A Unified Theory of Mainline Protestant Church Decline

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The Prime Cause of Mainline Church Decline May not Be Exactly What You Think

by Michael L. McKee

Everyone knows what the problem is, right? I mean, everyone knows the reasons/cause behind the precipitous decline that we have seen in the Mainline Protestant Church, right?

  • In the 1990’s we said: “We have the dome lights on instead of the headlights.” ~ Len Sweet.
  • In the 2000’s we said: “We have clubs not churches because churches make disciples.” ~ Scott Jones.
  • In the 2010’s we say: “The most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus. [and yet] Any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance.” ~ Thom Rainer

For almost 40 years, and in a hundred ways to Sunday, we’ve described the lack of recruitment as the prime cause for the decline of mainline Protestant churches. However, if our descriptions accurately and fully described the problem, then the solution could surely be found in the latest book on ministry, the latest evangelism conference, the latest list of best practices, the latest initiative from the council of bishops, or the latest ‘new and improved’ approach on offer by your annual conference. If you have been around long enough you’ve likely seen these initiatives something like Bill Murry’s experience in “Groundhog Day,”—that is, continually reiterating/repeating and yet changing nothing—and you may realize the recruitment problem is only the symptom of a deeper issue. But what is that?

Having experienced it himself within his beloved Church of England, John Wesley anticipated the difficulty and made it quite plain in a now famous quote from near the end of his life. It expressed his ‘fear’ for the future of Methodism. Mr. Wesley wrote: “But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” Friar Richard Rohr has helpfully designated this powerless form of faith: “second-hand religion.”

‘Second-hand’ or ‘hearsay’ religion is pretty much just what it sounds, religion driven only by external authorities. “Scripture says…,” “Tradition says…,””The church says…,” “My parents said…,” “The teacher said…,” “The preacher said…,” some external source says and second-hand religion affirms and invests its trust in that external authority. Religion in its ‘law,’ ‘code,’ and ‘priestly,’ forms are best suited to this externally driven, totally passive approach to spiritual engagement. Some of the contemporary vernacular describes this as ‘Therapeutic Moralistic Deism’—a religion of feel-good rules imposed by a far-off god.

Simply, what’s been lost is our rich legacy of Wesleyan mysticism, that is, a fitting focus and close attention to our actual experiences of/with the Divine. Scripture, tradition, and reason only gain power when they are used to help disciples identify and express their experiences of/with God. How do we experience God’s presence in our daily lives: how do we experience God’s Love, God’s Grace, God’s transformative power in the midst of everyday living? That essential, on-going conversation is rarely, if ever, being engaged and shared in mainline Protestant churches. Beyond “Oh, yes, I experienced Jesus and accepted him as my savior 37 years ago one summer at church camp,” we are by and large completely inept at narrating any experience of God, let alone our everyday, ordinary-life experiences with God.

I have the privilege of meeting weekly with a group of seasoned church folk for a Bible study—4-5 ladies with probably over 350 years logged as active church members. In my efforts to address our inability to narrate our God-experiences I set the expectation that each week when we begin I’d be asking everyone to share a God-experience from the previous week if they’d like. They are trying, but struggling. I asked, “Ya’ll have been engaged with church for many years, do you recall in your memory an earlier time when we practiced the presence of God and being able to share those experiences?” The question was met by a resounding chorus of “No.”

Frankly, from where the average person in the pew presently is with regard to sharing God-experiences, the very notion of making disciples of Jesus Christ is seriously off-putting if not flat out threatening—remember Thom Rainer’s words above. How can any UMC member be asked or expected to become a recruiter when they are completely unable to narrate any personal experience of God in their lives? How can anyone share the good news of God’s transformative power if they have never actually engaged and experienced it for themselves?

Nope. No ‘bishop’s initiative,’ ‘best practice network,’ ‘vitality training,’ ‘ministry book or conference,’ or any other aspirational effort will do anything to reverse the decline until and unless we address the missing-in-action dimension of our faith journey: experience, and our ability to narrate it.

I’d argue that only a wholesale move to reclaim the spirit of Wesleyan mysticism—or some way to share narrations of our own experiences of God—will have any chance of turning around the perilous decline in the UMC specifically, and mainline Protestant Christianity in general. If we are unable to create environments where first-hand religion is celebrated, promoted, practiced, and shared with unconnected-others, then the UMC and mainline Protestantism will most likely continue its precipitous decline unto death.

I’d argue we are presently being called by the Holy Spirit, and with Christ, to unify creation and to reverse Plato’s dichotomizing of reality, to very intentionally teach the Immanent as well as the Transcendent nature of God. We narrate that as Incarnation.

What have I missed? What do you think?

