Why Mainline Churches Are Emptying

Conservative versus Liberal theology

By William M Briggs Published on January 10, 2017

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.

Liberal versus Conservative

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.

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.

Congregations in Growing and Declining Churches

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.

Not surprisingly, about 29% of Growing congregants thought their church’s mission was evangelism, and 16% thought it was social justice, whereas the numbers in Declining congregations was 9% and 31%.

Clergy in Growing and Declining Churches

Questions were also asked of the clergy, and the differences between Growing and Declining congregations was starker.

The largest difference was in the statement “Jesus was not the divine Son of God,” where it might be expected no clergy member could agree. And, indeed, no Growing clergy member agreed in any way. Yet 13% of Declining clergy agreed at least moderately.

Likewise, no Declining clergy strongly agreed that “it is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” but 77% of Growing clergy did. The statement “The beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant” could not get any Growing clergy to agree in any way, but 69% of Declining clergy at least moderately agreed.

Some 70% of Growing clergy strongly agreed that “those who die face a divine judgement where some will be punished eternally,” but only 6% of Declining clergy moderately agreed, and none strongly agreed. On that same fundamental question asked of the congregation, 85% of Growing clergy strongly agreed (and none strongly disagreed) that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” yet only 38% of Declining clergy thought so (and 19% strongly disagreed).

Has the call for liberalization failed?

Writing in the Washington Post, one of the authors of the study (Haskell), reminds us of the 1999 book by Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “Spong, a theological liberal, said congregations would grow if they abandoned their literal interpretation of the Bible and transformed along with changing times.”

The Episcopal Church followed this advice. They have female priests and bishops. They allow “the ordination of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender clergy.” They even had a practicing homosexual bishop in a (government-defined) “marriage” to another man, a “marriage” which was further liberalized into a “divorce.”

Yet, even though Haskell says Spong’s theory “won favor with academics” and was “praised” at no less eminent a place than the Harvard Divinity School to assist in “shifting Christianity to meet the needs of the modern world,” the Episcopal Church’s membership dropped precipitously, with no sign of slowing. The Church even splintered, with the Anglican Church in North America forming from former Episcopalians who could not countenance Spong’s liberal theology.

As for the anti-climatic conclusion of his study, Haskell blandly writes, “Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline.”

Apparently theological liberalism empties churches.

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  • Gary

    Some people have come to understand that attending a liberal “church” is no better, and sometimes worse, than not attending. So if not attending is as good or better than attending, why not sleep in? There really is little point in being a part of a group that encourages you to believe whatever you want, when you can do that at home and save yourself a trip to town.

    • Ken Abbott

      And you don’t have to put anything in the collection plate, either.

      • Gary

        Another reason to not attend.

  • ARB

    My jaw *literally* dropped to see that only 37% of the “Declining” congregants actually believed in the resurrection; this is the RESURRECTION we’re talking about! How can one who denies the very *resurrection* of Christ even be considered a Christian? I mean, it’s right there in 1 Cor 15: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

  • 6Proverbs16

    The Stream is not noted for is scientific expertise and this article explains why.

    The research article that The Stream article explores presents data collected by self-reported surveys of persons associated with 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.

    The conclusion of the researcher found in the abstract is “When other factors were controlled for in multivariate analysis, the theological conservatism of both attendees and clergy emerged as important factors in predicting church growth.”

    And it might have stated things even more exactly as “When other factors were controlled for in multivariate analysis, the theological conservatism of both attendees and clergy – in 22 Protestant churches in Southern Ontario – emerged as important factors in predicting church growth.”

    But The Stream article concludes “theological liberalism empties churches”. VERY UN-SCIENTIFIC!

    With science – including social science – precision in reporting effects, statistical parameters, limitations including possible sources of bias – are critical. The Stream OVER-states beyond the data, PREJUDICIALLY concludes beyond the intentions of the researchers, and UN-helpfully confounds usefulness for American audiences by failing to discuss how research findings from one region of one province in Canada – repeat that: IN CANADA – may validly and reliably apply to US settings.

