Tuesday, May 2, 2017


That's all mainline Protestantism has in the gas tank.  So says Ed Stetzer, Billy Graham Distinguished Chair at Wheaton College and director for The Graham Center there, in this recent Washington Post piece.

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It's basic demographics, folks.  Stetzer:
Mainline Protestants, which has been the tradition of several U.S. presidents, aren’t “multiplying” with children as rapidly as evangelicals or others of differing faiths. And geography matters. Places where Protestants live are now in socio-economic decline, and parts of the country like the Sun Belt are become more evangelical with every passing winter.

Here's Stetzer's data:

The top line shows mainline Protestant identification, and fewer say they go to churches affiliated with mainline denominations. The bottom line shows attendance, and now less than one of 33 people you meet on the street regularly attends a mainline Protestant church.

Thus Stetzer:
If the data continues along the same pattern, mainline Protestants have an expiration date when both trend lines cross zero in 2039. If the trend line continues, they have 23 Easters left.

Stetzer admits there probably are more than 23 Easters left, but not many.  The slide will slow--but it also won't stop. Being an evangelical (from, he admits, the very mainline Episcopal Church), Stetzer wants to see mainline churches survives.  Nevertheless, he perceives a particular theological root to this very real and looming problem:
It’s not the whole story, but here’s an argument for at least part of what has happened. Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed “offensive” to the surrounding culture: Jesus literally died for our sins and rose from the dead, the view of the authority of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and more.
Some of mainline Protestants leaders rejected or minimized these beliefs — beliefs that made the “protest” in Protestantism 500 years ago — as an invitation for more people to join a more culturally relevant and socially acceptable church. But if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers.
And therefore:
If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.
Stetzer makes it clear, too, that some nostalgic throw-back, retro-movement, ala Trump's "Make America Great Again" simply is not going to work.  Mainline churches can't and won't become more conservative.  But the churches can regain the Gospel message they once preached.  

Read it all here.

At one level Stetzer underplays his cards.  Mainline denominations once ruled, even when not everybody filled their pews. Yes, several U.S. presidents once attended these churches, but so too did business tycoons, patrons of all the arts and cultured pastimes, and, let's admit it, advocates of social improvement.  Mainline churches shaped the very fabric and lexicon of American discourse and, through their own decisions, they have demographically speaking less than a quarter century left.  While it's not suicide, this does present a fascinating study in self-reduction.


Perhaps it's no surprise that, among the dwindling mainline practitioners, songs like this--an ironic/self-conscious embrace of nihilism--are quite popular.

Talk about ennui.  Drab and self-indulgent, there's nothing like flatly declaring there's no afterlife only darkness and yet apparently the person receiving this tune should be feel grateful because the singer graciously decides to remain present until the bitter end.

Until, of course, they don't. Oh but since there's only darkness after, who's keeping score?

So often this blog indicts the deleterious effects of spiritual diabetes, the conditions resulting from too much of the wrong kind of spiritual consumption.  Stetzer's assessment of twenty-three Easters left for mainline churches illuminates the other condition mentioned less here but nevertheless still quite real:  spiritual veganism.  But at what point do you or your group stop cutting and reducing in order to grow and live?  Stetzer rightly wonders if mainline churches have already passed that point.

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