This past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Detroit, approved pastors being able to marry same sex partners in states where same sex marriage is legal. According to Presbyterian polity, it still has to get the approval of the majority of presbyteries (there are 172) before it becomes the law. Judging Facebook and Twitter there were a lot of comments about how good this is and I agree with them. But will this action, coupled with the approval of non celibate gays to become ordained a few years ago save the Presbyterian Church? Will it save any church? I … Continue reading Why Being Nice to The Gays Won’t Save Your Church*
I haven’t followed the news about Methodist minister Frank Schaefer as closely as I should have. For those who know even less, Frank Schaefer faced a church trail for going against the Book of Discipline by marrying two men (one of who happened to be his son). What I do know about the affair has led me to ask a few questions and make a few statements: So much for diversity. Many liberal Christians (myself included) love to talk about how wonderful diversity is and how much we have to strive for all kinds of diversity: gender, racial and ethnic. … Continue reading Some Thoughts on the Frank Schaefer Case
A few weeks ago, I sat down for a beer with a fellow pastor. Actually, I had hard cider- he had the beer. The pastor is theologically conservative and sees me- a gay pastor with an orthodox theology as a bit of an enigma. We had a very good discussion talking about church and life and where we might agree. I had the opportunity to share why I am this odd duck. There is always a bit of uncomfortableness in breaking bread with someone who disagrees with you, but it was a good time and I hope to do it … Continue reading Building a Bridge with Beer
There are folks who tend to focus on the “numbers” taking place in Mainline Protestantism with concern. One example is an article written in 1987 by William Willomon and Robert Wilson. They looked at the numbers and didn’t like what they see:
The Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren Churches each began to experience a decrease in membership in the 1960s. This was obscured by the optimism engendered by the merger of these two denominations in Dallas in 1968. The details of the merger took a couple of years to be worked out and several more years for the overlapping annual conferences to combine. During the early years, a number of EUB congregations, largely in the Pacific Northwest region, withdrew to form a separate denomination.1 However, by 1970 The United Methodist Church was in place with a total membership of 10,671,744 and 40,653 organized churches.2
The decline, which began in each of the denominations before the merger, has continued. By 1984, the total number of members had decreased to 9,266,853; a loss of 1,404,891, or 13 percent. We had lost members equal to almost twice the number of EUBs who had united with the Methodists in 1968. The United Methodist Church, in the fourteen-year period 1970-1984, lost an average of 1,930 members every week. (This decrease is illustrated in Graph 1).
The downward trend has not yet been reversed. Preliminary figures for 1995 give the lay membership as 9,105,046.3 During calendar year 1985, the total number decreased by 75,692, or an average loss of 1,455 persons each week. This is the equivalent of closing a church of 207 members every day for one year. The average attendance at the principal service of worship has also shown a downward trend, although at a somewhat slower rate than the membership decline. There were over 442,000 fewer persons attending worship in 1984 than in 1969, a decrease of 11 percent. (This trend is illustrated in Graph 2.)
Nor is the picture regarding the number of congregations is encouraging. During the period of 1970-1984, United Methodism closed a total of 2,665 local churches, or an average of slightly under four congregations per week.
An examination of the membership trends of several other mainline denominations for the decade and a half from 1968 to 1983 reveals equally dismal pictures. The Episcopal Church had a membership decline of 17 percent.4 The decrease in the United Church of Christ was 16 percent.5 The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) dropped by 29 percent. The recently created Presbyterian Church (USA), the result of a merger between the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, in 1983 had 25 percent fewer adherents than the combined membership of their component parts a decade and a half earlier.
It is difficult to conceptualize the extent of the membership declines suffered by the mainline churches during the 1970s and early 1980s. Every week these denominations averaged a decline of over five thousand; this is the equivalent of mainline Protestantism’s closing one local church of almost seven hundred members every day for a decade and a half.
The significance of this downward trend in membership on these historically prominent denominations and their role in the larger society is great. It may mean a realignment of the religious bodies in America. For example, there are now more members in the Assemblies of God than in the United Church of Christ, a fact that will influence both denominations.
Willomon and Wilson notes that the drop off does have a result on the morale of both pastors and congregations and fosters a sense of self-preservation and maintainence.
Another person that has watch these numbers with some worry is Presbyterian Pastor John Vest. Earlier this year, he wrote an emotional post about the rate of decline taking place in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and urged the church to do something:
Last week the Office of the General Assembly released the 2012 statistics for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The numbers aren’t good, more signs of our rapid decline (and the similar decline of all mainline Protestant—and even evangelical—denominations).
- Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.
- This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.
- 86 churches were dissolved.
- 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.
- While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.
I’ve said it before: this is simply not sustainable. Continue reading “Jesus Is Not a Fashion Accessory”
Things are not going well in American Mainline Protestantism. Despite all the talk about how religious progressives are winning the day over the Religious Right, I tend to see a tradition that is in decline. I see churches closing- the remaining members too tired to continue. I see churches that are still going on, uncertain about how to be church in a different age. I see middle judicatories- synods, presbyteries, classis, regions facing shrinking budgets. I see the few new churches being planted that will have to find ways to be self-sustaining as they face a culture not used to … Continue reading This Is the Perfect Time to Panic!
Just a bit of a warning here: I’m about to go all “get off my lawn” in this post. I guess at 43 I do earn the right to be the cranky middle aged guy. What’s getting stuck in my craw lately is the perceived lack of enthusiasm for the continuance of the mainline/progressive/liberal church. Now,if you have read this blog, I’m basically ranting about what’s wrong within my theological home. It’s not that it’s apostate and I want to leave to something more pure, it’s more that I want it to live up to its potential. I’m too loyal … Continue reading Panic at the Narthex
First off, welcome to all the new visitors who saw my post on Freshly Pressed. Below is a post from last year. It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia. The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care … Continue reading Repost: We Can’t Be Friends
A Presbyterian Pastor reflects on the British Science fiction series Dr. Who as a modern fairy tale about fighting monsters and then relates that to Jesus: I remember after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 how much I wanted to just march into Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere really, and just blow things up. I wanted to cause someone the pain we as a nation were caused. I think many people felt that way. Toby Keith certainly expressed it in his song Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue. Do you ever feel that way? After the shootings at Newtown did … Continue reading On Monsters, Boston…and Daleks
Ever since it appeared a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about John Vest’s blog post called “The Vine is Dying.” The Presbyterian pastor from Chicago has been involved in finding ways to help the Presbyterian Church (USA) rebound after decades of decline and his February 27 post was one borne of frustration with the church he loves: I’m growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA). At every level of our system, from congregations on up to General Assembly agencies, we keep missing the big picture. We measure our … Continue reading What J.C. Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward Taught Me About the Mainline Church
Anyone who’s read this blog knows I tend to be critical of mainline Christianity. It’s not that I want to leave what has been my theological home for two decades; it’s that I get frustrated at some of it’s shortcomings. Despite all of that, mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity is my home. As much as I respect my evangelical beginnings, I don’t belong there anymore. My current home might be a fixer-upper, but it’s still home. So, I get a bit sad when I hear stories about how Mainline Protestantism is shrinking. People leave the church. Congregations close. Denominational offices keep cutting staff. … Continue reading There’s Still Hope for the Mainline