Why are Mainline Christian Churches Dying in America?

This post is based on a forum presentation on April 14 this year which I lead at All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, where Embry and I have been members for over 40 years. The statistics I cite are from Pew and Gallup surveys and from research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

I could be classified as a “lifer” or what is commonly referred to as a “cradle Episcopalian.” When I grew up in Nashville in the 1950s, I did not know anyone who did not attend church regularly or was not an active member of a Christian church. My parents attended Christ Church, the downtown Episcopal Church, and all my friends were either “traditional Protestants”—mainly Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists—or Southern Baptists. I had no friends who were either Jews or Catholics and certainly not any atheists. In those days churches were also segregated by race, though no one thought much about that. It was just the way things were.

My, how the country has changed!

“Mainline” denominations are the Protestant churches that began in the Reformation, some of whose members immigrated to the United States beginning in the 16th Century. The “Seven Sisters,” which are the dominant, mainline Protestant denominations are the United Church of Christ (which was a successor to the Puritans), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church (not to be confused with the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention), the Disciples of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church.

No one is certain exactly where the term “mainline” originated, but these denominations mostly use traditional liturgies, over the years have generally been middle of the road theologically, and for the most part have attracted middle and upper middle class (white) people and elites. Until recently parishioners have been evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and the denominations have steered away from politics. These are now the churches that have been losing the most members; and if the present trends continue, more  will fail.

Today the United Methodist Church continues to be the largest mainline church with over 5.7 million members in 2022, followed by the Evangelical Lutheran (2.9 million, note that even though it is called “evangelical,” it is considered mainline. The Missouri Synod is the Lutheran evangelical wing.), the Episcopal Church (1.4 million), and the Presbyterians (1.1 million). Here are the losses in just the last ten years experienced by the Seven Sisters:

The mainline denominations stand in contrast to the (white) evangelical church. It is important to point out that there are many differences within what I am referring to as the evangelical church. There are members of denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention with over 13 million members, the largest denomination by far, but also to a growing number of independent, nondenominational churches, some of which are mega churches with thousands of members. There are also the Pentecostal and Holiness Churches, where it is not unusual for people to speak in tongues, and the growing “Praise Churches.” A significant percentage of people in these churches are part of the MAGA movement and support Donald Trump. Theologically most evangelicals view the Bible as the inerrant word of God and believe that to be a true Christian you must have been “saved” by Jesus as evidenced by a personal religious experience and publicly take Jesus as your savior.

Today evangelicals vastly outnumber traditional Protestants. By some estimates over  25% of the adult population in the United States in 2020 were white evangelicals (and 5% Black evangelicals, who are very different politically) compared to just 10% for traditional Protestants, even lower for the mainliners. The gap is probably higher today. Good heavens! I grew up thinking that mainline churches were dominant, not evangelicals–or fundamentalist churches, as we used to call them. There are more than twice as many evangelicals as traditional Protestants, and there are also  a lot of Catholics, who are estimated to comprise about 20% of the adult population. The mainliners are by far the smallest group of all—and losing members the fastest. However, while traditional Protestant denominations have been hit the hardest, all churches have experienced declines, even the evangelicals. (The Southern Baptists numbered over 15 million in 2005.) For the first time in over 100 years, church membership in all religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others) is below 50% of the population. A 2020 Gallup Poll  showed church membership dropping from 76% of the American population in 1976 to 47% and is probably below 45% today.

In the last few years, two new categories have popped up; “Nones” and “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or the SBNRs, which have increased to about 20%  of the adult population in 2024.

What is going on? Here is my take:

