“The ones that should go”: One Liberal Protestant Explanation for Mainline Decline

Episcopal ShieldCan liberal Christianity be saved?“, asked New York Times columnist Ross Douthat a few days ago. He was virtually certain that the answer was No, based on what he saw as the fifty-year decline of denominations like The Episcopal Church (TEC). The conservative Catholic Douthat’s thesis was echoed by at least two commentators with connections to Episcopalianism: historian Philip Jenkins, who likened his denomination to a critically ill patient that cannot be revived (“TEC? DNR”), and foreign affairs writer Walter Russell Mead, an Episcopal priest’s son who lamented the “extraordinary decline in an institution that a generation ago was still one of the pillars of American life. At this point the disaster appears irretrievable; those running the church are determined to run it into the ground and it is hard to see how that can change.”

All started with this startling statistic: between 2000 and 2010, average Sunday attendance in Episcopalian churches plummeted by 23%, with dioceses ravaged by schism dropping upwards of 70-80%. Douthat noted that not a single one of the TEC’s more than ninety American dioceses reported increased average attendance, and I’d add that only eight dioceses even managed to keep their decreases in the single digits. (And all of those were already smaller dioceses, with the biggest reporting just over 8000 attendees.)

I’m not an Episcopalian, but I’m familiar with this sort of decline because I married into a family touched by a similar phenomenon in another mainline Protestant denomination. My father-in-law is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). His son, my brother-in-law Dan, will follow Denny into that profession in about five years, but he will start his studies this fall at a seminary sponsored by a denomination that reported 21% decline in average worship attendance, from 2003-2010.

So I’ve hesitated to comment on the TEC/Douthat story. Not only because I’m an evangelical Protestant, and the last thing mainliners want or need to hear is another evangelical crowing about the collapse of liberal Protestantism. But because I count my in-laws and several other mainline Protestants among my family, friends, and colleagues, and I don’t mean to impugn their Christian faith and witness in any way whatsoever.

While I have no great affection for the mainline denominations themselves (closer contact with any of which would probably make me rethink the thesis of my “anti-anti-denominationalism post”), I don’t doubt that Denny, Dan, and my other mainline friends and relatives are trying (in the great words of that great mainline pastor-novelist, Frederick Buechner) “To be Christs in whatever way we are able to be. To be Christs with whatever gladness we have and in whatever place, among whatever brothers [and sisters, they’ll want me to add] we are called to.”

So, of all the critiques of Douthat that I’ve read this week, I was most impressed by that from historian Diana Butler Bass.Diana Butler Bass Without denying the data, she quietly asserted that a fusion of social action and Christian spirituality is already renewing the mainline at the local level:

Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations–a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life.

May it be so. Indeed, I join Douthat himself in believing that one of the defining ideas of liberal Protestantism — “that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life.”

Of course, Butler Bass got attention primarily because she argued that Protestantism’s decline is not limited to its liberal wing. She pointed to falling numbers for two conservative Protestant denominations: the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

This is true (see below for some potentially worrisome statistics), but more than a bit misleading at this point. While Southern Baptist membership dropped by 1% in 2011 (the fifth year of decline), it’s just 0.5% below where it was ten years ago (and just over 2% below the 2006 membership peak), hardly the precipitous decline seen by mainline denominations like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), which lost 20% of its membership between 2000 and 2010 (and shed another 3% in 2011). Writing on the same blog as Jenkins, historian John Turner (himself a member of the PCUSA) put the contrast in proper perspective: “If Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans have experienced a halt to membership growth, the decline of many liberal churches has been catastrophic.”

Butler Bass points to a truth that all Christians should know by now: that we shouldn’t read too much into numerical rise and fall. Dallas Willard is no doubt right that church growth-minded evangelicals sometimes forget that the Great Commission calls us to make disciples, not converts or church members, and even megachurch pioneers like Willow Creek’s leadership have started to realize that rising attendance does not equate with spiritual growth. By the same token, Butler Bass could be right that falling attendance disguises significant renewal.

(And sometimes church leaders need to speak unpopular truths, whatever the consequences for attendance, membership, and income. In my backyard, Greg Boyd’s megachurch famously suffered a 20-25% drop in attendance after he — rightly — warned against turning American nationalism into idolatry, in the wake of 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq War. He discusses the decline in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation.)