    Of course if this slack and slippery approach to reporting is the way The Stream attends to science they would also conclude that Americans would be delighted with single-payer socialized health care, since that is what Canada has and about 58% or Canadians report being ‘satisfied or very satisfied’ with it! Ain’t that right The Stream?!: SCIENCE – from Canada – tells us the Americans would like to have socialized health care! That is what the research – from Canada – tells us!

    • Alfdog

      The author is attempting to make sense of the steady decline of liberal churches, of which there is no debate. Please enlighten us, why are the liberal churches emptying so rapidly?

      • 6Proverbs16

        When we consider the anti-scientific uses of science at The Stream and among Evangelicals generally, and Republicans generally – who deny that human civilization has any impact on the weather (when we’ve been hearing about urban ‘health islands’ causing changes in local weather, and when we know – KNOW! – that human destruction of habitat has destroyed or threatened species of life ) …. the bar to answer your question is very low.

        For example … using the same logic as The Stream …. the decline in churches you don’t like (hype the un-scientific BIAS in the article starts with that: The Stream is reporting on something it does not like without stating their bias and how that limits their scientific findings) …. could be caused by:

        – God is the reason: God is sending people that you don’t like into struggles of faith – like Jesus going into the wilderness – to perfect their faith

        – God is the reason: God is preparing the world for new revelation (remember if you say that ‘God has not new revelation’ then you need to give back all that Mormon money and start calling them heretics because they believe in their Book of Mormon as a new revelation).

        – Evangelicals are the reason, because they are preaching that good ol’ fashioned White Supremacist ‘gospel’ more stridently (‘God wants that Wall’ – when of course God commands loving care of the ‘strangers’ and ‘aliens’ in the land -, ‘The Bible hates Muslims’ – when of course Muslims didn’t exist by the time of the Canonical Scriptures and therefore have said nothing directly about Muslims any more than it said anything directly about pacemakers)

        – or just ask Kellyanne Conway … because, surely, The Stream endorses every word she speaks as Godly truth

        – or just ask Steve Bannnon … because, surely, The Stream endorses every word he speaks as Gospel

        – or just ask Donald Trump …. because The Stream long ago anointed that deceived and sycophant to Satanic Lord Putin as ‘the new Cyrus’ ….

        – or flying monkeys from the planet Buttafucco that were talked about in Daniel’s prophecy …. because Evangelicals believe so many stupid conspiracy theories and anoint them with some proof texting ….

        • Alfdog

          With all due respect, you did not answer my question.

          • kevin jorgensen

            Not only that but 6Proverb now has expanded his condemnation to include not just the Stream (and all its authors, one must assume) but entire sects of religious order and apparently, nearly half the American electorate. I suspect that if we do actually get an answer to Alfdog’s question, it will include even more diffuse (unscientific) accusations about an even larger population who does not subscribe to 6Proverbs narrow view of the correct use of science.

        • Gary

          If you want US government policy to be based on Jewish law, then you need to include the whole law, which would mean the death penalty for people engaging in homosexuality and adultery.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      It’s not addressing science. It’s addressing social studies.

  • llew jones

    The reality is that Liberal churches worldwide are in numerical decline. Here in Australia those Protestant denominations that have forsaken their biblical roots have been and are selling off many of their church buildings simply because they do not now have any use for them. Liberalism, in the church context, is simply unbelief which can readily be found in secular sources.

  • Conservator

    Go to any of the rapidly growing non-denominational, bible based churches and you will see where many of the people seeking truth in this world have chosen to worship. I was raised a Presbyterian but I have watched my family church wither to the point that just a few families come anymore. Frankly, I do not see how they keep it open. I decided in my 20’s that if Jesus was just another teacher and did not rise from the dead then why bother with religion at all? Might as well join the local Kiwanis Club. After searching and studying the Bible on my own and reading books from some of the great Christian thinkers I decided that Christianity was the truth – no other world-view made any sense. The Bible is God’s truth revealed to us, Jesus was his son and rose from the dead and only through him are sins forgiven and humanity reconciled to God. If pastors and the seminary do not teach the truth their “human organization” is doomed to the same results as any other human institution. How’s that working out for them? By their fruits you will know them.

