The Echo Chamber of Doom

Talking about the decline of
mainline denominations is like being in an echo chamber of
doom.

A few weeks ago I wrote that it’s misleading to concentrate on aggregate numbers to frame the decline of the mainline denominations in the U.S. because aggregate numbers don’t tell the whole story.

In an interview in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, I said I believe the mainline denominations are beginning to reverse the decline reflected in aggregate numbers. It’s important to recognize that segments of mainline communions are growing, even as the aggregate numbers, especially within small membership churches, continue to show decline. Decline results from demographic and cultural changes but these numbers alone don’t foretell the demise of these historic denominations.

An article in USA Today about research by Diana Butler Bass under a Lilly Foundation grant identifies growing mainline congregations which she calls “signposts of renewal.” Bass profiles 50 such congregations. They aren’t merely anomalies, according to Bass, they represent the continuing vitality of mainline congregations.

Her research matches my understanding of the inherent strength of mainline denominations in the U.S. I think the doomsayers have overstated their case and continue to misread the data. In research reported out two years ago, Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melissa Wilde, demonstrated that the decline in mainline membership is significantly influenced by the early adoption of contraception by mainline couples, reducing the “pool” from which new members are drawn, namely their own children.

Put simply, mainline decline in the U.S. results from different rates of fertility between mainliners and evangelicals. The three researchers warn that “differential fertility” will continue until the generation born in the 1970s has passed away. However, they also predict the steep decline has peaked. My point is this: to beat ourselves up over declining membership while failing to look at significant cultural and demographic trends is bad analysis. It leads to culture wars when the decline isn’t about liberal or conservative theology, it’s about birth control practices.

A second important point: the mainline denomination to which I belong, The United Methodist Church, is growing globally. But we don’t hear this in the discussion about the church in the United States. This U.S.-centric conversation discounts United Methodists in Africa, Asia and central and eastern Europe where the Methodist movement is growing because it adheres to the historic emphases of John Wesley, the movement’s founder, of reaching out to all people, energetic worship and preaching, study groups and social activism, especially ministry with the poor.

I write about this frequently because I’m so weary of hearing the same tired, limited statistical analysis that misrepresents the fundamental strength of the denomination and discounts the vitality of the global church because it ignores the world outside the borders of the U.S.

Proposals are being advanced for new church starts by dong what the church is doing in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe, namely, reaching out to people wherever they are and serving them with food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual nourishment and supportive community.

I’m putting my energy into this. I’m tired of listening to the echo chamber of doom.

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