  1. Religion and culture have always been intertwined, and the United States has become more secular. When I was growing up in the 1950s, religion was part of the weekly routine of everyone I knew. You went to church on Sunday morning because that is just what people did. In Nashville church membership was part of the social culture. That is not the case anymore. Soccer games now happen on Sunday mornings, along with golf and tennis matches, family outings, and many other diversions, and there is no longer a stigma for not attending church. My guess is that there were many in the past who attended church who did not get much out of the experience and were not particularly religious people but were members since they felt they had to be because it was required socially. They are now staying home or doing something fun. Unless church attendance can compete with the other options, don’t count on getting the refugees back any time soon.
  2. The split between the mainline churches and the evangelicals is driven in part by race, social class, and place in society. The United States has been divided by race and class throughout its history and today is no different. While there are exceptions, I doubt that you are going to find many PhDs attending white evangelical churches and that race, education, type of work, income, and wealth tend to be indicators of what church people end up attending—or even whether they attend church. Many years ago Embry and I attended a “camp meeting” in Covington GA where the main preacher for the week was a youngish Southern Baptist minister who to my astonishment was preaching about inclusiveness. Toward the end of the week, he surprised his congregation of several hundred people with these remarks: “I’ll bet there are many in this gathering who will say that based on what I have been preaching that since we are all Christians there is not that much difference between us.” People nodded. “Well, I am here to set the record straight right now. There are big  differences and don’t you forget it.” Everyone suddenly perked up. What was he going to say? “I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.” People nodded. “Any Methodists in the audience? A Methodist is a Southern Baptist who can read.” A few chuckles. “Any Presbyterians? More hands went up. “A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college….and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right!” This brought the house down. Everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.
  3. A challenge facing many mainline churches is that some believe mainline churches have become too secular, too liberal, and too “woke.” Many conservatives say that the problem is that many mainline churches have abandoned their Christian heritage and have become wishy washy with humanist-like values tracking very closely with secular, liberal values. The charges hardly apply to all mainline churches but to enough to having some truth. If these churches do not believe that heaven and hell are very real and that if you do not believe that Christ is your only ticket to heaven and salvation, why bother? Furthermore, mainline churches have become too involved in social justice issues beginning with the civil rights movement starting in the 1960s (which Embry and I have both been part of). Well, I for one plead guilty as charged. I have trouble saying the ancient creeds and believe that the central message of Christianity is “love your neighbor as yourself,” a message which has strong implications for social justice. I would describe myself as more of a universalist, who likes “bells and smells” and most of the solemn traditions of the Episcopal Church, applauds the progressive posture of the Episcopal church on sexuality, racial and social justice issues, and sees God acting through many faiths: one destination, many pathways. As to theology, the saying goes that Episcopalians tend to check their hat at the door when they enter a church, not their brains. There is more wiggle room here as to belief than in some other traditions. At the same time, many people I know have become part of the SBNR exodus, including many of my classmates at Union Seminary in New York which I attended in the late 1960s. Many of us who remain church members today are hanging on by our fingernails.
  4. The exodus of church members, while a threat is also an opportunity. One thing is for sure: If church membership continues to plummet, a whole bunch of churches are going to be in trouble. Many church leaders are struggling to find new ways to remain faithful to the central message of the Christian faith and remain relevant to the secular world we live in today. We Homo sapiens on the planet Earth are spiritual creatures. We ask the fundamental questions of why: Why are we here, what is the meaning of life, why all the suffering and pain, and how do we deal with death? Formal religion has been the vehicle we humans have created to try to answer these questions and to create communities where we herd animals can explore these questions together. This aspect of religion will not change because of secularization. What I believe needs to happen is for Christians to adapt to our changing world by emphasizing the fundamental message of unconditional love and acceptance by a loving God and by welcoming all who believe that there are mysteries in life that cannot be explained by science to join us in our feeble effort to live good lives, strive to make the world better, and to make sense out of the human condition and the spiritual grounding of what it means to be fully human. Afterall, the Pew and Gallup surveys show that of those who answer the question about belief in God, only about two percent say they are atheists and only about five percent say they are agnostic, and these numbers have remained about the same over the past several decades. People have not given up on religion. They are just looking for something more authentic and meaningful than what is generally available. Those churches that figure out ways to do this while remaining true to their traditions will navigate these troubled waters. Of those that don’t, many will fail.












9 thoughts on “Why are Mainline Christian Churches Dying in America?

  1. Excellent summary, Joe. I will send it to my PC-USA minister. It looked like our church was going down fast post-Covid, but we have seen a recent resurgence of new members including young families as well as a few new gay couples who have jumped into our programs and helped invigorate our church.

  2. Hi Joe, Another stirring blog. Where do you put the Unitarian groups?

    What about Catholics? I tend to prefer a church with a rousing speaker at the front or Catholics where the ritual dominates with the bells and whistles where no one asks
    asks about your beliefs or sexuality.

    I am an agnostic.

    1. You are not alone. One of the issues is what kind of god do you not believe in. I am basically Unitarian in my theology but have stuck with the Episcopal Church probably due to inertia.

  3. Like you, I grew up surrounded by people who were “Religious But Not Spiritual.” Unlike you, I grew up in the north in an area that was predominantly, probably majority, Catholic. I have a theory that the Episcopal church appeals to people who yearn for some of the beauty of their childhood encounters with religion but without the baggage. Is it enough? Well, probably not.

  4. Hi Joe,
    I’m with you in much of what you say; it resonates with the scene here in the UK as much as with y’all over the Pond. But as one who has been a parish priest for over 50 yrs (and is still regularly wheeled out to P&P,) I do have to ask – what have we been doing all this time? Have we been so tucked up in our own belief comfort-blanket that we rarely (?never) ask, with Alfie, “what’s it all about’? (You remember that song?) I do wonder how many of our regular worshippers dare to ask themselves that question. At my PCN (Progressive Christian Network) meeting in Liverpool today we agreed people generally want certainty (religious, political, etc) and rarely dare to ask themselves ‘what is the Christian gospel really all about – and how do we make that real? Not just about going to church, though for some of us that keeps the gospel in front of us, but about daring to show gospel values in “my small corner of the world”,
    But I ramble on! Sorry – but , Joe, keep thinking and challenging. That’s what our leader did – and does

    1. Rev Rog,
      Great that you weighed in. I was hoping you would. You are the epitome of what I would call a great priest and indeed an inspiration to the likes of me. Having almost gone into the priesthood, I realize how demanding and difficult this job is and the good ones (like you) are heroes! Not only are we humans in the midst of a secular age, much of what the church says you must believe (like the ancient creeds) makes no sense to many people and the idea that ONLY those who are card carrying “believers” are going to heaven while the rest of the population of the planet Earth will burn in hell is not plausible if God is in fact all loving. BUT being human, we are spiritual creatures whether we like it or not and wonder what life on this small, blue planet is all about and our place in it.
      These questions are where the spiritual and secular intersect. Bottom line: Life will ultimately remain a mystery and all we can do is give it our best shot. You have surely done that, my friend!

  5. Excellent post and discussion! I am fascinated by this topic and feel more informed and enriched after reading your analysis. Thank you!

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