mainline Protestant decline

The United Methodist Church: Is there Hope for Declining Denominations?

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Conflict in the United Methodist Church last week reminds us that all over the Western world, denominations that were once dynamic movements are in decline. Some have been on the slide for generations.

Demographic trends, secularism, prosperity, cultural shifts — they all play their part. Yet the answer is to blame external factors. The issue is much closer to home.

The great mistake that movements make is to lose touch with who they are.

Every living thing needs to adapt to its environment or it will die. As it does so, it continually refers back to its unique identity. It changes and it stays the same.

How do the United Methodists do that? It’s as simple as asking what did John Wesley do? What did Francis Asbury do? What does that look like today?

Know who you are. That’s the conservative side of renewal. Express that Identity in a fresh and innovative way. That’s the radical side of renewal.

Think about the movement pioneer who inspired Wesley and Asbury. What was his Identity? Between his life as Jesus of Nazareth, and the launch of his missionary movement, stand two events — Jesus’ baptism and wilderness testing. They reveal and test the Identity of Jesus and by implication, the movement he will found. Three essentials stand out:

1. He obeys his Father’s living Word.

When the Father speaks to the Son, he echoes the words of Scripture. When Jesus confronts Satan, his only weapon is to quote the written Word of God — “It is written!”

2. He is dependent on the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit comes upon him at his baptism, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, the Spirit returns him to Galilee in power to launch the movement.

3. Jesus is faithful to his Mission.

He will give his life as a ransom for many and starts a movement that will go to the ends of the earth multiplying disciples and churches.

These are the three essentials that drive the rise and fall of movements. A church that is willing to obey God’s Word, depend on his Spirit and pursue multiplying disciples and churches throughout the world will be renewed. It must, because God is faithful and he is our only hope.

Southern Baptists vs United Methodists

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Mark Tooley challenges the conventional wisdom that evangelicalism should become more progressive to prevent its decline.

The popular conventional narrative asserts that young people in droves are quitting evangelical Christianity because it’s too socially and politically conservative. Of course, the implication is that if only Evangelicalism would liberalize, especially on sexuality, then it might become more appealing.

But all the available evidence as to what happens to liberalizing churches strongly indicates the opposite. Mainline Protestantism is in many ways what critics of Evangelicalism wish it would become. And yet the Mainline, comprised primarily of the “Seven Sister” historic denominations, has been in continuous free-fall since the early to mid-1960s. Its implosion accelerated after most of these denominations specifically liberalized their sexuality teachings over the last 20 years.

  • Episcopal Church peaked in 1966 at 3.4 million, now 1.7 million (50% loss).

  • Presbyterian Church (USA) peaked 1965 at 4.4 million, now 1.4 million (68% loss).

  • United Church of Christ peaked 1965 at 2.1 million, now 850,000 (60% loss)

  • ELCA (Lutheran) peaked 1968 at 5.9 million, now 3.5 million (41% loss)

  • Christian Church (Disciples) peaked 1964 at 1.9 million, now 400,000 (80% loss).

  • United Methodists peaked 1965 at 11 million, now 6.9 million (40% loss).

  • American Baptist peaked 1.5 million, now 1.2 million (25% loss).

What unites these denominations in decline? The undermining of Biblical authority. Tooley points out that the two Mainline denominations that have not officially liberalized on sexuality, United Methodism and American Baptists, have declined the least.

In contrast, All growing denominations in America are conservative, including the Assemblies of God, which in 1965 had 572,123 and now has 3.2 million (460% increase), the Church of God in Cleveland, which in 1964 had 220,405 and now has 1.2 million (445% increase), the Christian Missionary Alliance, which in 1965 had 64,586 and now has 440,000 (576% increase), and the Church of the Nazarene 1965, which in 343,380 and now has 626,811 (82% increase).

What about the Southern Baptists, America’s largest evangelical denomination? They have been in decline for the last 18 years from 16.4 million to 15 million. That’s a loss of 8% compared to the average Mainline loss of 50%. While SBC membership figures are down, its worship attendance was up by 120,000 in 2017.

Meanwhile the Southern Baptists have been planting churches with a 20% increase in the number of churches over the last twenty years. There’s been a strong focus on planting black and hispanic churches. Something the liberal/progressive Mainline denominations find impossible to do.

I’ll have more to say on this topic soon. Over January I’m working on my next book which is on the Lifecycle of Movements — how they rise and fall.

From hope to decline: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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Robert Benne tells the story of the decline and decay of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA provides a glimpse into the future of a new generation of progressive evangelicals who are wandering down the same treacherous paths.

Like most American denominations, membership in all the Lutheran churches peaked at about 1965. Optimism about the future of Lutheranism in America abounded. That is, until the last merger produced the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.

Its foundation was characterized by a strong attempt by radicals to start a “new church.”

Increasingly the theology of Protestant liberalism crept in in three key areas—the nature of salvation itself; the decisiveness and uniqueness of Christ as Savior; and the familiar sexuality issues. One need do nothing to be saved, for God loves you unconditionally, just as you are, by virtue of your creation. Repentance and amendment of life are beside the point. Christianity and the other great religions are on different tracks to the same destination; evangelism is replaced by dialogue. Christian moral requirements in sexual life are outdated and need sharp revision. Inclusivism, universalism, and revisionism became the leit-motifs of the ELCA at its elite levels. Slowly they have filtered down to the parish level.

The trouble is, such a lax vision hardly inspires one to become a serious member of the church.* If God loves you just the way you are and all will be saved, why bother? Enjoy cultural libertarianism rather than struggle with difficult moral standards. Join the quasi-religious social movements such as militant environmentalism directly rather than filter ones concerns through the church. So the young are drawn to the culture rather than the church. Alarmed intense believers go to other churches or join dissident Lutheran bodies. Many in the local parishes that remain in the ELCA try to seal themselves off from the controversies provoked by the ascendance of liberal theology and ethics.

The results have been devastating. Rather than being exceptional in their promise for renewing American Protestantism, mainstream Lutherans have become exceptional in the rapidity and extensity of their decline. The National Council of Churches reports that the ELCA has “the sharpest rate of membership decline” among all mainline Protestant denominations.

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