Maybe not. Ross Douthat’s reflections on what ails the mainline churches in the United States (though a bit stale now) generated a round of responses about the nature and viability of the Protestant mainline. I plan to return to this discussion, particularly in relation to a parallel one among historians about ecumenical Protestants. But for now I draw attention to the response to Douthat by Diana Butler.
On the one hand, the New York Times columnist cannot but help connect the dots between liberal Protestants’ capitulation to sexual promiscuity and declining church membership. Case in point, The Episcopal Church (no longer the ECUSA and be sure to capitalize the definite article):
. . . instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
. . . liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.
As much as this looks like a “well-your-glass-is-half-empty-too” retort, Butler goes on to suggest that liberal churches are healthier for having experienced decline earlier than conservatives. She also believes that given the mainline’s ordeal, liberal Christians are discovering resources that constitute them as the site of unexpected spiritual vigor among Protestants (talk about counter-intuitive):
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. . . . There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.
To back up this contention, Butler cites a study by the erstwhile pulse-taker of the Protestant mainline — the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership and Professor of Religion and Society at Hartford Seminary. According to the press release linked in Butler’s post:
Innovative Worship: The surge in contemporary worship continued, to more than 40 percent of congregations that always or often use electric guitars or drums in their worship in 2010. Also, both innovative and contemporary worship are catalysts of spiritual vitality.
Religion Goes Electronic: A third of congregations reported that their use of modern technology grew more than 10 percent. The more a congregation uses technology, the more open it is to change.
Racial/Ethnic Congregations: There has been a dramatic increase in racial/ethnic congregations, many for immigrant groups. In 2010, three in ten congregations reported that more than 50 percent of their members were members of minority groups, up from two in ten in 2000. One clear impact of the increase in minority congregations is that they inject a strong dose of growth and vitality into American religious life.
“Congregation is More Than Worship”: Despite the overall erosion in congregational vitality and size from 2000 to 2010, there has been a slight increase in member-oriented and mission-oriented programming.
Financial Health: The number of congregations with excellent financial health declined from 31 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2010. Eighty percent of congregations reported that the recent recession negatively affected their finances.
Congregational Conflict: Almost two of every three congregations experienced conflict in 2010. In a third of the congregations, the conflict was serious enough that members left or withheld contributions, or a leader left. Conflict is corrosive – it leads to attendance decline and financial stress.
Demographic Details: The average percentage of participants over 65 has increased at the same time as the average percentage of 18-34 year olds has declined. Racial/ethnic congregations buck this trend, with significantly higher proportions of young adults among their participants than white congregations. Among historically white congregations, the membership of the typical Oldline Protestant congregation is much older than that of Evangelical Protestant congregations. For 75 percent of Oldline Protestant congregations, less than 10 percent are young adult. This aging of congregations is significant because as congregations age, their capacity for change erodes.
Interfaith Engagement: A little more than one in ten congregations surveyed in 2010 indicated they had shared worship across faith traditions in the past year, 13.9 percent in 2010 versus 6.8 percent in 2000. A special report on congregations’ interfaith engagement is available at http://www.faithcommunitiestoday.org.
The Electoral Process: There has been a reversal between Oldline and Evangelical Protestantism in political action, through voter registration or education programs, in the past decade. While the use of the political process declined from 2000 to 2010 among Oldline Protestant Congregations, to 11.9 percent, it surged among Evangelical Protestant congregations, to 25.8 percent. The Black church also continues to use the political process, with 55 percent saying they offer voter education or registration campaigns.
Church Attendance: The average weekend worship attendance at a typical congregation declined from 2000 to 2010. Median weekend worship attendance at the typical congregation dropped from 130 to 108 during the past decade. More than one in four American congregations had fewer than 50 in worship in 2010.
Spiritual Vitality: Fewer congregations report high spiritual vitality – from 42.8 percent in 2000 to 28.4 percent in 2010. This decline in spiritual vitality is true across the board – including denominational family, race and ethnicity, region and size. Among the trends that negatively impact spiritual vitality are decreasing financial health, shrinking worship attendance, aging membership and high levels of conflict. One unexpected finding is that spiritual vitality rises considerably higher at the liberal end of the theological continuum than the very conservative end.
I am no sociologist, so I don’t have credentials to crunch the data responsibly. But how do you look at the figures on finances, controversy, church attendance, membership, and vitality and then conclude that liberal Christianity is making a comeback? I understand Butler’s need to cheer lead for her peeps. But the director of Hartford’s Center, David Roozen, cannot summon up the positivity that Butler taps. Even his conclusion, “Despite bursts of innovation, pockets of vitality and interesting forays into greater civic participation, American congregations enter the second decade of the twenty-first century a bit less healthy than at the turn of the century,” sounds like a reach.