Mainline Churches: Past, Present, Future

Many people, young and old alike, do not know what is meant by the term "Mainline churches." There are seven primary Protestant denominations that make up what is popularly referred to as the Mainline churches. The seven are, in order of their membership size, the first being the largest: United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A); Episcopal Church; American Baptist Churches USA; United Church of Christ; and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Many churches lost their identities in mergers; for example, the Congregational Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ.

How did "Mainline" come to be used to refer to these denominations? The answer is somewhat sketchy, but a commonly held view, and one I gleaned as a student in divinity school, is that the word "Mainline" was derived from an outlying area of the City of Philadelphia called the "Main Line." It was a collection of affluent towns built along the old Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. This line of towns running into downtown Philadelphia from the northwest became, and still is, a place of much wealth, power, and influence. At one time the great majority of people living in this area were members of the churches now referred to as "Mainline Protestant churches."

People not understanding how these denominations came to be referred to as "mainline," have, instead, referred to them as "mainstream" or "old-line" Protestant churches. Both "mainstream" and "old-line" could have been appropriate descriptions of this group of denominations at one time, as they were the mainstream of Protestant churches, and for many years their members were among the "old line" (prestigious and influential) leaders in our country. The members of these denominations played major leadership roles in nearly all aspects of American life, including politics, business, science, the arts, education, medical care, senior care, and care for the indigent and homeless, especially children. There is no question that the very significant contributions Mainline Protestant denominations have made to the United States deserve mention in our history books. But times are changing.

Every year since the early years of our country until the mid-1960s the membership of each of these denominations and the number of their respective churches increased. Every year since about 1965 the membership of each of these denominations and the number of their respective churches have decreased. Studying official membership figures of the Mainline denominations reveals that in the early fifties the combined membership of these denominations was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty million members or active attendees. Now that number has shrunk to approximately 15 million -- a startling decline of nearly sixty percent.

At the same time, the number of evangelical, fundamentalist, and/or charismatic Protestant denominations and independent churches and the number of people they represent have increased every year -- by even greater numbers than the losses recorded by the Mainline Protestant Churches.

One may legitimately ask, "Why this reversal?"

One prominent theory is that Mainline churches have increasingly focused on a theology that promotes social causes and the liberal line in politics rather than concentrating on matters of faith and doctrine. Most churches, regardless of their theological focus, have long been actively involved in opposition to such matters as alcoholism, prostitution, child labor abuses, and so forth. In the early 1900s, Mainline Protestantism became especially supportive of "the Social Gospel," an activists' theology that tackled social problems from the perspective of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:10) As the twentieth century progressed, Mainline Protestantism became steadily more involved in controversial social and political issues: going from issues such as poverty; race relations; drug addiction; and social justice for the poor; to such matters as involvement in Vietnam; pollution; gun control; campaign finance laws; ordination of women, gays, and lesbians; and non-traditional marriage.

The involvement in such controversial issues was always supported more by denominational leaders and clergy than by laity, resulting in the membership of Mainline churches not being wholeheartedly supportive of church involvement in these issues. Mainline churches were not attracting young families as they had in the past, and as their membership rolls continued to decline, they began experimenting with various forms of worship, creating more discord.

On the other hand, worship services of the fundamentalists were informal with upbeat music, very appealing to young families with children and teens. Fundamentalists emphasized outreach -- spreading the word and recruiting new members, for the most part lacking in mainline denominations. The doctrinal clarity of fundamentalism leaves no doubt about how biblical passages should be interpreted, leading to certainty about how members should live their daily lives now and providing them with a faith that assures everlasting life. The lack of discord about participation in the liberal social and political agenda leads to a sense of contentment and security. All of this has proved to be very popular, as the fundamentalists have increased in membership as Protestant mainliners have continued to decline.

But the religious landscape may be shifting again. As one talks with mainliners and fundamentalists, reads their respective literature, and absorbs what is reported by the media, one begins to get the feeling that both mainliners and fundamentalist are becoming restless and ill at ease with some of the current practices of their respective churches. For the fundamentalists, the pendulum may have swung too far in one direction, as their members appear, for example, to be longing for: more content and less showmanship and glitz in their worship services; an approach to doctrine that is less dictatorial and more explanatory; and a less confrontational attitude toward more liberal churches. And for the mainliners, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction; as the number of members and the number of churches continue to decline in all Mainline Protestant denominations, the call for re-evaluation, by laity and clergy, cannot be ignored.

So what is in store for the Mainline Protestant churches, as well as for the more evangelical, fundamentalist, and/or charismatic Protestant denominations and independent churches? Reason might suggest that both groups should move a little to the religious middle. Time will tell! Or, perhaps, we should say, "God and the Holy Spirit will let us know."