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Last Sunday I just walked in
To hear some Mainline preachin'.

Eloquent preacher sure enough,
seminary educated an' such.
But all I heard was politics and metaphor,
no hope beyond an' no Rock of Ages that was sure.

Chorus. Mainline churches goin' down. Mainline churches goin' down.
Sad news, sad news. I got them disappearin' Mainline Blues.

Other verses here , here , here.

Today I want to highlight two related causes of Mainline decline that are not directly related to liberalism.

First, a high value placed on education. The Presbyterian Church in my hometown now is a small congregation of mostly older members. When I was in high school in the early 70s it was a bit larger, with a high school youth group numbering 8-10. I think every one of these young people left our small town to attend college, and never came back. By the look of things, this church will close in about ten years. Members of mainline churches tend to value education for their families. As a consequence there are small town and working-class neighborhood congregations whose youth will not become part of their home churches as adults. They will have gotten a degree and moved to the suburbs. (In seminary I served a year as the youth pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Kearny, New Jersey, a working-class Scots-Irish town in north Jersey. The pastor and I joked that we were training tomorrow's suburban church leaders today.) Some of the mainline churches that will close in 2007 will be small-town or working-class churches whose children are no longer there.

Second, smaller families. Since mainline members tend to be middle-class and up, they have been choosing to have smaller families for the last couple of generations. I suspect that mainline churches have a less-than-replacement rate of births. Call it Shakerism at a slower rate.

I Got Them Disappearin' Mainline Blues (lyrics in progress by Okie Gardener, music needed)

Today I took a walk aroun'
the center city downtown.

Big church buildin's sure enough,
Methodists, Presbyterians, and such.
Lot's of space, but empty pews,
What's the cause of this distressin' news?

Chorus. Mainline churches goin' down. Mainline churches goin' down.
Sad news, sad news. I got them disappearin' Mainline Blues.

Fifty years ago American Protestantism was dominated by the "Mainline Churches": Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, United Church of Christ. Today these formerly mainline churches now are on the sideline. Why?

In this series of posts, I have endeavored to uncover the "root causes" of Mainline Decline. Verse 1. Verse 2.

Today, verse 3 (more below)

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In response to Martian Mariner's prompting for me to talk about the causes of the Mainline Blues, instead of pointing out symptoms only, I now offer this second verse. For Verse One.

The nineteenth century also saw two separate ways of thinking influence Christianity that would help lead to the modern mainline predicament.

First, the elevation of experience over tradition and the plain sense of Scripture. America's involvement with revivalist religion helped lead to an emphasis on experience that could cause doctrine to take a secondary place. This tendency was reinforced by the holiness/pentecostal movement of the 20th century. One can see this tendency in operation in the opening of pulpits to women. Among the first groups with women preachers were the holiness groups. In spite of NT prescription that a woman was not to have authority over a man, and the example of the NT church, women were admitted to the pulpit in large measure because congregations experienced their preaching: obviously if they could preach then they were called to preach. Those verses that seemed to count against female preachers were explained away in light of the experience of women preaching. Similarly today experience becomes a standard for interpretting Scripture: if I know, or think I know, a gay or lesbian who seems like a nice person and who seems sincerely to be a Christian, then I conclude that some Scriptures need reinterpretted.

Second, the influence of "higher criticism" mostly from Germany. This method of study treated the Bible texts in exactly the same way that other writings were treated with the same presuppositions. One of the presuppositions was naturalism: miracles were explained as "folktales" or such. Another assumption was that historical material in the Bible was no more accurate (maybe even less accurate) than any other historical material. In other words, the Bible contains writings like any other human product. In that case, Science, whether psychology or whatever, can be used to weigh the claims of Scripture.
More news here on the slow schism of the Episcopal Church.

The installation of a local minister who recently broke with the Episcopal Church and will now oversee other breakaway congregations was a unique and historic event and one that the Nigerian Anglican leader called "just the first step."

Archbishop Peter Akinola of the Anglican Church of Nigeria makes remarks after his installation of Rev. Martyn Minns (standing, L) as the Missionary Bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America by in Woodbridge, Virginia, May 5, 2007. The convocation represents a group of congregations who have broken from the Episcopal Church over various social and church issues and have now officially become part of the Nigerian church body.

In the West the Anglican Communion is withering away. Here in the U.S. the Episcopal Church (Anglicans in the US) fights among themselves, primarily over stands taken by the U.S. bishops on same-sex practice and marriage, and fidelity to Scripture. In Africa Anglicanism is growing and is conservative. Perhaps we have here a blessed irony, the children of the Western missionary movement returned to save the parent church.

Here is the letter Episcopal Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori sent to Archbishop Akinola. (from the official Episcopalian website) I want to highlight this paragraph from her letter:

First, such action would violate the ancient customs of the church which limits the episcopal activity of a bishop to only the jurisdiction to which the bishop has been entrusted, unless canonical permission has been given. Second, such action would not help the efforts of reconciliation that are taking place in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion as a whole. Third, such action would display to the world division and disunity that are not part of the mind of Christ, which we must strive to display to all.

What a howler! What unblessed irony. "violate ancient customs of the church . . ." that is exactly what the Episcopal church in the U.S. is doing with regard to same-sex practice and Scripture; "would not help the efforts of reconciliation" the Presiding Bishop herself has said that the Episcopal church would not back down on same-sex ordination and marriage, and condescendingly predicted that the rest of Anglicanism eventually would catch up; "would display to the world division" well, who started the division? not Nigeria.

Why are liberals always so irony-impaired?
In response to this post in which I begin to offer some hypotheses on the causes of decline of the mainline, Martian Mariner posted

Are you saying that the decline of the mainline denominations started at the time of the abolitionist movement, or just that a path of thinking had been started which would eventually lead to the decline?
Also, the issue of slavery obviously split the American Church as it split the nation. How was this split viewed by congregants at the time, and how has that continued cultural difference between Northern and Southern churches (PCUSA/PCA; AmBaptist/SBC; etc..) affected the views of congregants in more modern times?

The decline of the mainline denominations did not start at the time of the abolitionists. My point was that a "path of thinking" did indeed start which had as one of its indirect outcomes mainline decline. When the story of the growth of liberalism in American denomination is told, I think the story of abolitionists is overlooked, but very important.

Regarding regionalism in American Christianity. Southern Christianity during the antebellum period viewed itself as the preserver of biblical Christianity in the face of the heretical abolitionists. In my research in religious periodicals of the period I have found Lincoln often referred to as "that godless Lincoln." The southern churches locked into a literal reading of Scripture. Some of this attitude continues today.
The ever astute Martian Mariner commented on my previous post on mainline turmoil and decline thusly:

I know you've posted extensively on the decline of mainline Protestant denominations in America. Most of the posts seem to be displaying the symptoms and warning signs. I was wondering if you could give us some of your analysis as to the causes of this decline. The disconnect between the leadership and congregants seems to be a major part of the decline, but what caused that disconnect in the first place?

I now will begin a series of posts trying to answer his questions. (Caveat--while I am a scholar of the interactions of religion, culture, and politics, my period expertise is the U.S. between the Revolution and the Civil War.) I think the state of the (formerly) Mainline Churches results from multiple causes. Please regard what I say as informed hypotheses, rather than definitive answers. (Blogging is a lot easier than writing books and articles in this regard.) Where to begin? (more below)

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