Mystery of Liberal Church Decline

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune fails to explore the contrast between receding liberal churches and more vibrant traditional ones.

By Mark Tooley Published on July 11, 2018

Do churches decline without reason as though captive to impersonal forces of nature?

Perhaps so. At least according to a recent article in Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It reviews dying Mainline (i.e. liberal Protestant) Churches in Minnesota. There are a couple cryptic references to growing evangelical churches. And the Catholic Church’s in-state membership has nearly held steady amid national growth.

But the contrast between receding liberal churches and more vibrant traditional ones is never explored.

Unsurprisingly, this indifference to cause and contrast is common among Mainline Protestant elites. They routinely ignore or minimize their half century of perpetual decline. At their recent denominational conventions, both the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church USA largely pretended all was well. Meanwhile, they doubled down on radical political, theological and sexual stances.

These stances are unmentioned in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune piece. It states:

Steep drops in church attendance, aging congregations, and cultural shifts away from organized religion have left most of Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations facing unprecedented declines.

It notes United Methodism in Minnesota since 2000 has lost 35 percent of members, compared to 17 percent nationally. The Presbyterian Church USA in Minnesota has lost 42 percent, commensurate with the national church. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Minnesota has lost 22 percent, compared to 30 percent nationwide.

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The article reports church closings in Minnesota are “leaving a void in communities where churches frequently house child care, senior programs, food shelves, tutoring and other services.” Sadly, no doubt.

Church attendance is plunging nationally. Remaining worshipers are increasingly white headed, the article asserts. It makes America sound like Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. It further reports that the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ have lost nearly half their memberships nationally since 1990. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has lost one third.

Growth in ‘Smaller Evangelical Denominations’

Very briefly, the article admits:

Not every denomination or church is fragile. Some smaller evangelical denominations in Minnesota, such as Assemblies of God, and some megachurches report continued growth.

Then it insists: “But as a whole, even membership in the evangelical churches has plateaued, according to the Hartford Institute and other studies.”

Of course, “plateaued” is not the same as dying. And why is the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination growing? According to its website:

The USA AG has experienced 27 consecutive years of growth in adherents. The Fellowship is 54 percent under the age of 35 and more than 42 percent ethnic minority.

These numbers contrast sharply with dying Mainline churches with nearly all white, white-headed, congregations. The Assemblies of God with 3.2 million members is now larger than five of the seven Mainline denominations. And it’s larger than the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church USA combined.

What about those growing megachurches the article briefly cites? How did they become “mega” if religion is dying in Minnesota? Such questions go unanswered. Instead, there is a long litany of vignettes from shrinking and shuttered churches leaving a trail of tears and despondency. The cause of their demise is never explored.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune never mentioned that most of Mainline Protestantism is theologically liberal. Or that it largely shuns evangelism in favor of political and social causes.

“Church was a bedrock of daily life,” the article mournfully observes. “Its absence leaves a large gap — spiritual, social, emotional — that for many seems almost impossible to fill.”

Meanwhile, there’s another cryptic reference to an apparent exception to church death in Minnesota. A Lutheran church that is closing is still hoping “for a positive ending. They are pleased that a nearby church without a building has made an offer on their property.”

Hmmm, a congregation without a building implies it is a relatively new church plant. Perhaps it is renting space from a school or another church. But now its congregation apparently has sufficient members and finances to buy an existing church building. Who is this mysteriously growing church? And why are they thriving while the Lutheran church is closing?

Again, more unanswered questions. Perhaps the answers would disrupt the narrative of inevitable church death, in Minnesota and ultimately nationwide.

Answers at the Church Conventions

The article focuses on Catholic churches closing in Minnesota. It admits that their two percent membership loss in state is far below Mainline Protestant losses. And the Catholic Church nationwide has grown 14 percent nationally since 2000 while Mainliners lost one third of members. Why?

Answers to some of these mysteries might be found at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly meeting last month and the Episcopal General Convention meeting this month. At their current rates of decline neither denomination will exist in 20 years. Yet neither convention focused on evangelism or church growth. Episcopalians debated whether to compel a handful of dissenting traditional dioceses to host same sex nuptials. They also discussed editing their liturgies to become more gender neutral. Presbyterians denounced Israel and USA border policies, opposed religious liberty in favor of LGBTQ and abortion rights, and pondered whether to divest from fossil fuels. A senior church official claimed there’s increasing excitement in their denomination over “ justice” issues. No doubt. They lost 68,000 members last year.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune never mentioned that most of Mainline Protestantism is theologically liberal. Or that it largely shuns evangelism in favor of political and social causes. So lack of new church members should be no surprise. Particularly interesting is that United Methodism in Minnesota, more liberal than elsewhere, has declined twice as fast as nationwide.

