Dec 7, 2009

From the Archives

Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches

When Baby Boomers were born, the Protestant landscape of America was dominated by the six major mainline denominations. (Those bodies are typically considered to be the American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church.)

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Since the 1950s, however, mainline churches have fallen on hard times, declining from more than 80,000 churches to about 72,000 today. The growth among evangelical and Pentecostal churches since the 1950s, combined with the shrinking of the mainline sector, has diminished mainline churches to just one-fifth of all Protestant congregations today. In the past fifty years, mainline church membership dropped by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people. Adult church attendance indicates that only 15% of all American adults associate with a mainline church these days.

A new report issued by The Barna Group focuses upon changes in the mainline churches during the past decade. The report examines shifts in both the adults who attend those churches and the pastors who lead them.

Congregant Statistics

Over the course of the past decade, the number of adults who attend a mainline church on any given weekend has remained relatively stable, ranging from 89 to 100. The current median is 99 adults. One reason why that average has remained steady has been the population growth of the United States, with the mainline churches attracting just enough newcomers to maintain attendance levels that are similar to the years when the nation’s population was considerably smaller.

The current attendance figure is lower than the norm during the heyday of the mainline bodies. Demographics suggest that the mainline churches may be on the precipice of a period of decline unless remedial steps are taken. For instance, in the past decade there has been a 22% drop in the percentage of adults attending mainline congregations who have children under the age of 18 living in their home. Also, the proportion of single adults has risen, now representing 39% of all adult attenders. That has been driven higher by a rise in the number of divorced and widowed adherents.

The numerical decline is also related to the relative difficulty that mainline churches have experienced in attracting young adults. For instance, young adults (25 or younger) are 6% of the national population, they are just one-third as many (2%) of all adults attending mainline churches. At the other end of the age continuum, the statistics show that about one-quarter (27%) of American adults are 60 or older, but more than one-third of mainline attenders (35%) are 60-plus.

Another hurdle for the mainline bodies has been attracting minorities. These churches struggle in reaching Hispanics and Asians. While Hispanics make up 16% of the US population, they are only 6% of the mainline population. Asians represent 4% of the American public, but only half that proportion among mainline congregants. The failure to add substantial numbers of Hispanics is especially significant, given both the rapid increase of the Hispanic population as well as the outflow of Hispanics from Catholicism to Protestant churches in the past decade. Most of the Hispanics leaving Catholicism for another faith community are settling into evangelical or Pentecostal Protestant churches.

There is a behavioral reason for the decline of mainline churches, too: just one-third (31%) of mainline adults believe they have a personal responsibility to discuss their faith with people who have different beliefs.

Commitment and Loyalty

Sometimes money can mask a serious problem. That may be the case within the mainline community. Cumulatively, these denominations generate more than $15 billion in donations each year. In fact, during the past decade the median church budget of mainline congregations has risen substantially – up 51%, to about $165,000 annually.

As positive as that sounds, though, chances are good that the upward pattern will not continue. One reason is the relative decline in the household incomes of mainline adherents. During the past decade, the educational achievement of mainline congregants has plateaued while the median household income level has suffered. In 1998, the median income was 12% higher than the national average, while in 2008 the median among mainline households was 2% lower than the national norm.

Money may be the least of the mainline’s challenges, though. A bigger worry is the decreasing engagement of congregants with church life. As noted earlier, weekly attendance figures have remained stable, but that hides the underlying problem of softer commitments. For example, adherents attend church services less frequency than they used to. Volunteerism in these churches is down by an alarming 21% since 1998. Adult Sunday school involvement has also declined, by 17% since 1998.

The tenuous ties that millions of mainline adults have with their church are exemplified by their willingness to consider other spiritual options. Just half (49%) describe themselves as “absolutely committed to Christianity.” Slightly more (51%) are willing to try a new church. Two-thirds (67%) are open to pursuing faith in environments or structures that are different from those of a typical church. Almost three-quarters (72%) say they are more likely to develop own religious beliefs than to adopt those taught by their church. And nine out of ten (86%) sense that God is motivating people to stay connected to Him through different means and experiences than in the past.

Evidence of waffling commitment is found elsewhere, as well. A minority of mainline attenders are presently involved in some type of personal discipleship activity. Less than half contend that the Bible is accurate in the life principles it teaches. Only half of all mainline adults say that they are on a personal quest for spiritual truth. And when asked to identify their highest priority in life, less than one out of every ten mainline adults (9%) says some aspect of faith constitutes their top priority.

Mainline Pastors

The nature of those who lead mainline congregations has been rapidly changing, too. One of the most telling findings in the Barna study was the aging of mainline pastors. A decade ago the median age of mainline Senior Pastors was 48; today it is 55. That represents a shockingly fast increase, representing a combination of too few young pastors entering the ranks and a large share of older pastors not retiring. Another study by Barna found that an unusually high share of Boomer pastors are refusing to retire or plan to retire in their mid-sixties, and that succession planning is a glaring weakness in most Protestant churches.

The percentage of mainline Senior Pastors who are female has risen dramatically, from 15% to 21% in the last 10 years. Oddly, while the education level of mainline pastors has dropped a bit – 82% have a seminary degree, down from 90% in 1998 – compensation levels have jumped substantially, rising by 40% in the last decade. Currently, senior pastor compensation packages represent one-third (33%) of the typical mainline congregation’s budget.

One of the enduring idiosyncrasies of mainline churches is the brief tenure of pastors in a church. On average, these pastors last four years before moving to another congregation. That is about half the average among Protestant pastors in non-mainline churches. Equally significant is the fact that 93% of mainline senior pastors consider themselves to be a leader, yet only 12% claim to have the spiritual gift of leadership.

George Barna, the researcher who analyzed the data for the report, commented that mainline Protestant churches seem to have weathered the past decade better than many people have assumed, but that the future is raising serious challenges to continued stability. He identified the quality of leadership provided – especially regarding vision, creativity, strategic thinking, and the courage to take risks – as being the most critical element in determining the future health and growth of mainline congregations. He also indicated that the approach that many mainline churches take toward some current social issues – e.g., environmental challenges, poverty, cross-denominational cooperation, developing respectful dialogue, embracing new models for faith expression, and global understanding – position those churches well for attracting younger Americans.

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About the Research

This report is based upon several national telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group. The surveys among mainline adults in 1998 included 267 adults; in 2008, there were 1,148 mainline attenders interviewed. The surveys among pastors involved 492 mainline senior pastors drawn from random samples of Protestant churches. The range of sampling error associated with the sample of 267 adults is between ±2.7 and ±6.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The range of sampling error associated with the sample of 1,148 adults is between ±1.3 and ±3.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. These allowances do not include other types of error (known as non-sampling error) that can occur in surveys, such as errors arising from question wording, question sequencing, and the recording of responses.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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