The sisters have fallen on hard times! The rapid expansion which marked America's early history was matched by the brisk growth of the principal Protestant denominations. The largest and most influential, labeled the mainline denominations, were once so predominant, they were called the seven sisters of American Protestantism.1
But, I say again, the sisters have fallen on hard times.
Their membership has plummeted, with one of the seven losing an average of 1,000 members every week for over 26 years, declining by more than 31 percent from 1970 to 1992. A 1989 study showed a 55 percent average decline in Sunday school attendance among five of the seven sisters.
A predictable accompanying decline in giving has precipitated what informed friendly observers call a funding crisis. That funding crisis has resulted in reduced staff and programming, declining staff morale, and program retrenchment.
Careful reflection shows the funding crisis is not just about money. It is an indicator of things far more serious than money.
In a Newsweek article detailing the predicament of the mainline Protestant churches in the United States, Kenneth L. Woodward wrote:
"For 25 consecutive years, liberal Protestantisms' seven-sister denominations have watched their collective membership decline. Although the number of Protestants in general is growing; an evangelical church is opening somewhere almost daily, the mainline denominations are not. Their flocks are aging, their budgets shrinking. Morale is low. Many local congregations are rejecting control by denominational leaders and cutting back on funds to support their national programs. From every angle, Protestantism is gripped by crises: of identity and loyalty, membership and money, leadership and organization, culture and belief."2
I recently read a most informative book entitled The Mainline Churches Funding Crisis by Ronald E. Vallet and Charles E. Zech, which details a more comprehensive explanation of the maladies of American liberal Protestantism than is sometimes seen.
The authors are well-equipped to forward the discussion. Vallet is minister for stewardship and mission support for American Baptist Churches of New York State, and Zech is professor of economics at Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania.
The study concluded that mainline denominations are undergoing a funding crisis overall, while non-mainline denominations have largely escaped such a crisis. Now there is nothing earthshaking in that conclusion; virtually every close observer agrees with their findings:
• Mainline denominational congregations feel increasingly isolated from bureaucratic structures and leaders, and report a loss of confidence in denominational leadership.
• The common vision, purpose, and mission that congregations once felt with their denomination has eroded. The perception is that power has moved from denominational leaders with vision to those with a maintenance mindset and motivation and that denominational theology is driven by the agenda of denominational preservation. The distance between congregations and the national denomination increases correspondingly to the loss of vision and clarity about their mission.
• Congregations have been faced with increased costs for local maintenance. Because pressing local needs seem more compelling than support of a denominational structure, a lower percentage of congregational income is sent for missions. More and more church leaders became less and less willing to fund a system in which they had lost confidence.
• Mainline denominational participation in the ecumenical movement and the union or merging of churches has resulted in a fading of denominational distinctions. This fostered church shopping and diminished loyalty to denominations. Increasingly, individuals feeling neither a deep sense of mission nor traditional ties to a particular denomination or congregation become consumers of religion, looking for the programs and special ministries they desire most.
Assorted explanations for the declines have been suggested. Some think that the decreases only reflect the demographic impact of the so-called baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. Others declare that ordinary financial pressures on congregations explain the decline in denominational support.
In a 1994 article, Tony Campolo, a professional sociologist and minister of the American Baptist Churches, acknowledged that a crisis exists, but states that if the mainline denominations can "'read' societal trends and restructure themselves to 'functionally fit' the demands of the future," the downtrends may be reversed.3
Vallet and Zech dutifully took note of social science theories to determine underlying causes for the crisis, but concluded that they were helpful only at the level of describing the problems, and, "No clear-cut causes or solutions emerged from the social sciences."
What is compelling about their analysis is the insight that theological, biblical, and ethical deviation is the source of the corrosive mistrust between constituents and their leaders. It should not be surprising that serious believers would protest indifference to Scripture in their church and denominational leaders. They lost faith in their leaders because of what they saw as theological drift caused by infidelity to Scripture.
A conspicuous indicator of the drift is seen in the liberal policies adopted and promoted by the denominations, especially those related to issues of human sexuality. Some, no longer holding to the authority of Scripture, themselves sank rapidly into sub-Christian moral relativism and nudged their churches away from biblical standards.
To illustrate the case, Vallet and Zech refer to a survey of Presbyterian General Assembly pronouncements made throughout the 20th century on social issues. They revealed an erosion of official commitment to traditional Christian standards of conduct, proceeding steadily and without instances of reversal. Unfortunately, the Presbyterians were not alone.
The flirtation with liberal standards of permissible sexual behavior spread like a communicable disease in liberal Protestantism. An August 1994 news report states, "the debate over homosexuality that had raged in other denominations (such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and United Methodists) is threatening to wash over yet another denomination, the American Baptist Churches."4
Not surprisingly, indications of unrest arose among lay members about how seriously their pastors took Scripture. Indications emerged of a broadening gap between clergy and lay people, and what the researchers call a "resultant theological quietism" rose. Some laypersons perceive that their pastors relegate Scripture to a secondary level, and hide their real theological beliefs in order to maintain peace between themselves and their congregations. Preaching is viewed as weak and often not based on biblical principles.
It can hardly be more clear that the decline is not merely a reflection of population trends, and that a little fine tuning will fix the problem! Tinkering or puttering can't make this right!
It is not demographic pressure, but deviation from Christian orthodoxy and norms of conduct that are responsible for the regrettable state of the mainline denominations. Their decline is an ominous warning to all who depart from biblical rootage. Not sociological remedy, but theological and ethical renewal alone will restore their former glory.
Now you may ask, "What does this all have to do with Southern Baptists? After all, we are not one of the seven sisters; our denomination is categorized as "non-mainline," along with other evangelicals.
This question has a great deal to do with us! We could have followed the path of the mainlines; there are some who favored it. Our Convention has, in the past decade and a half, corrected a dangerous, deviating course and returned to the theological roots of our forebears. For that we can be grateful.
Be sure, the unrelenting pressure of our age is to slip the biblical moorings, and sail off into the sunset of theological, moral and spiritual relativism. Many have fallen into captivity to the dominant culture with its denial of ultimate truth. As vigilance was required of the church in modernity - so it is required of the church in the rising postmodern world. We are not magically exempt from the cultural captivity which ate the heart out of liberal Protestantism! Continuing theological and ethical renewal is indispensable for His church on His mission.
For those held captive by an unbelieving age, there must be a forsaking of the false gods that have been imagined and turn again to the living God. God's gracious call, promises and invitation extend to all.
And for others, there must be alertness and vigilance. The only fortification against the encroachments of a culture in defiance of God is humble and unshakable submission to the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and to His Word! It is for every generation, ours included, to earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3.)
1 The United Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., Evangelical Lutheran Church, Reformed Churches in America, and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., are the denominations which together compose the group commonly called mainline denominations.
2 Kenneth L. Woodward, "Dead End for the Mainline?" Newsweek, August 9, 1993, p 46.
3 Tony Campolo, "Can Mainline Churches Make a Comeback?" RENEW News, Fall 1994.
4 "Homosexuality Debate Strains ABC," The Christian Century, July 27-August 3, 1994, p. 714.
Bill Merrell is the editor of SBC LIFE.