Stream: Why Mainline Churches Are Emptying

Stream: Why Mainline Churches Are Emptying.

The Episcopal Church in America reached peak membership in 1959, with about 3.5 million baptized members, rising from just over one million in a decade. Since the population of the USA also rose during this period, another way to put it is to say the Episcopal Church had in 1959 about 19.4 members per every 1,000 citizens, rising from 17 per 1,000 in 1949. Total church membership has since fallen, with membership about 1.8 million in 2015, or 5.5 per 1,000, and dropping none too slowly.

Similar rapid decreases are seen among the Presbyterian (PCUSA), United Methodist, and Lutheran (ELCA) churches.  Episcopalians, Presbyterians (USA), Lutherans (ELCA) and United Methodists represent historical or mainline Protestant Churches in the USA,

The much more evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, because of its age, is similarly situated. Numbers are better in the large Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) than in the Mainline. But membership in SBC congregations has not been keeping track with population increases.

In contrast, evangelical denominations, such as for example the Assemblies of God, while still individually smaller than mainline Protestant congregations, have seen significant growth. The Assemblies of God had only about 300 thousand members in 1950 (about 2.1 per 1,000), swelling ten times to 3.1 million last year (9.8 per 1,000).

Broadly speaking, and using the colloquial understanding of the terms, conservative Protestant churches have had increases this past half century, and liberal churches have had decreases. It is, of course, of interest to shore up these loose expressions and discover just what “conservative” and “liberal” mean in this context.

Enter the paper “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy” by David Millard Haskell, Kevin N. Flatt, and Stephanie Burgoyne in the journal Review of Religious Research. The trio asked questions of the clergy and congregations of 22 Protestant churches drawn from the Anglican Church of Canada (5), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (4), the Presbyterian Church in Canada (8), and the United Church of Canada (4) all centered in southern Ontario. Of these, 13 had declining populations from 2003 to 2013 and 9 had increasing populations.

Now this isn’t an especially large or necessarily representative sample of churches outside Canada; however, as the survey questions will show, there is still much that can be learned.

Several questions were asked of the congregants, and many answers showed wide disagreement between the Growing and Declining churches.

For instance, 79% of Growing congregants agreed strongly with the statement “Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of my sins,” whereas only 57% of Declining congregants thought the same. About 19% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “the beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant,” whereas 31% of Declining congregants thought so.

Three questions in particular were revealing in the conservative-liberal gap. Only 7% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “the Bible is the product of human thinking about God, so some of its teachings are wrong or misguided,” whereas over 15% of Declining congregants strongly agreed.

About 13% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “all major religions are equally good and true,” but more than twice as many Declining congregants, or 25%, thought so. On the fundamental basis of the Christian religion, 66% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” but only 37% of Declining congregants did.

[The most surprising questions are of the clergy, which you can read at Stream.]

Hurry and click here before all the pews empty out.

Update Ken below makes a good point about pseudo-quantification of survey questions, a practice I continually deride. I still do. As I said, these particular results should be taken with a grain of salt. But about the answers to the questions, well, these have correct values. It is false, and false utterly in Christian theology, to say “the Bible is the product of human thinking about God, so some of its teachings are wrong or misguided”. Any disagreement to this statement, however it couched, using numbers or not, is of interest (the exact numbers are not of much or any interest). How can a congregant or clergyman still call himself a Christian and reject dogma? Incidentally, the editor added the last line of the story.


  1. Yawrate

    It’s no wonder the liberal churches are shrinking…it almost seems obvious. Why be a Christian if you don’t believe the basic tenants of Christianity?

  2. Nate

    I saw a “famous” liberal pastor (Nadia Bolz-Weber) speak. Poor woman’s theology is a mess.

  3. G

    The Assemblies of God formed as a denomination (actually more like an affiliation structure than a hierarchical governance) a bit over a century ago when independent American congregations perceived the call of the Holy Spirit to unite for the purpose of world evangelism. Last time I checked there were about ten times as many non-US adherents as in the States. Much of the growth has been in South America. The mainline congregations have lost their first love and their lampstands have been removed.

  4. Richard A

    There is a related reason.
    Normal men don’t care for female social structures and predominantly feminine institutions. You didn’t see men clamoring to get into Radcliffe the way women wanted to get into Harvard and The Citadel. Men can tolerate at most one woman at a time who can give him something like ongoing direction: his mom and later his wife. They will flee churches with female leadership like the plague, and sooner or later most women will as well, because there aren’t any men there. And if you’re a doctrinaire feminist, you’ll wring your hands and bitch about how men can’t handle a lot of women being in charge and instead of fleeing they should change and learn to like it. But in this cosmos, the one where real human beings live, most men aren’t going to change in that way, whether they should or not. And sooner or later, the biological imperative is going to drive most women to where the men are, and doctrinaire feminists can wring their hands and bitch about how ‘real’ women shouldn’t need men anyway, but most women will decide they want a man and a family anyway. More than they want progressive feminists because, really, who wouldn’t?