But much as I’ve appreciated thoughtful responses to Douthat like Butler Bass’s, I’ve found another kind of liberal apology for statistical decline far less compelling, indeed quite off-putting. In essence, it’s a “good riddance” to the 23%.

In a post that reflects interestingly on how TEC has changed from being “a denomination of privilege,” Episcopal priest Winnie Varghese doesn’t pull her punches in locating the causes of numerical decline:

Winnie VargheseIn those places where we are working on being a better church, respecting the dignity of all people (see The Book of Common Prayer), those that have left because of those battles, as the great Bobby Castle used to say (and probably still does), “are the ones that should go.” He did not mean that in a nice way.

If our increased thoughtfulness in understanding the human condition causes us to be open minded in a way that offends your prejudices, yes, the Episcopal Church might not be for you. I hope I’m being clear, I believe our decline is a sloughing off of the baggage of establishment and American Empire and not quickly enough embracing an expansive view of humanity within our Eucharistic communities. We became irrelevant to all but the most faithful and those far too in love with Jesus to leave the church despite its hypocrisy. But don’t worry, we’re on that now.

Dressed up in high-minded language, it’s an ugly allegation: that the tens of thousands of women and men who left were detritus, disposable reminders of a pre-Civil Right Movement, pre-feminist, pre-LGBT-friendly Christendom who have no place in the Anglican Communion and, in any case, probably don’t love Jesus quite as much as those who stayed. On both sides of this whole debate, there’s been plenty of speck-seeing and plank-ignoring, but it’s hard to trump an essay that turns the emptying of pews into a cause for Whiggish self-congratulation and the demonizing of fellow Christians.

There are a million problems with this argument — starting with the startling lack of charity being shown by a pastor — but it does (inadvertently) raise an important question: “Just where did the 23% go?”

In the middle of the Episcopalian decline (in 2008), the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Among its salient findings… Of those Americans surveyed who spent their childhood in Episcopalian or Anglican churches (far more of the former than the latter in this survey), 45% remained there as adults. (Of course, that doesn’t speak to, say, conservative Episcopalians joining breakaway Anglican groups.)

Where did the other 55% go? (see p. 31 of the report for these figures, and the remainder of ch. 2 for context)

  • 23% to other Protestant traditions (about evenly split between mainline and evangelical, with a handful opting for historically black churches)
  • 12% either joined non-Protestant churches (I assume that’s mostly “home to Rome” conversions, but I couldn’t find a more detailed breakdown) or were placed in the “Don’t Know/Refused to Answer” category.
  • Then 20% claimed no religion at all.

The 12% leaving Protestantism and 20% quitting religion altogether were both the highest rates for any denominational family (the latter tying with the Congregationalist tradition that houses, among others, the similarly progressive and similarly shrinking United Church of Christ).

Here evangelicals should also sit up and take notice because, on this table, the religious “family” most similar to Episcopalians is Nondenominational evangelicals: 44% stay with the evangelicalism of their childhood; 27% move to other Protestant churches; 10% to non-Protestant faiths; and 19% to no religion.

The 20% “no religion” figure should cause Episcopalians significant pause, for it belies both the idea that the loss is primarily accounted for by conservative flight (Varghese’s “sloughing off of baggage”) and the even more common argument that liberal Protestantism is now well-positioned to appeal to a younger generation that shares its views on, say, sexuality. This was the central argument of another TEC priest, Tom Ehrich, who stopped just short, in a God’s Politics post, of treating the elderly as another kind of “baggage”:

In time, many mainline Protestant churches became precious enclaves of old people doing old things. We were still arguing about paint colors when people needed us to help them find new purpose and confidence.

…Mainline Protestant church leaders are finally getting ready to do what they should have been doing for 50 years, namely, looking outside their walls at a deeply troubled world, resolving to turn their congregations toward being responsive and effective, and allowing young adults into leadership.

Ehrich (whose other attempt to shrug off the attendance findings is to discount the significance of Sunday worship itself) would like to believe that “young adults are shunning” the mischaracterization of the mainline as “argumentative, judgmental, dull, and old” and finding themselves at home in a revitalized liberal Protestantism.