Nor did the newspaper mention that Mainline denominations, after abandoning Christian sexual teachings, suffered schisms and accelerated membership losses. Instead, the liberal Mainline’s implosion is conflated with religion’s overall collapse. The wider story is more complex and not as sad.

But the article is right that declining historic churches have left an enormous social and cultural void not easily filled. Their demise is a tragic loss to Minnesota and America. Traditional churches are growing. But they can’t easily replace denominations that after two or more centuries of stately service are now committing virtual suicide.

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  • James

    The Catholic Church in the United States is really two churches: A Southwestern, Latino church that is growing rapidly due to immigration, and a Northeastern, white church that is collapsing even faster than the mainline Protestants. The growth is more than the collapse leading to a small net growth overall.

    The reason why mainline Protestants are dwindling while more conservative denominations are booming is because the members of the latter have more children than those the former. It’s a matter of demography, not doctrine.

    • Middle C

      Actually, there is a mass exodus from the mainline Protestants. The Episcopal church is not just losing individuals, but has lost entire congregations and even entire dioceses. The liberal Lutherans (ELCA) set a new record for mass exodus: in the 2-yr period after they began ordaining homosexuαls, they lost 500,000 members. That is unprecedented.

      • James

        Some of this may be how denominations are classified. The (now Anglican) Diocese of South Carolina broke from the Episcopal Church USA, but is still considered mainline, even though they are more conservative.

        On the ground, a few liberal Episcopalians in coastal SC left for a liberal Episcopalian diocese and a few conservative Episcopalians from Columbia up (a different diocese) have joined conservative Anglican parishes. But most Episcopalians have simply stuck with their parish, whatever their bishop has done.

      • James

        Also, I know quite a few Baptist churches that have left the conservative SBC for the more moderate CBF, including the one my grandparents attended for years. So it’s not only liberal denominations that are losing churches.

    • Nutstuyu

      No, there actually is a mass exodus. When the PC(USA) voted to ordain gheys, at least 6 or 7 of the ten largest congregations left to form the ECO. Others have left for the EPC and PCA. Likewise, Episcopal congregations and even whole dioceses are leaving TEC for the Anglican Church in North America.

    • Lisa

      If my church turns liberal, I’m out.

      • James

        And I know a plenty of people who left their church because it turned conservative.

        • cochise1

          I doubt it. Perhaps in your liberal circle there would naturally be a few. The left is continuing to go harder and harder left and the hard left is atheistic and anti-Christian. The further it goes, the more on the left will leave religion entirely. They don’t quit because a church goes more conservative. They quit because SJW causes become their religion.

        • Mark Wright

          No, it wasn’t the church that turned more conservative, it was individuals turning more liberal.

          • James

            Some denominations have become more conservative, like the SBC. Congregations have gone both ways. In the Catholic Church, parishes have gone both ways, with a “red parish” and a “blue parish” often down the street from each other.

            When a church turns conservative, liberals leave and often become unchurched.
            When a church turns liberal, conservatives leave and find another church.

    • Dena

      I have friends who immediately left the Episcopal church when they started to ordain homosexuals. I wouldn’t call these churches liberal. I would call them non-Christian. They abandoned the Bible.

      • James

        And I have friends who have left the Catholic Church and conservative Protestant churches for being anti-gay.

        • m-nj

          So… your non-christian (or at least non-Biblical) friends left a real church for a non-christian church? Why is this surprising… non-christians hate the truth until God saves them.

        • Dena

          The Bible is anti-gay, so do you throw out the Bible?

          • James

            Do you eat shrimp?

    • Kevin Davis

      “There is no mass exodus from Mainline Protestant churches, rather, they aren’t having enough children to replace themselves.”

      You don’t lose half of your membership over the course of three decades just by having less children. The PCUSA numbers, for example, cannot be explained simply by birth rates among that demographic (white, middle/upper-middle class, well-educated). That is certainly one factor, but the bigger factor is indeed an exodus of members and a failure to retain those children they do have. There is even an exodus of entire congregations for newer denominations (e.g., ACNA for Anglicans, ECO/EPC for Presbyterians, NALC for Lutherans, etc.). Anyway, you are right about the Catholic Church in the Northeast.

      • James

        Again, among non-Latino whites Catholic Church made different decisions than the Episcopal Church and is still collapsing.

