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America’s so-called mainline Protestant churches aren’t what they used to be. For generations on end, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and kindred denominations reported net annual membership gains. As recently as the 1950s their growth rate equaled or exceeded that of the United States as a whole.

But in the early 1960s their growth slowed down, and after the middle of the decade they had begun to lose members. With very few exceptions, the decline has continued to this date. Never before had any large religious body in this country lost members steadily for so many years. By 1990 these denominations had lost between one-fifth and one-third of the membership they claimed in 1965 and the proportion of Americans affiliated with them had reached a twentieth-century low.

Many theories have been advanced to explain why these old denominations have fallen on hard times. The least credible theory attributes their decline to the secularizing effects of industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of mass education. If secularization were the sole explanation, all but the most culturally insulated sectors of American religion would be losing members. In fact, many sectors are holding their own very well and others are growing. Biblically conservative nondenominational Christian fellowships, for example, are among the fastest growing, and their typical location is not in rural Appalachia but in major metropolitan centers. To explain the decay of the mainline denominations, one must look instead for special factors at work within these churches themselves or in the lives of their constituents.

The first step toward identifying these special factors was the discovery, in the late 1970s, that the principal source of the decline was the tendency of many adolescents who had been confirmed in these denominations from the early 1960s on to drop out of church and not return. It was the children of the members themselves”and especially those born after World War II”who were leading the exodus. Some, of course, returned to church when they married and had children, but not enough to replenish the ranks. In the meantime, of course, the average age of the membership was steadily increasing. One can sit today in the balcony of a typical United Methodist church and look over a congregation of graying and balding heads. Unless there is a surge of new recruits, rising death rates will diminish the ranks of the mainline denominations even further in the years ahead.

Why have so many young people departed? One theory attributes the decline to the shift toward greater individual autonomy and freedom from institutional restraints that got under way in the mid-1960s. This shift, which found its most flamboyant expression in the counterculture, was spearheaded by young white people from middle-class families, a disproportionate number of which were, for historic reasons, affiliated with mainline Protestant churches. Another theory traces the decline to the fact that middle-class people born since World War II are far more likely than their predecessors to have earned higher degrees, presumably absorbing in the process the agnosticism of modern academia.

But other theories attribute the decline to factors internal to the mainline churches themselves. The first of these, widely propounded in the late 1960s but no longer heard, attributes the exodus of young people to protest against the churches’ supposed indifference to the sufferings and struggles of the blacks, the poor, and other oppressed groups. The advocates of this notion argued that if the church did not become “relevant” it would lose its youth. Another theory, highly popular among religious conservatives today, makes the opposite argument. It contends that people have left the mainline churches in protest against the support that denominational officials and agencies have given since the mid-1960s to left-wing causes such as abortion rights and Third World revolutionary movements. According to its proponents, those who have deserted the mainline churches have done so in search of a richer spiritual diet.

A third intra-religious theory was advanced by Dean M. Kelley in his controversial book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing , published in 1972. Kelly argued that the mainline denominations have lost members because they have become weak as religious bodies. Strong religions provide clear-cut, compelling answers to questions concerning the meaning of life, mobilize their members’ energies for shared purposes, require a distinctive code of conduct, and discipline their members for failure to live up to it. Weak religions allow a diversity of theological viewpoints, do not and can not command much of their members’ time or effort, promote few if any distinctive rules of conduct, and discipline no one for violating them. In short, strong religions foster a level of commitment that binds members to the group; weak religions have low levels of commitment and are unable to resist influences that lower it even further.

Since careful tests of these theories have never been made, no consensus has emerged as to which, if any, of them best explains why mainline churches have lost members. To gain new insights into the reasons for the decline, the three of us decided to interview a national sample of baby boomers who had been confirmed in mainline Protestant churches during the 1960s. To simplify our task, we concentrated on a single denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), formed in 1983 by merger of the nation’s two largest Presbyterian bodies. In 1989, with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, we drew samples of names from confirmation lists of churches in six states and located as many people in the samples as we could. We completed 500 Gallup-style telephone interviews and forty face-to-face follow-up interviews.

