Regarding a 'mainline' slide (yet again), a noted journalist raises questions to ponder

A previous Religion Guy Memo looked at Canada's spiritual landscape as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.

That item provoked an e-mail response worth pondering by journalistic analysts. The writer is Kenneth A. Briggs, a competitor and friendly colleague as religion editor of The New York Times during the Religion Guy’s early years writing for Time magazine’s religion section. Briggs, also an award-winner for his work at Long Island Newsday, later became a college teacher, book author and independent journalist in varied media projects.

Importantly for this context, Briggs is a certified mainline Protestant as a Yale Divinity School graduate and an ordained elder in the largest U.S. mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church (which granted him a “special appointment” for journalistic work).

First, Briggs asks whether the Religion Guy was “suggesting cause-and-effect” in stating that  both Canada and the U.S. “show remarkable losses for ‘mainline’ churches that have floated leftward”? These Protestants’ gradual numerical decline and liberal shifts this past half-century are established facts, but Briggs says the two could be simply “coincidental,” rather than that liberalism caused decline.

The Guy -- yes -- meant to imply that a shift toward more liberal doctrinal beliefs was one contributor to the unprecedented membership losses, with breakaways by local congregations, outright schisms, and individual members switching to other options or forsaking church altogether. Meanwhile, conservatives often held steady or gained adherents (though note the past decade’s smaller, but significant, decline for the staunchly conservative Southern Baptist Convention). 

Briggs calls that scenario -- linking doctrinal changes and numerical decline -- “evangelical boilerplate.”

The Guy must quickly add that factors other than liberalism played into church trends. Mainliners’ birth rates have been low, their death rates and average ages comparatively high, and they have had trouble holding on to young people raised in their churches while (to a lesser extent than evangelicals admit) conservative churches are somewhat more effective in evangelism. Another factor here could be the mainline churches that  preserve formal worship traditions while so many evangelicals promote popular, entertaining Sundays.  

Briggs refers to a remarkably prescient book that raised religion writers’ eyebrows in 1972: “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing” by Dean M. Kelley, an able National Council of Churches executive who advocated religious freedom and separation of church and state.

The Guy hasn’t re-read the book for this item, but if memory is accurate Kelley’s themes were, first, that relatively high-demand religious groups tend to prosper, which  was the case with Protestant conservatives, and, two, that decline sets in if congregations neglect parishioners’ elemental religious needs. In that era, Protestant mainliners were pioneering in liberal socio-political controversies that may have weakened some churches’ old-fashioned spiritual effectiveness. Today that same question confronts conservative evangelicals.

Second, Briggs wonders if The Guy was referring to political stands or theology in writing about the float “leftward.” Actually, both have occurred in the mainline, though instinct tells The Guy that liberalism -- or perceived uncertainty -- in belief is the more important aspect. On this, Briggs proposes that “mainliners might see it as a fuller embrace of the Gospel which, as countercultural, would likely encounter loss and rejection.” True enough. His implication is that conservatives aren’t counter-cultural enough these days, something for journalists to explore.  

Third, The Guy mentioned that the rising population of Latino immigrants in the U.S. includes a “robust minority” of evangelicals alongside the dominant Catholicism. Here Briggs wonders whether either the evangelicals or Catholics are “actually winning adherents” and have managed to find the “answer” to evangelism in the current age. He doubts either group has succeeded, except for certain “small examples.” In particular, “does a Catholic Church that has lost at least a third of its in-born members constitute stability?”

All good stuff for newswriters to think about and perhaps pursue. 

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