'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

Success - Older people giving thumbs up

How many stories have been written on the important demographic slide across the decades among America’s moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline?

Such pieces typically report the latest membership totals and such. But newswriters should always seek new ways to freshen up old themes, and colleague David Briggs provides an example of just how to do that.

In case anyone doesn’t know the name, Briggs was the Religion Guy’s predecessor as an Associated Press religion writer, also covered the beat for the Buffalo News and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and has been president of the Religion Newswriters Association. He now edits the “Ahead of the Trend” blog for the Association of Religion Data Archives, an organization housed at Penn State that religion journalists are --  or should be -- well aware of.

By the way, the ARDA boasts that Briggs is considered “among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America,” which sounds right. Who’d be on your own list? Leave me some notes in the comments pages.

Here’s the old-school Briggs formula: Pull together telling data that haven’t gotten much coverage, interview some of the usual suspects on the implications and then propose a strong conclusion about mainline woe: “Not only is there no end in sight, but there are few signs of hope for revival in rapidly aging, shrinking groups.”

These churches won’t disappear, we’re told, but their decline will not bottom out, much less turn around.

Briggs substantiates such gloom via two grassroots surveys, the 2015 report from the Hartford Institute’s Faith Communities Today (“FACT”)  project and new analysis of 2012 data from the National Congregations Study. Hartford’s Scott Thumma says “tweaking a few things” will no longer do; what’s needed is “almost revitalizing yourself from ground zero.” The NCS leader, Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, thinks “it might already be beyond that point” where significant recovery is possible. “It’s really hard to see what would reverse it.”  

Among the worrisome data on those “rapidly aging, shrinking” flocks:

-- In 2010, 4.8 percent of “mainline” Protestant congregations reported more than one-fifth of their participants were ages 18-35. That was already dangerously low. That’s now down to 1.3 percent.

-- Children are 16 percent of regular mainline attenders, compared with an average 29 percent across other U.S. Christian branches.

-- In 2005, just over half of mainline congregations had fewer than 100 average attendees, but by 2015 that was the case for nearly two-thirds.

-- A more familiar point: The mainline proportion of U.S. churchgoers was 24 percent in 1998 compared with 17 percent by 2012.

Why has the mainline lost its grip on younger Americans? After all, aren't these progressive churches on the right side of cultural history?

Briggs generalizes that “researchers” (no names provided) cite three problems, a lack of “opportunities for personal spiritual growth,” of “clear theological identity” and of outreach to share the faith -- hallmarks of conservative and “evangelical” Protestantism.

Reporters might broaden out the scenario with these aspects: Is the problem not absence of “theological identity” but a specifically liberal identity regarding the Bible?

Have leaders’ socio-political maneuvers further eroded the mainline (which could also be true for evangelicalism)?

To what extent does old money accumulated over a century artificially keep mainline congregations from shutting down?

Read it all.

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