We found that fully 75 percent of our baby boom confirmands had dropped out of church at one time or other, typically around age twenty-one, and that about half of the drop-outs are now active again in some church. In all, 52 percent of the baby boomers are currently “churched” by our definition, that is, they attend some church at least six times a year and are enrolled members. Six percent of the confirmands have become self-styled fundamentalists, 10 percent have joined other mainline denominations, 7 percent are active members of Catholic, Baptist, or other churches outside the Protestant mainline, and 8 percent are agnostics or atheists who have severed their ties with organized religion completely. Of the remainder, the largest categories are people who are still active Presbyterians (29 percent), people who either belong to a church but do not attend or attend but are reluctant to join (19 percent), and people who describe themselves as religious but who neither belong nor attend (21 percent).

Our findings cast doubt on most of the popular theories about the decline of mainline churches. We were mildly surprised to learn that participation in countercultural activities is only weakly correlated to church participation today. Involvement in the counterculture is associated with unorthodox theological views, as well as with liberal positions on controversial issues of sexuality, reproduction, and gender, but it is not a good predictor of church involvement itself. Similarly, the amount of formal education has no bearing on how active one is in church. The handful of confirmands in our sample who have earned Ph.D.’s tend to be irreligious, but exposure to a college education does not serve to explain mainline church decline. Our fundamentalists, for example, were as well educated as any of the other groups in the sample. Most of those who lost their faith, or who adopted unorthodox opinions, did so before , not after, going to college. College may not strengthen faith, but for most baby boomers it did not initiate doubt.

When we asked our sample of confirmands why they had dropped out of church we found virtually no support either for the theory that the church has become “socially irrelevant” or for the theory that church decline represents a protest against the radical agenda of denominational elites. One woman we interviewed quit her local Presbyterian church in 1971 because of its indifference to issues of war and race, and a few others grumbled about the denomination’s commitment to left-wing causes, but the vast majority said nothing about these matters. From our interviews we formed the firm impression that most baby boomers brought up in a Presbyterian church know little or nothing about the policies promoted by denominational officials. For them”and perhaps for their elders as well”“church” refers only to the local congregations with which they are familiar, and does not extend to the higher echelons of denominations.

What is more, we found little evidence of a polarization on theological and moral issues among those baby boomers who remain active in a mainline church. Most of them have mixed views on controversial issues. A surprising number, for example, would like prayers to be said in the public schools but have no objection to the ordination of avowed homosexuals. The fundamentalists and the irreligious in our sample are poles apart on such topics, but active baby boom mainliners tend to be liberal on one issue and conservative on another. Our findings lead us to suspect that today’s culture war within the mainline Protestant denominations is waged mainly by national elites and only rarely engages the attention and the passions of ordinary church members.

The theory that people have left the mainline churches in search of more nourishing spiritual food fared a little better, but it applies only to the 6 percent of the baby boomers in our sample who have become fundamentalists, and to a few more who have joined other orthodox denominations. It does not apply to the large number who describe themselves as religious but who rarely go to church. We found no evidence that a substantial portion of these people are deeply concerned with religious questions or have explored a variety of religious options. Less than 13 percent of them have ever belonged to any church but the Presbyterian and only a tiny fraction have ever been involved in a non-Christian group. In short, our baby boom drop-outs did not leave the Presbyterian church in search of salvation or enlightenment; they left because religion itself had become low on their list of personal priorities. They pray occasionally, they hold Jesus in high esteem, and they have some interest in such questions as the purpose of existence and the fate of the soul after death, but they do not consider it necessary to attend church in order to nourish what faith they have.

In our study, the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief ”orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ. Virtually all our baby boomers who believe this are active members of a church. Among those who do not believe it, some are active in varying degrees; a great many are not. Ninety-five percent of the drop-outs who describe themselves as religious do not believe it. And amazingly enough, fully 68 percent of those who are still active Presbyterians don’t believe it either.

What do these nonorthodox “religious” baby boomers believe? Statistical analysis of their responses to our Gallup-style telephone questions revealed a “pick and choose” pattern similar to the one that sociologist Reginald Bibby found in a nationwide study of Canadians. For example, almost all our active Presbyterians believe in God and that Jesus Christ was the son of God, but almost 60 percent also believe that “all the different religions of the world are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.”

Bibby assumed that Canadians’ theological choices are as individualized and hard to predict as the choices that diners make in a cafeteria. In follow-up interviews with our baby boomers we tried to find some pattern in the various choices they make. In doing so, we discovered that most fundamentalists, and a minor fraction of the active Presbyterians, have a well-articulated, theologically conservative understanding of God, Jesus Christ, the nature of the Bible, the Christian life, and the afterlife. Moreover, their theological language closely resembles the discourse, both spoken and written, of today’s evangelical and fundamentalist leaders. Many theological conservatives told us they are actively involved in Bible study groups and that they regularly discuss theological and moral issues with their pastors and fellow churchgoers. They know a great deal, and they are eager to learn more.