  • Christian Cowboy

    Many churches are in decline because they are preaching a feel good – do what you want message. It is okay to sin because all you have to do is come back next Sunday and get another helping of grace. I don’t believe it works that way – you can’t live in sin Monday through Saturday and get a little grace on Sunday. The uncompromising Word of God has to be preached from the pulpit and then we need to be mentoring and teaching men and women, boys and girls on how to live for Jesus. As long as we look like the world – people will just stay in the world.

    • Fiat is theft-end the Fed

      “Many churches are in decline because they are preaching a feel good – do what you want message.”

      Which is essentially Satanic worship without all the theatrical horror movie trapping.

  • RbtRgus

    Overall, religion is in decline in the USA. This is a good thing. Religion always morphs and adapts to changes in its surrounding culture, which explains why certain denominations are still gaining numbers while the overall number of believers declines.

    • Religion (from religiere–to bind) binds us to God and one another. The socially maladapted, instead of developing social skills to get along better, retreats into a cranky atheism which strikes at the society in which he does not fit.

      • RbtRgus

        What about happy atheists? I know plenty of them. Yes, socialization is important, but that can easily be done without superstitious belief.

        • You’re a liar.

          And gay.

          • RbtRgus

            It’s ok to be gay, but I’m actually not.

          • Gary

            It is your opinion that it is ok to be gay. Many others have a different opinion.

          • RbtRgus

            That is true most people are ok with it. It is certainly not a reason to deny them basic rights like marriage and non discrimination.

          • Gary

            When marriage was heterosexual only, the same rules applied to everyone. That is all the US Constitution requires. There is no Constitutional requirement to change what marriage is in order to accommodate people who want it changed. And, there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits discrimination among private citizens.

          • RbtRgus

            That was the justification used for maintaining anti miscegenation laws. No go for that and for ssm.

            The Constitution does not prohibit discrimination among private citizens. But in public accommodations, we have laws against discrimination against certain protected classes. That is a good thing.

          • Gary

            The US Constitution does not address marriage, so it provides no instruction on what the government should do, or not do. I know the supreme court majority said it does, but if you read the Constitution, you won’t find anything to support their ruling.

            The Constitution also does not offer any reason for the government to prohibit discrimination, even for businesses. It could be argued that in trying to force people to do business against their will, the government is violating the first and 13th amendments.

          • RbtRgus

            I have to remember never to vote for you for Supreme Court judge. ๐Ÿ˜‰

          • Fiat is theft-end the Fed

            Mostly the 9th Amendment.

          • Joseph

            It is NOT okay to be a pervert and most people are okay with it because 1. they are perverts themselves so perverts would be okay with a perversion 2. when it comes to homosexuality. you have no choice. you are FORCED to agree with it or if you don’t you will face punishment from society. like losing your job or be thrown in prison or fear of death threats from homosexuals

          • RbtRgus

            You’re a looney.

          • RbtRgus

            ะ’ัƒะธ ั€ัƒััะบะธะต?

        • Gary

          There is no basis for morality in atheism. If there is no God to define good and evil, then morality is a human invention and can be rejected without consequence. Also, atheists have no way to explain why material things exist. So, you have some problems for which you have no solution.

          • RbtRgus

            Morality is absolutely a man-made construction. I get my morality from the same place that you do โ€“ โ€“ common sense and empathy for my fellow human beings. The Bible has some good morality in it and some bad morality. I’m sure you don’t follow all of it.

            Good — Love thy neighbor as they self (excellent, but actually not original to the Bible).

            Bad — OK to own slaves and beat them severely. Death to apostates and homosexuals.

          • Gary

            LOL. Well, you can think whatever you want, but you can’t get morality from common sense or empathy. For atheists who understand how things work, morality is nonsense.

          • RbtRgus

            Atheism makes no statement about anything but lack of belief in gods. It has no doctrine, no dogma, nothing. The individual and/or society determines morality. Not a magical man on the sky.