  5. Gary

    The warnings have been available for a long time:
    To the Church at Sardis – “…you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!”
    To the Church at Laodocea – “…you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

  6. Joy

    The reasons why people leave a church are varied and complex and sometimes unknown even to the given individual.
    The same as the reasons people attend.

    These statistics don’t prove anything they are just congruent with a given set of ideas about why people dislike certain churches and about why some churches making changes might be less popular with their congregations.
    I wonder why Catholic churches are taken out for separate consideration, again.
    It’s more politics. Nothing to do with God.

    “Dear church”, The article, is as valid a reason why certain fractions of the population are turned away from attending or leaver the church also.
    Both arguments are valid and yet seem to be opposed. The situation is more complex than only one or two factors.

    Richard A’s point is also valid but I don’t agree with the antifemale flavour it it.

    The view many women I speak to is that they don’t mind a female vicar but I’m fairly sure that they say this because they think it’s what they’re supposed to say, being agreeable and perhaps some women find women less intimidating. I do not.
    I differ in that regard and preferr a male vicar. It was never a case of ‘sooner or later’.
    The last time I was at Church was Christmas EVe. The vicar is a male Norton Mandeville’s All Saints. There both the Vicar and the regular minister are male.

    The creed is not as I had remembered from my Christ Church Chorleywood days ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic and apostolic church”
    The Holy doesn’t appear ‘I believe in one Catholic and apostolic…” was the exact wording.

    The fortunes of the churches and their numbers will always be in flux. Where they wain in one place they will flourish somewhere else, with different age groups and in different countries. Fundamentalists fret that core values, doctrines, ideas will fade. They will not. Goodness and truth never fades unless the idea of eternal goodness is simply an ideal, which is to say untrue fundamentally. Bad ideas inevitably fade with time.
    Fear of impending doom is not a healthy thing to contemplate in any event but particularly with respect to the Christian faith as a whole and the churches which promote it.

  7. katzxy

    “Apparently theological liberalism empties churches.”
    That would seem to be the point of liberalism as applied to religion.

  8. Ken

    “Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, AND WE LISTEN ONLY TO THOSE WHO AGREE WITH US.”
    – B. Obama, POTUS, Jan 10, 2017

    It’s curiously predictable how the credibility attributed to conclusions reached from responses to questions correlates with the extent to which those conclusions agree with one’s existing views.


    BRIGGS (today): “Now this isn’t an especially large or necessarily representative sample … however, as the survey questions will show, there is still much that can be learned.”

    And if you’ve gotten this far you know that Briggs wholeheartedly accepted that sampling’s particular conclusions as A-OK … conclusions which happen to agree with his views.

    Contrast the credibility accepted in the above/today’s example with how much credibility is attributed to the very same source of information when the conclusions reached disagree with the personal views held. If you are honest, and pay close attention, you just might perceive a bit of a difference based on very fundamental principles:

    “I hereby call for a two-year moratorium on all “research” and “science” which in any way uses questionnaires. … It’s all crap, to coin a word. It’s stinkier than stinky tofu, rottener than Unitarian theology, flimsier than Bill Clinton’s excuses. And it’s pervasive. Question-based science is the very foundation of entire fields, like education, sociology, psychology. Disallow questionnaires and hundreds of journals would dry up. … The damage done to clear thinking by pretending batteries of questions adequately quantify emotional states cannot scarcely be underestimated. It’s far past the time to take these things seriously.”
    – W. M. Briggs,

    Q: “Can the type of confusion that arises over statistics and probability influence the choices that a society makes? How can this error be limited?”
    A: “Yes, especially in a culture that views science with such awe. How to limit? Everything is supposed to be scientific. Hence the Cult of Measurement and endless questionnaires with pseudo-quantified answers, and “nudging,” and on and on. Scientism pervades.”
    – W. M. Briggs,

    The immediately above two sentiments are a small sampling that illustrate a recurring theme familiar to regular readers.

    Perhaps the crucial distinction is between “survey” (ok), and “questionnaire” (not ok)…

  9. Sylvain

    Easy people are realizing how much bs you believe

  10. Joy

    Sylvain, What are difficult people doing?

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