No doubt there is some of that, particularly as the mainline has re-embraced church planting. But the Pew survey found that only 10% of mainline Anglicans are aged 18-29, less than half the share that age group claims among non-denominational evangelicals. (It could be worse: only 8% of ELCA and PCUSA respondents were younger than 30.) Perhaps things have started to change significantly from 2008 to 2012, or the seeds have been planted for dramatic shifts that will take ten or twenty years to bear noticeable fruit. But paired with the finding that one in five born-and-raised Episcopalians had abandoned religion altogether…

Well, I wouldn’t be so sanguine as Ehrich. Instead, I might wonder if young people (among other groups) are simply choosing no religion at all over a liberal Protestantism that reaffirms values and assumptions effectively conveyed by plenty of other non-Christian, non-religious sources. Indeed, that’s one of the themes bubbling up in the comments on Varghese’s post. As one reader shrugged, “IF I were to attend church, it would be an Episcopal Church. I, like many others, simply don’t want or need to go ‘to church.'”


9 thoughts on ““The ones that should go”: One Liberal Protestant Explanation for Mainline Decline

  1. The leadership of the Episcopal Church is just like the secular world around them.The church is called to be something completely different.Leaving the Episcopal church in my teenage years was a good thing.I remember the words of the good Rector,reading the bible and believing in the Jesus that is presented in its pages is a useless pastime.If you cant come to church and get some religion in the first30 minutes then you should cancel your membership and stay home an watch Gun Smoke and 12 O Clock High….you will get more out of it.My journey took ten years to find the real Jesus or the other way around He found me.Unbelief is killing the Episcopal church and with out Jesus the King as its head its a church no more.

    1. Hi, Brian. I’m so happy that you were saved! I’m a Southern Baptist, saved by Christ when I was ten. As I’ve witnessed to folks from your former tradition, it shocked me to find out that they truly were not saved. I think it’s frightening for any group to preach salvation without faith in God’s Son, without repentance, and without faith in His Divine Standard. So, what is left, then? Some folks who do good works ( social Gospel) but are not saved and being sanctified. What is horrifying is they aren’t aware.
      My Southern Baptist denomination is very careful about the sign of Baptism. Once I told my Church I had gotten saved, they made me wait for two years to be baptized, at twelve. church leaders, my pastor, and my parents examined my doctrine, and watched for the Marks of aTrue Believer ( see James. ). As they saw the sanctification and inner transformation grow to outer transformation, more certainty was accorded to my salvation. Obviously, I believe and Study Scripture.
      What was amazing was I was always fascinated with it, but when I was unsaved couldn’t understand the spiritual meaning ( like all unsaved people. ) The day I repented and believed in The Lord-Savior Christ was so amazing to me. When I got home from church, I began to study my Bible. This time, the Divine Words reached me on a spiritual level, as the Teaching Ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit began. It was exciting!
      Having witnessed to some folks from your former faith, I believe there two basic problems. First many are not saved, and do not actually believe and practice Biblical Christianity. Therefor, all sort of strange and wrong practices have resulted, including a false Gospel. You will make an excellent witness to Christ for them. God bless.

  2. First off, I want to thank you for being respectful of mainline Christians in your post. I think there is way too much sniping between evangelicals and mainliners that just needs to stop.

    I wanted to say that I’m an openly gay Disciples of Christ pastor. While I think it’s a good thing to have churches that can accept me, I also know that in my role I am to be the pastor of everyone and I’ve learned a lot from those who are more conservative. I don’t want them to go. I don’t want old people to go. I want us to find ways to be the church, to learn how to love each other despite our differences.

    I think that Douthat was on to something and it’s frustrating that most liberal Christians are too defensive to see the need for some change. Evangelicals have done far more soul-searching than we have and our refusal to not do that is at our peril.

    1. What attitudes to Black churches have towards openly gay Black pastors? Do you feel more comfortable as a non-White in an overwhelmingly (over 93% White) denomination like the Disciples than you would as a gay man among other African-Americans?

      1. “What attitudes DO Black churches…?”
        And why more gays in the clergy than their percentage in the general population? What’s the attraction?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.