          • Gary

            The individual or society have no authority to determine morality. You think because you believe something is immoral that means it really is? Not hardly.

          • RbtRgus

            There is no objective morality. Morality is what we as a society make it. In order for there to be objective morality, you would have to show that there is actually an objective entity to make it, like a god. That is always problematic.

          • Gary

            If morality is not objective, it does not exist. You can make whatever moral rules you wish, and I will laugh at them. They have no authority over me. Don’t confuse morality with legality. They are not the same. Laws may be either moral or immoral, but the moral laws existed before the civil laws did.

          • RbtRgus

            Yes, we can make whatever rules we want…. And we do. And it works out pretty well. Isn’t life great!! It’s not “do whatever you want”, that would possibly be arguably harmful to others. True that morality is not the same as legality, but they are related, no?

            Do you have any evidence that an objective source like a god exists? I doubt it.

          • Gary

            There is lots of evidence for the existence of the God of the Bible. The reason you don’t believe the evidence is because you don’t want to, not because the evidence does not exist.

            You have your rules, and God has His. Your rules mean nothing and cannot be enforced. But God can enforce his rules, and he does that every day.

          • RbtRgus

            Give me your single best piece of evidence for the existence of your god.

          • Gary

            I’ll give you two. One is Jesus Christ. Born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, and rose from the dead. And there were witnesses to all of that. The other is the universe. It would not exist unless it had been created by a thinking being that already existed and had the ability to create the universe.

          • RbtRgus

            The first is a fairytale without actually no eyewitness accounts preserved. The second is insertion without any evidence.

          • Gary

            The universe being created by someone who already existed is the ONLY possible explanation for its existence. The universe could not have made itself, and it could not have happened by chance. That leaves only creation by an outside person to explain its existence.

          • RbtRgus

            What you are saying is that you do not know how the universe came into existence. Neither does anybody. We don’t know what was before the big bang, or even if there was a before. If we don’t know something, you don’t just make up an answer or believe an old book of obvious folklore like the Bible to be a factual account.

          • Fiat is theft-end the Fed

            His is the flawed logic that holds that evolution and intelligent design are mutually exclusive.

          • RbtRgus

            Atheism is one thing only โ€“ โ€“ I do not believe any of the various god stories.

        • Mike

          isn’t happy atheist an oxymoron?

          • RbtRgus

            I am one. I know many others. Very happy. Not in the least bit afraid of burning in hell, just as you do not fear the Muslim hell.

          • RbtRgus

            No. I am one. I know many others.

      • RbtRgus

        Interesting point. Fascism is also from fascire — to bind.

  • Michael LaTorra

    I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I married a Protestant girl and we attended an Episcopal Church for many years. (The close similarities between the Catholic Mass and the Episcopal one made it more comfortable for me.) Every year the minister was required to give one sermon (homilie) about evangelism. Which he did, albeit ruefully. He always included a remark that an elderly parishoner had once made to him on the subject: “It seems to me that everyone who wants to be an Episcopalian already is.”

  • Joseph

    liberal ”church” is an oxymoron. the Bible preaches homosexuality is a sin. they preach homosexuality is okay. the Bible says it is a sin to murder. they preach abortion is okay. the Bible says it is a sin to cross dress. they preach it is okay to cross dress. the Bible says women are to be silent in the church. they ordain women pastors. these people do not know the word of God. they are preaching lies. everything they preach goes against the Bible. I’m glad people are leaving those ”churches”

  • Evelyn Olwell

    Liberalism in my church, (I’m Catholic) made it alright for the individual to contradict the time-tested truths held by the church, and therefore to contradict their foundation on time-tested scripture. The result of this narcissistic liberal mentality was that my generation, (I was born in 1960) was left largely uncatechized and unevangelized, and prey to the culture of Promiscuity, abortion, drugs, etc. The result haven’t been pretty. However, thanks to the protestants telling me I was wrong all the time, I have learned my faith researching the answers for myself. True seekers want the truth. It won’t be found in liberalism.

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