But we also discovered a pattern in the theological views of people who, on the Gallup-style theological questions, seemed to pick and choose their responses in unorthodox ways. We have named this pattern the theology of lay liberalism . It is “liberal” because its defining characteristic is the rejection of the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth. It is “lay” because it does not reflect any of the theological systems contained in the writings or seminary lectures of today’s post-orthodox Christian intellectuals. Our interviewees did not speak the language of liberation theology, feminist theology, or the theology of Presbyterian General Assembly pronouncements. Lay liberalism does borrow from the views of certain dead intellectuals, but it is largely a homemade product, a kind of modern-age folk religion. Unlike contemporary evangelicalism or other versions of Christian orthodoxy, lay liberalism is not a highly elaborated or richly developed system of thought.

Most lay liberals “prefer” Christianity to other faiths, but they are unable to ground their preference in strong truth claims. A few simply told us that Christianity is “true for me,” whereas Buddhism or Islam may be true for others, and some explained that they preferred Christianity because they were raised in that faith. But most lay liberals we talked to were uneasy with the nihilistic implications of this line of thought, and they proposed some universal grounding for their religious preference. Some believe that a common thread of truth runs through all the world’s major religions and that at base all religions teach the same thing. These people can give seemingly orthodox responses to Gallup-style items about Jesus and the Bible, but on closer questioning it turns out they believe that God also had a hand in writing the Koran and the Buddhist sutras. If God helped write all the world’s scriptures, there is no harm in belonging to any religion that one finds congenial. Lay liberals have a much broader notion of what is religiously respectable than old-time Presbyterians had. They are hard put to offer theological reasons why anyone should remain a Presbyterian, or even a Christian.

Another way lay liberals try to avoid nihilism is by arguing that all the major world religions teach a common moral code whose contents in the Judeo-Christian tradition are contained in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Even the skeptics and cynics in our sample seemed genuinely to respect such virtues as honesty, helping others, and generally “leading a good life,” and they praised churches for inculcating these virtues. From our interviews, we formed the firm impression that for many lay liberals the principal value of churches is that they support basic morality. This may be one reason why 96 percent of the “religious” unchurched and even 71 percent of the agnostics want their children to have a religious education. Lay liberals do not care what theological views their children embrace or whether they attend church when they grow up, but they do want them to become “good people.” As far as they are concerned, the only religions beyond the pale are those that engage in such grossly anti-social acts as murder and kidnapping.

Lay liberals firmly reject the doctrine that God consigns anyone to Hell. Some find reincarnation appealing, others have only the vaguest conception of the soul’s fate after death, and a few reject the idea of an afterlife altogether.

Orthodox Christian belief of one variety or other, which the fundamentalists and other conservatives in our sample espouse, seems to impel people to commit their time and other resources to a distinctively Christian regimen of witness and obedience in the company of other believers. Lay liberalism, on the other hand, is not an empowering system of belief but rather a set of conjectures concerning religious matters. It supports honesty and other moral virtues, and it encourages tolerance and civility in a pluralistic society, but it does not inspire the kind of conviction that creates strong religious communities.

One indication that lay liberalism is not an energizing “faith” is the fact that its advocates told us they rarely attempt to convert anyone to their point of view. They believe that missionaries should not try to convert people who already have a religion, and they have a strong aversion to the aggressive evangelism of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, fundamentalists, and certain Baptists. Moreover, they seldom discuss religious matters even with their family and closest friends. In the distant past, good Presbyterians held regular devotions at home and instructed their children in the Shorter Catechism. Judging from our interviews, however, in many Presbyterian families today religion is not a common topic of conversation.

Of all the various theories of mainline church decline, Dean Kelley’s receives the most support from our findings. The mainline denominations do seem to be weak in the sense of being unable to generate and maintain high levels of commitment among a substantial portion of their adherents. Although we are skeptical of Kelley’s argument about the relation between strictness and church growth, he is right that weak churches are in a precarious position as organizations because further weakening may diminish their members’ commitments to the point of noninvolvement.

