Is there a point of no return for the resurgence of mainline Protestantism?
Predicting the future is fraught with difficulty in the rapidly changing, competitive marketplace of American religion. But the prospects for a turnaround in mainline Protestantism are growing fainter as the movement enters its second half-century of precipitous decline.
New research suggests that not only is there no end in sight, but there are few signs of hope for revival in rapidly aging, shrinking groups such as the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Consider these findings from two of the largest surveys of U.S. congregations:
•In just the last five years, the percentage of mainline Protestant congregations where more than one-fifth are ages 18 to 35 has decreased dramatically. In 2010, some 4.8 percent of mainline congregations reported having that large a proportion of young adults in the pews; by 2015, just 1.3 percent reported that high a percentage, according to initial findings from the 2015 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey.
•Children made up just 16 percent of regular attenders in mainline Protestant congregations, compared to an average of 29 percent in other Christian traditions, according to a new analysis of the 2012 wave of the National Congregations Study (NCS).
•Mainline Protestants recorded a nearly 30 percent decline - from 24 percent in 1998 to 17 percent in 2012 - in the proportion of its members filling U.S. pews, the NCS study found.
•In the 2005 FACT survey, a little more than half of mainline churches said fewer than 100 people on average were at weekend worship; in 2015, nearly two-thirds attracted less than 100 worshippers. Sociologist David Roozen, a FACT study director, reported the findings at the annual meeting of the Religious Research Association.
How serious are the numbers?
"It might already be beyond that point" where a significant recovery is possible, said Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, NCS director and author of "American Religion: Contemporary Trends."
"It's really hard to see what would reverse it."
Keep those jeremiads coming
Mainline Protestantism does not face the demographic disadvantages of religious groups such as the Shakers, where a commitment to member celibacy proved to be impractical in the long term.
But generation after generation of rejection by its young adults has had a cumulative effect beyond substantially emptying its sanctuaries. Major mainline denominations have lost millions of members even as the nation's population soared.
The concentration of its remaining members in an older demographic also makes it far more difficult to embrace the changes needed to reverse the downward spiral.
Adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s gravitate toward congregations with significant numbers of their peers. So, too, do many parents prefer congregations with enough children and teens for religious education programs and activities serving all ages.
The people in mainline Protestant pews have only about half as many children active in their congregations and are older than other Christian worshippers, the NCS study noted.
Fifty-six percent of adults in a typical mainline congregation are more than 60 years old, the study reported.
Among U.S. congregations where more than 33 percent are seniors, a relatively large proportion of mainline churches, just 1.5 percent reported strong growth or vitality, the FACT survey found.
In general, many of the characteristics the Faith Communities Today survey and other major research projects have identified as predictors of growth and vitality are some of the greatest weakness of mainline churches.
On key spiritual indicators that predict vital congregations, mainline congregations ranked very high in terms of helping people in need. But they were low or very low in such critical areas for religious communities as inspiring worship, having an involved laity and overall spiritual vitality.
The 2015 FACT survey found evangelical and black churches were twice as likely as mainline congregations to place a high emphasis on personal spiritual practices such as prayer, scripture study and devotions.
Is change ever gonna come?
"It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die," soul singer Sam Cooke sang in his powerful song "A Change is Gonna Come."
Many U.S. congregations know the feeling, hanging in there even as the path to growth seems far away.
The FACT 2015 survey found 85 percent of all the congregations surveyed said some change was needed. But only one-third of that 85 percent said they are doing pretty well in making those changes, Roozen said.
And two-and-a-half percent of congregations reported not being sure the community would survive much longer.
"The ability to change is absolutely critical," Roozen said.
There are some hopeful signs for mainline congregations. They reported being slightly more willing to change to meet challenges in the latest FACT survey. And the percentage of mainline congregations regularly using electric guitars in worship rose from 20 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2015. They even registered a slight uptick in emphasizing spiritual practices.
But mainline congregations in general lag behind when it comes to making substantial changes to put a priority on providing members opportunities for personal spiritual growth, having a clear theological identity and reaching out to share their faith with others, researchers note.
No religious group needs young adults more, but just a third of mainline Protestant congregations identified young adult ministries as an immediate priority in the FACT survey. By comparison, nearly six in 10 black and evangelical congregations said it was an immediate need.
No one is predicting the disappearance of mainline Protestantism, which retains powerful centralized institutions and in many cases an abundance of clergy offering services to a still extensive network of churches
"There is a place, and will be a place" for mainline Protestant churches in the American religious landscape, said sociologist Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.
But just how big a place, and just how many of today's struggling mainline churches will survive in the next half-century will depend on their ability to embrace younger generations
For many churches, it's no longer "a matter of tweaking a few things," Thumma said. "It's a matter of reinventing yourself, almost revitalizing yourself, from ground zero."
David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.