        • Kevin Davis

          I would actually dispute that there’s much of a difference between mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic beliefs in America (likewise in western Europe), especially in the Northeast. Sure, the official magisterium is far more conservative in the RCC, but it is also widely ignored, both in the pew and even in the pulpit. On any given social issue (premarital sex, contraception, divorce/remarriage, LGBT, et cetera), Catholics in opinion poles are almost identical to their mainline Protestant neighbors. Even on abortion, there is not as big a gap as one would think (in contrast to evangelicals especially). Catholics share a lot of the institutional features of mainline Protestants, namely that theirs is very much an institutional church, and the sort of energy involving personal commitment and pious enthusiasm, as found among most evangelical churches, is largely absent — albeit with notable exceptions, like the diocese of Wichita, Kansas: a conservative diocese experiencing a priestly vocations boom.

          • James

            Then perhaps the difference is institutionalism, not doctrine?

            Individual Evangelical churches are booming and collapsing all the time. There is a very high rate of turnover. Overall, Evangelical Protestantism is slowly declining, although the rate of decline seems to be accelerating.

            The Catholic parish I grew up in (in the South) has gone from conservative to liberal and back again, based on the priest assigned. (One priest was a stereotypical liberal Catholic, while another priest thought abortion was an appropriate topic for an elementary school mass.) Every time the parish changes, a bunch of people leave, never to return again, even when it changes back.

  • Patmos

    The church of Christ never was and never will be associated with any denomination. The church are those that believe Jesus is who he said he was. As for membership of a denomination, God is looking for those who will worship in spirit and in truth.

    • John

      The non-denominational congregations struck me as a unique group in that they claim to “know” Jesus. Not just believe things about Jesus; but to actually know Him. They can since His presence. Just as one can since the presence of any other person they know. They know when He is close by, and when He is not. This is why I am now a charismatic group member. This is why I left the mainline Baptist church. I want to know Jesus; not just know doctrine about Him. I want others to know Him; not just believe things about Him.

      • John

        Excuse me. that should be “sense”, not since. My bad!

  • Sven

    People can get bombarded with PC propaganda through their TVs and iphones. They certainly don’t need to drag themselves out of bed on Sunday mornings and drive to a church to get it.

    Once a church gives up on the core issue of salvation, it just isn’t very interesting any more. The evangelical churches aren’t too big on salvation either, a lot of them are just entertaining the audience, not helping disciples grow in the faith.

  • Putin on the Ritz

    I will probably outlive my local mainline liberal congregation. I know the building will stand, but the people will be gone.

    These churches abandoned the gospel in the late 1800’s.

  • m-nj

    “Traditional churches are growing. But they can’t easily replace denominations that after two or more centuries of stately service are now committing virtual suicide.”

    I’d tend to disagree… the size of the “void” that needs filling is overstated. What this decline really signals is the decline of CINOs (Chrsitians in name only) and the “cultural christianity” of our parents and grandparents. This can only be a good thing, as it will allow the distinction between the truly saved and unsaved to be more clearly seen (at least if the true Church keeps preaching the truth).

  • Back in 1923 J. Gresham Machen wrote a book called Christianity & Liberalism. In it he argued, persuasively, that liberal Christianity is a different religion. It was predictable from that time that eventually people would give up on a fraudulent version of Christianity, and that the real thing would continue to prosper because in fact, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

  • Reality

    An image of King Theoden (mainline church) and Wormtongue, come to mind……..

  • samton909

    That paper has been communist for a long time

    • cochise1

      Indeed….the ‘Red Star’ as it is commonly known.

  • Johanna

    Dream on. The decline in traditional churches was merely delayed, it is now well begun. Young people have been turned off by the bigotry and hypocrisy in the political activism of conservative churches. They are falling away in droves.

    • James

      Pretty much. It seems conservative churches are merely a generation behind liberal ones.

  • David A. Williams

    My denomination, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, is the home of historically evangelical Congregationalists, in the tradition of the Pilgrims, English Separatists and Puritans. Their headquarters is in Lake Elmo, MN. Not only is the denomination NOT declining, but it continues to plant new congregations across America.

  • MikeJ2

    Let them die, they’re not worth preserving.

  • Steve Henderson

    One more overlooked detail. 2010 census data from La Salle, MN shows a population of 87. 1970 was 132. The town itself is shrinking. Still has a US Post Office. In the Star-Tribune article, in “2015, attendance had shrunk to about 25 senior citizens.” That’s more than 25% of the town population! Might not have been the best choice to illustrate the decline of churches, as it reflects the decline of the rural/farm communities. Nearest town to La Salle is St. James. 8.6 miles away, population 4,447.

  • Steve Weber

    The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints will continue to grow, and within 2-3 years becoming the third largest Christian denomination in America, surpassing the United Methodist Church.

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