Our findings also support Kelley’s contention that the mainline denominations did not suddenly become weak during the 1960s, but that their internal strength has been ebbing away for several generations. Many of our baby boomer respondents told us, for example, that they had only the vaguest idea what their own parents”or more commonly their fathers”believed, which suggests that silence on matters of faith is not new in many Presbyterian families. Moreover, we heard such reports from people whose parents attended church every Sunday. It seems likely that a significant portion of mainline Protestant parents of the 1950s did not have a deep commitment to the tenets of orthodox Christianity. Perhaps the contemporary critics of the religious “revival” of that decade were right to claim that the surge in church membership was motivated more by a desire for family “togetherness” and social respectability than by deep spiritual hunger. In many cases, the family’s outward conformity was a thin shell that their children broke with ease when they left home.

What did the Presbyterian Church itself contribute to the spiritual formation of these baby boomers? For some, it contributed a great deal, especially if their parents were highly committed Christians themselves. But for many others, Sunday School, worship services, confirmation classes, and youth programs did not produce a commitment sufficiently strong to sustain itself in a milieu of family and peers in which religion was rarely mentioned. To be effective, even the best-conceived program of religious education needs the reinforcement of a rich discursive follow-up in a circle of strong believers. Two or three hours a week of “God talk” is hardly enough.

There is further evidence that the erosion of mainline Protestant strength has been a long-term process. William B. Hutchison has shown that evangelical and fundamentalist bodies have been growing faster than the more liberal denominations for at least seventy years. Long before membership decline set in, mainline denominational newspapers and magazines were merging or ceasing publication, Sunday and Wednesday night worship services had been abandoned, and foreign mission staffs had declined dramatically. Nationwide data gathered in the mid-1960s showed that mainline Protestants not only held less orthodox views than did evangelicals, they also attended church less frequently and had fewer close friends in their own congregations.

A survey of Presbyterian General Assembly pronouncements on social issues, which one of us (Benton Johnson) recently conducted, reveals an erosion throughout the twentieth century of official commitment to traditional Presbyterian standards of conduct. The erosion proceeded steadily and without instances of reversal, and no new standards requiring equal discipline and sacrifice were adopted in their place. Rules against worldly amusements and immodest dress went by the boards after World War I, standards for Sabbath observance were widely ignored by 1940, and in many congregations old norms concerning alcoholic beverages had become obsolete by the early 1950s. The most intriguing discovery, however, is the role the laity seems to have played in this process. A careful examination of General Assembly records suggests that the laity chose the course the church has taken. In other words, over the long term the erosion of old standards has been genuinely popular at the Presbyterian grass roots. The clergy and denominational elites did little or nothing to stop the process, but neither did they foist it upon the laity.

In our opinion, the mainline Protestant membership loss is simply the next stage of this process of declining commitment to the church and to Christian faith and witness. The cultural revolution of the 1960s may have hastened its onset and added to its severity, but it was not its major cause. Most conservative religious communities came through the cultural turmoil in fairly good shape; the mainline Protestant churches were already too weak to mount an effective response.

That the membership loss is only the latest evidence of a long-term trend is suggested by a similarity between the form it took in earlier times and the form it takes among our sample of Presbyterian confirmands. Earlier Presbyterians did not abandon all the old standards at once, but rather sloughed one or two at a time while retaining others. They gave up total abstinence and Sabbath observance, for example, but continued to read the Bible and go to church. By the same token, the baby boomers have retained some traces of their religious culture while abandoning others. They have reduced their churchgoing or dropped it altogether but most of them still believe in God or some spiritual force, subscribe to the basic moral code, and want their children to have a religious education. Moreover, they express no anger toward the church. They did not write bitter letters of resignation to their pastors and they do not wear T-shirts proclaiming, “Recovering Presbyterian.” And although they would have no objection to their children becoming Buddhists or Mormons, their own religious “comfort zone” is surprisingly narrow and traditional. They feel more at home in a mainline Protestant church than in any other place of worship. It’s simply that church does not seem very important to them.

Meanwhile, in the mainline churches themselves, the weakening process continues. Not only are a majority of our active baby boom Presbyterians lay liberals of one kind or other, on the average their level of participation is much lower than that of their parents when they themselves were in their teens. In fact, of all the various categories of churched and unchurched people that our study identified, only the fundamentalists reported that they attend church more frequently than their parents did. Among lay liberals, degree of church involvement has mainly to do with such mundane matters as their sex, their marital status, the presence of children, and where they live. Women, people who are married to spouses with a mainline church background, people with children at home, and people who live close to their home communities are the most likely to be involved. People who live in the West, where there are few community pressures to go to church, are the most likely to have dropped out and stayed out.

