The Decline of Mainline Protestantism

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently released a major study of the religious landscape in America. The study reveals that 26 percent of Americans are members of “evangelical” churches, while 18 percent belong to “mainline” Protestant churches. The term evangelical refers (loosely) to churches that hold to the authority of Scripture and to the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith, while mainline is used to refer to major denominations that are historically connected to the Protestant tradition but have generally abandoned the biblical gospel.

Since 1970, the stats for “mainline” denominations show a steady decline:

  • Episcopal Church: down 34%
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: down 16%
  • Presbyterian Church USA: down 25%
  • United Church of Christ: down 38%
  • United Methodist Church: down 25%

I worked a brief stint in politics after college, and on the campaign trail, we used to say “the numbers don’t lie.” Data has a way of revealing the truth. I report these statistics here for one reason, and that is to show that the numbers are telling a different story than the professors at your local college or the commentators on your favorite cable news channel.

The media and the academic elite beat it into our heads continually that to really be relevant to the culture, churches should stop preaching the Bible, relinquish our archaic beliefs in God and the afterlife, agree that Jesus was basically just a Jewish version of Gandhi, and hire lesbian pastors who will preach a gospel of “tolerance” that abandons all claims of truth and objectivity.

The data shows just the opposite: the churches that aren’t doing this are growing, while the churches that are seem to be on a path to imminent death.

When the numbers and the academics disagree, be encouraged: the numbers don’t lie.


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  1. Using that same reasoning the two fastest growing religious organizations in the United States, The Church of the Latter Day Saints and the Muslims, must have the truth and be doing something right.

    Nice logic Bob. You make the rest of us Christians look so good to the unconvinced.

  2. Joel,
    I understand your point, and that is why I am often skeptical of numbers, because you can often use them to make any point you want to make. But in your last statement you make it sound as if you are trying to look good to non-believers, which you totally contradict by being overly sarcastic and rude, as if that looks good to non-believers. It undermines your valid point.

  3. Joel,

    on the contrary, I think you make Bob’s point. . . .although slightly different.

    The two religions you mentioned are passionate, dedicated and are holding to what their historical framework has as “truth”. Incidently, they both view their truth as very objective.

    We disagree with them fundamentally. . . .but that is very different than a watered-down version of something that was once great.

    For example. . . a Local Mosque that accepted Jewish folks, had a picture of Christ on the wall, and was pro-US government,. . . would not be a growing congregation. agree?

    They believe what they believe. . take it or leave it.


  4. Bob ( – Regarding the study, good to know where Satan will be focusing his attention!

    Has anyone read “This Little Church went to Market: the Church in the Age of Modern Entertainment” by Gary Gilley? Isn’t there a connection between the premise of this book and the religious landscape numbers? (Or maybe that is a different discussion entirely.)

    For the record, among other HARD sacrifices, I wasn’t sarcastic to Bob for Lent this year.

  5. bob, have felt this way for a long time, probably prompted by being a part of multiple “dying” churches who were part of the denominations you mentioned. and yes, lesbian pastors did teach there, ironically enough.

    i found a large part of the problem was young people. most of the congregation (an overwhelming amount) were blue-hairs, followed my older middle-aged couples and their children. the young adult demographic, in a church of nearly a thousand, was about ten. finding young adult couples there was rare, and most of the kids were early high school or younger.

    my experiences there combined with what i went thru in high school to convince me that youth are smarter than anybody gives them credit for. in fact, i have long argued that when a politician reaches out to youth with some semblance of conviction, they would find success that surprised even the pundits – something that has happened this very year with Obama! young people are looking for actual answers, lives that match words, progress, change. i think the dynamic Jesus of the gospels provides all of those things. Unfortunately, the dull Jesus of church-attendance = no-hell does not provide those things, despite the belief of many congregation heads.


    24, fallen, and opinionated… redeemed?

    ps – this doesn’t mean a church doesn’t need people with experience! the thing i miss most at my new church in la that coram deo provided was a solid group of adults with a track record of serving Jesus. it was great to be a part of a community where the young were thriving and the old were discipling and nurturing, not just surviving.