12 thoughts on “A Unified Theory of Mainline Protestant Church Decline

  1. I applaud your efforts and ministry, but I think it is time to stop looking for “the” cause. It is too complex. And, blaming (take your choice: liberalism, failure to be inclusive, etc.) does not help. Yes, let’s re-emphasize discipleship and mediating Christian experience because that is what we are called to do, but I’m not sure this is a cure for membership decline.

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    • Thanks, John!

      Very complex. Agreed.

      i imagine i’m arguing that a wholesale move to experiential engagement is a necessary pre-requisite to any possible reverse in decline. (i.e., necessary but not sufficient).

      Precisely how the reversal process will actually go i don’t know at present, only that without a paradigm shift to first-hand religion upfront, it will have no chance of turning-around to begin with.

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  2. I am not a Methodist by denominational heritage, but I serve in a salaried position on a UMC music staff. I love the fellowship there and still maintain my membership at my “home” church. In my humble opinion, being a Christ follower means taking up the cross daily-remembering my sin that the cross represents, asking for forgiveness on a daily basis and being willing to share verbally how that cross changed me from the inside out. I am called, rather commanded in the scripture to share it to the ends of the earth. It is why I exist! To live this earthly life in love, compassion and faithfulness to ready myself for eternity in God’s very presence and taking as many as I can with me!

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  3. One of my favorite writers, the late Marcus Borg, wrote that he met God in the “thin places.” By this he meant at certain points in his life, in certain settings, and in certain situations he felt God’s presence more acutely. Coretta Scott King said that during Martin’s now famous speech from the Lincoln Memorial, she felt that God entered the situation through a thin place. The question is how can individual Christians seek out these encounters and share them with others? The most productive and meaningful times in my Christian walk have occurred in small groups. I began my adult walk by being assigned to a small group in the church I attended. We continued to meet for 6 years. I have taught many Disciple, Sunday School and other classes. And these activities often result in spiritual development and growth. In the United Methodist Church, we know that one of the signs of a “vital” church is the presence of small groups. 12 Stone, a mega church in the North Atlanta suburbs, requires its members to participate in small groups. Adam Hamilton speaks of small groups in his Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. It is America’s largest UMC. So I think the effort to create, sponsor and support small groups is key to articulating, sharing and spreading the gospel in today’s world.

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  4. I think it’s much more simple than that. The chief reason for decline is liberal theology. That’s not to say that it’s the only reason (the Southern Baptists are also declining) but there is a strong correlation to be made there. I don’t know of any liberal Protestant body which is even really that interested in reaching new people for Jesus Christ, beyond those in the mainline who want to continue to subsist (for whatever reason). Just an observation, not an attack.

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    • Thanks for your reply, Zach.

      I think what I am looking at is more elemental and precedes the partisan issues that you raise.

      Btw…others have written extensively on it, but the research does not seem to support the observation that you make about liberal theology being the cause. just sayin’

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  5. The reason to me is what the average person is presented to them as Christianity. selfish, not caring about others. They see us as judgmental, hypocritical, anti-homosexual, too political, insensitive—and boring. Seriously who wants to be around that?

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  6. I think you’re spot on. I regularly hike walking trails in a park in my city. I’ve met people who don’t attend church but who can express a more complete experience of God (as a result of their experiences of nature) than I hear in Sunday morning worship. They make these comments to me often after learning that I’m a clergyperson and they want to connect but also want me to understand that they don’t want to connect with the dry, rules-driven, punitive religiosity that they perceive to be the norm today. While they are religiously “unformed” they are also more mystically formed than they realize. As a result of these encounters, I sometimes feel as if I’ve had a more religious experience in the woods than in the godawful worship service (praise songs, performance band, whiz bang media) of a a new church start that we’ve attended. I also think we must reverse the dichotomy Plato bequeathed us and recover an understanding of the immanence and transcendence of God. I think that perhaps I am a neo-transcendentalist.

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  7. Thanks for your outlook on the decline of the Protestant church and United Methodism specifically. Having spent 2,decades serving in various capacities in the local church and Annual Conference — from Pastor/Parish Chair, Trustee, Lay Leader, and Lay Memberr to Annual Conference, then attending seminary and serving almost ten years as a Licensed Local Pastor — your observations resonate deeply with my personal journey through the slings and arrows of a seemingly self-absorbed institution, clearly obsessed with its own reproduction above and beyond all else. Grounded in a self-delusional mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” rather than “being disciples of Jesus Christ transforming the world” in ways that bring light and grace and reconciliation to others that they might find new life and choose to do the same. Whether the UMC is looking in the mirror or looking out the window, we refuse to see who we really are and fret endlessly over who we are not, while the incarnate Spirit sadly passes us by.in wonder. The UMC is still a miracle in the making and the miracles are ours to make as we “do the word” in the world rather than count our sheep into an eternal slumber.

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