Given the reluctance of so many baby boomers to talk about religion or to instill their own views in their children, the prospects that their offspring will make a serious Christian commitment are even dimmer than their own prospects turned out to be. And among the “religious” dropouts the prospects are dimmer still. They are virtually unanimous in wanting their children to have a religious education, but less than a third with children at home have actually enrolled them in Sunday School. Many hesitate to do so for fear of getting “roped in” to a round of church activities themselves. They are “too busy,” and they have a myriad of other commitments. Above all, they see no real point in getting involved.

What, if anything, can the mainline Protestant denominations do to arrest their decline? Some of them are now, for the first time in thirty years, giving high priority to new church development, and if these new programs are well-planned and well-executed the membership loss may be slowed or even reversed for a time. The largest category of likely recruits are “religious” baby boomers who dropped out of a mainline church when they were young but who are now married and have children at home. An appealing minister, a warm but low-keyed invitation to participate, a friendly and informal atmosphere, good child care and preschool facilities, attractive programs for young people and adults, and the presence of other families like themselves may persuade some of them to go back to church. But our data suggest that the vast majority of such prospects are lay liberals and few are likely, at least under present circumstances, to form deep commitments to the Christian faith or to the life of their new parishes. And if Bibby’s Canadian findings can be extended to the United States, many “religious” dropouts will be unmoved by attempts to bring them back to church. Like their Presbyterian counterparts in our study, Bibby’s Anglican dropouts were not angry at the church. But when he asked them what the church could do to attract them, the most common response was that it could do nothing.

The underlying problem of the mainline churches cannot be solved by new programs of church development alone. That problem is the weakening of the spiritual conviction required to generate the enthusiasm and energy needed to sustain a vigorous communal life. Somehow, in the course of the past century, these churches lost the will or the ability to teach the Christian faith and what it requires to a succession of younger cohorts in such a way as to command their allegiance. Admittedly, doing so has become increasingly difficult for churches as close to the very center of American culture and institutional life as the mainline denominations are. The challenges posed to Christianity by various secular ideologies and moral systems have been truly formidable in recent times. Mainline Protestants in general and Presbyterians in particular are well educated. Many of their forebears read such authors as Darwin, H. L. Mencken, and Aldous Huxley. In response to the currents of modernity, denominational leaders promoted ecumenism and dialogue, but they did not devise or promote compelling new versions of a distinctively Christian faith. They did not fashion or preach a vigorous apologetics.

In the past, the tradition from which today’s mainline Protestant denominations sprang has shown a remarkable ability to reinvigorate itself in response to challenges and crises. The First and Second Great Awakenings contributed greatly to the churching of America. In recent times, the right wing of this tradition has revitalized itself in the form of modern evangelicalism. But in the twentieth century its left wing has lost the ability to mobilize the support of its vast constituency. To be sure, prohibition was enacted with the combined votes of both wings, but their dedication to temperance was a legacy from the 1800s. At the turn of our century, a small cadre of leaders from the left wing proclaimed a bold new mission for the churches, and in succeeding decades they and their increasingly numerous successors were able to enlist the support of the national assemblies and agencies of their denominations for the broad-ranging new agenda of “peace and justice” programs designed to bring about a new world order. But they were never able to persuade a substantial segment of the mainline Protestant membership to join them in this great crusade. In the meantime, their own theological uncertainty and their own embarrassment with such traditional causes as temperance and Sabbath observance made them unwitting collaborators with the process of enervation at the grass roots of their churches.

Today, a great volume of Presbyterian General Assembly pronouncements endorses their causes. Back home, a few support them and a few resist, but the majority know little and care less about the leaders’ crusades. Many of them have reduced the Christian faith to belief in God and respect for Jesus and the Golden Rule, and among this group a growing proportion have little need for the church.

Perhaps some now unforeseen cultural shift will one day bring millions of baby boom dropouts back to the mainline churches. But nothing we discovered in our study suggests the likelihood of such a shift. If the mainline churches want to regain their vitality, their first step must be to address theological issues head-on. They must listen to the voices of lay liberals and provide compelling answers to the question, “What’s so special about Christianity?”

Benton Johnson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. Dean R. Hoge is Professor of Sociology at Catholic University of America. Donald A. Luidens is Associate Professor of Sociology at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Photo by Conor Cunningham via Creative Commons. Image cropped.