is so 1950s now, yet the congregational culture (and system) hasn't adjusted making it hard to grow.

Older congregations in the Snow belt are often "systems" in need of renewal. The conservatives have invested in church starts in the Sunbelt.

The large number of mainstream churches in the Northeast and Midwest where populations are moving away from also has had a downward pull of membership.

Bill Baar:

November 9, 2005 06:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

UU missionaries might help.

Institutional Liberal Religion may be on the decline, but I think Liberal Religous notions about the importance of an individual's unfiltered relationship with God have become dominate.

So much so maybe we don't realize it.

Liberal Religion needed now more so than ever because the culture rushes towards a radical individualism, and Liberal Religion offers some ideas on how people can live automously with a relationship to God ungoverned by authorities other than ones inner understandings.

Listen to Rev Harper (and others) though and I'm not certain the old institutions up to the task.

I'm more optimistic but I'm not in the institutional Liberal Religious sausage factory. Only a consumer paying for a dog with the works.


November 10, 2005 09:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

One thing that I think ameliorates many of the alternative hypotheses that some of the other commentators proposed is that it's hard to point to many other changes that churches made over the course of time that Hout, et al. investigate. (And Hout is on my friend C's dissertation committee, and he's is extremely thorough as a social scientist.)

Evangelicals and mainlines don't seem to have changed their general strategies in the last few decades (having been raised as the third generation [at least] of an evangelical family, I've got anecdotal [so admittedly scientifically low validity] knowledge of this), the counterculture revolution happened to them both, etc.

What may have changed is that evangelicals learned how to organize politically, across denominational lines, so they look like they are more than they once were. We see and hear more of them, but they aren't really any more than they once were.

I've been hearing about the Hout et al. stuff for a while, but I'll have to go read the actual articles.

Phil on the Prairie:

November 10, 2005 04:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

For take on mainline Protestant churches that aren't declining, check out this from


November 10, 2005 07:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

I read the original in the American Journal of Sociology. As is often the case the leap from correlation to causality requires some pretty dubious assumptions. There is no question that liberals, political and religious, have fewer babies. But that doesn't mean that liberal theology is irrelevent. Maybe people who believe that abortion is okay are likely to have fewer children. I'm not saying that that is true, just that it is another way to look at the same data.

Another possibility is that the generally negative tenor of liberal culture makes people less eager to start a family. Liberals are regularly told to worry about Christian fascists, global warming, neoconservatives etc. Maybe people find that depressing.

One should also note that Hout et al. relied on self-reported denominational identification, not actual religious activity. According to a recent Gallup poll 53% of conservative Protestants say they attend church once a week, as opposed to 18% of mainline Protestants. Possibly some of the 82% of mainliners who aren't showing up are alienated by politics or theology. We know they aren't being distracted by children.


November 10, 2005 11:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mainline churches---killed in committee. Aside from the demographics, this 1950s way of doing church is killing us.

It would be nice to try and go with the megachurch trend. Some. But that's already considered passe by some (esp. by those in the "emergent church" movement). I can't help feeling that our conversations are about twenty years behind.

Bill Baar:

November 11, 2005 04:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

Is this fewer babies talk a code for Liberal Churches are European Churches and America's become more Latin an Asian?

Kane County Illinois is about one third hispanic now. The Catholic Church is stretched --10k people in the one we left-- and I see Iglesia Pentocostal all over but nary an Iglesia UU

We also have a number of Hindu Temples of many variants here now. A few quite large and ornate.


November 11, 2005 07:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

The study was focused on demographic trends within Protestant churches. It's true that immigration patterns have shifted the religious landscape overall: Protestants now make up less than 50% of the U.S. population. (There's plenty more about religious pluralism in the U.S. at Harvard's Pluralism Project; see also their frequently updated Religious Diversity News.) But I didn't see any mention of whether immigration had significantly boosted the membership of any of the churches studied by the sociologists.

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