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Why Mainline Churches Are Emptying

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  • Why Mainline Churches Are Emptying

    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.

    Source: Why Mainline Churches Are Emptying | The Stream

  • #2
    Originally posted by William View Post
    Apparently theological liberalism empties churches.
    Having eliminated Hell, biblical authority, and objective truth from these churches has left them with no reason to gather, other than to promote Progressive Liberal politics, and one can do that without cutting into his Sunday morning schedule.

    Spong was wrong, and of course he was. He is playing for the other team. Here are Spong's own words:
    • "1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. God can no longer be understood with credibility as a Being, supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will. So, most theological God-talk today is meaningless unless we find a new way to speak of God.
    • "2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So, the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
    • "3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
    • "4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes the divinity of Christ, as traditionally understood, impossible.
    • "5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
    • "6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God that must be dismissed.
    • "7. Resurrection is an action of God, who raised Jesus into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
    • "8. The story of the ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post*Copernican space age.
    • "9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in Scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
    • "10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
    • "11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior-control mentality of reward and punishment. The church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
    • "12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination."
    • (pp. 453-454, 'Here I Stand,' John Shelby Spong.)
    Last edited by thatbrian; 01-30-2017, 02:01 AM.
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    • #3
      Interesting article. How can the numbers of clergy be so low when asked whether they agree on such simple, foundational statements such as, in Jesus there is salvation. Among clergy there should be 100% agreement not 57. Christianity stands or falls on Jesus' resurrection (1Corinthians 15:17). Am I missing something?
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      • #4
        Originally posted by wfredeemed009 View Post
        Interesting article. How can the numbers of clergy be so low when asked whether they agree on such simple, foundational statements such as, in Jesus there is salvation. Among clergy there should be 100% agreement not 57. Christianity stands or falls on Jesus' resurrection (1Corinthians 15:17). Am I missing something?
        You are missing something: Protestant Liberalism. Although it doesn't have much in common with biblical Christianity, it retains the name, "Christian", so it can be confusing.
        Last edited by thatbrian; 01-31-2017, 04:24 AM.
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        • #5
          Originally posted by wfredeemed009 View Post
          Interesting article. How can the numbers of clergy be so low when asked whether they agree on such simple, foundational statements such as, in Jesus there is salvation. Among clergy there should be 100% agreement not 57. Christianity stands or falls on Jesus' resurrection (1Corinthians 15:17). Am I missing something?
          I saw similar figures stated about the Anglican church and it is disturbing. How can priests, ordained in the faith, say that they don't believe in its central beliefs? How can they expect to teach a faith they don't believe in, or minister to a flock whose beliefs they do not share?

          I do wonder if they are shrinking because people who discover the faith through the Bible go along, sit through a sermon and note the huge gap between what they read and what the church is saying. It has certainly been something that put me off certain churchs.
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          • #6
            I was once a deacon at an Evangelical Free Church. When I became a 'member' I was required to attend a short class that outlined what the church believed and then invited into the Sanctuary to answer a few questions from the Elder Board. Most of the Elders graduated from Dallas Theological or Moody and many had letters after their names ending in Div (although they never made a particularly big deal about it). They started asking me questions. I answered using the term 'God' instead of 'Jesus' in my answers (because as a former atheist, it was a distinction without a difference ... Jesus was the only GOD that I had ever encountered). One elder in particular called me on my choice of terminology and asked me point blank to explain Jesus and the Holy Spirit and how they related to "God" and my assurance of salvation. (Was I saved and How did I know was the gist of the membership questions that they had been asking up until that point). So a deep breath and a lengthy explanation, which I have briefly shared here as well, and they announced that God was indeed using me, they all prayed over me, and I was admitted as a member. All of this is to point out how careful and biblical they were, so the next part will make sense.

            Five years later, I became a deacon and two years after that, my youngest brother was murdered. While I was struggling to find answers to questions that challenged God's Omnipotence, I ended up having my eyes opened to the Biblical job descriptions for Pastors, Elders and Deacons. What the Pastor and Elders did was not my problem, but there was a serious gap between the spirit of what God called a Deacon to do and what the 'church' was asking me to do. Counting offering and entering checks into a spreadsheet without gossiping about who gives what is important, but that is not what God seems to expect as the sole duty of a Deacon. Since my personal crisis meant that I wasn't in a position to step up my game to meet what God expected of me, I decided that I should step down as a Deacon.

            The problem with God opening your eyes, is you can't help but see all sorts of things. So I had a private conversation with several of the Elders, one whom I respected and was comfortable talking with, and one who had been my Adult Sunday School teacher and mentor for years. I attended the next regular Elder Meeting to Formally inform them of my stepping down as a Deacon and why and to express the concerns on my heart about the growing gap that I saw between what God called his Church to do and be, and what we were actually doing and being as a church. It was a matter that belonged to the Pastor and the Elders. My grief had merely opened my eyes to the reality before us.

            I was invited to have a private chat with the Pastor. First, you need some background on the Pastor. The Church had a strong, conservative seasoned pastor (with a wife and children) and they had a Youth Pastor who had grown up in the church and graduated from a conservative seminary. When the old pastor abruptly left, the Elder Board recommended and the congregation approved the installation of the familiar Youth Pastor as the Senior Pastor.
            ***
            Are you familiar with the expression 'boiling a frog'? If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out and only be injured. If you place a frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly heat it, it will sit there and boil to death.
            ***
            The new Pastor boiled the frog with the congregation. The change happened so imperceptibly slowly and he never said the wrong thing, he just slowly placed less and less emphasis on certain things and more emphasis on other things. Never teaching anything wrong, just slowly elevating 'good' and de-emphasizing 'God'. So at our private conversation, he chalked my feeling up to 'grief' and was concerned. He genuinely wanted to help me. It was an honest conversation. He believes that the New Testament is entirely metaphorical. There was probably a historic Jesus, but that isn't the point of the Bible. There were no actual miracles, the purpose of Scripture is to teach us how to live in this life. His dream is for us to get beyond the need for buildings. There is no reason the church should not be meeting on a beach somewhere and interacting with anyone that just happens along. That is what the Church exists for.

            I was one of the first to leave that church. Over several years, the Elders were divided over the issue of immediately removing the Pastor or attempting to correct his error. It was harder when he was not a stranger. One by one the Elders chose to leave rather than remain where they could not obey the will of God. It was a hard time for all involved. New Elders, friends of the Pastor were installed and by the time those who hoped for reconciliation saw the truth, the church was lost. The building remains, I have no idea how they are doing financially. More than half of the core Tithers and Workers ended up at a new Southern Baptist Church starting up from a small group that left some other denomination when they decided to ordain women (I don't know which mainline denomination they came from).

            So that is how one church went from teaching Reformed Theology to having a Pastor who believes the Gospels are allegorical.

            Matthew 7:15 [NIV] “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
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            • #7
              atpollard wow imagine that. Glad to see you didn't become complacent in an environment with false teaching.
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