  6. First, I have to admit that I’m a bit terrified to post a comment for the first time; I’m anticipating being pegged as the stupid college freshman who has no idea what she’s talking about, but I’ll risk it because part of this post has been bothering me for the past week.

    I guess I’ve always enjoyed the open mindedness of this blog; I like reading that not all Christians are necessarily conservative KLOVE listeners with their heads in the sand; which I guess is why I was so disappointed with what I felt was another unnecessary jab at homosexuals.

    I know everyone who’s reading this probably just freaked out; oh great, another person who wants to mold their faith into an “everyone’s going to heaven ” deal, but I’m not. All I want to get out there is the idea that we’ve got to stop alienating these people as the worst of the worst, as the example that pinpoints the lowest a church can stoop.

    I feel like sometimes church leaders aren’t as in touch with what needs to be done to reach out to homosexuals only because they aren’t constantly surrounded by it, not because they’re doing it on purpose…I think after college the gay community, for the most part, completely separates itself; if you aren’t gay, you probably aren’t friends with someone gay. But here in the dorms, it’s inevitable, I’m confronted with the issue everyday, I’ve got almost as many gay friends as straight and I want a church that is willing to help me help them, not through “fixing” them first, but by letting God do the dirty work, because I believe He can, and will.

    I wish society would stop pegging people as “being gay”, it’s a label that becomes a whole identity. It’s the idea that if you tell me someone is gay, I immediately know all of their personality traits, everything I need to know about them as a person, and that’s not the case. I think the first step in reaching these people is helping them understand that they’re a person outside of their sexuality. Luckily, the movement towards this is actually starting in the gay community itself, which I think is great for us as Christians, as it finally separates the sin from the sinner, and gives us a chance to minister to the person first, without the person’s whole identity being based in their sin.

    My homosexual friends, or rather friends with homosexual tendencies, which I think is more accurate, are searching for something. Most suffer from depression and I know it’s because they’re far from God. I love them everyday because I hope one day they’ll trust me enough to listen to what I have to say; but I also hope that when that time comes I’ve got a church I can take them too; a church that won’t constantly use the sin that they suffer through, that’s so hard to break free of, as an example of the lowest we can get.

    I hope I didn’t open some huge can of worms that I’ll regret, I just feel so much pain for these people, these friends of mine, I feel completely at a loss for what to do for them, and I feel like I can’t turn to the church for guidance….

    Thanks for listening

  7. Anonymous,

    I really appreciate your heart, and am glad that you posted today. I agree that the church has failed in reaching/connecting with homosexuals.

    I think the main idea of what was said earlier, though. . .was that of homosexual clergy. I think that’s s totally different issue, because it’s not an acceptance issue. . . it’s an issue of church leadership.

    That being said. . thanks so much for your thoughts.


  8. Sure, Aaron, and I would agree with that completely, but I guess when I read the post I felt that if I were a person struggling with homosexual temptations I wouldn’t have appreciated that nuance.

    Thanks for not beating me up 🙂

  9. Hey Anonymous,

    Thanks very much for your kind heart and your wise concern. My spirit in writing this post was exactly what Aaron mentioned above – church leadership. I think that is an altogether separate issue from the question of how we missionally engage the homosexual community.

    You are definitely not a stupid college freshman (trust me, I know a few, and they don’t write with the tact and thoughtfulness that you have). Your vision to apply the gospel to your actual life and to your actual friendships is very welcome at Coram Deo, and I hope you will find our community to be exactly the kind of church you long for.

    If it helps, you might read my book chapter called “How to Disciple a Transsexual” over on the Resource page. I trust it will alleviate any concerns this post may inadvertently have raised.

  10. Well, now I’m in tears; I feel I’ve been cynical and judgmental and I hope you’ll forgive me for it. I’ve never actually come to Coram Deo, just read your blog (wish I’d checked out the Resource page now, ha) but I think the next time I’m in Omaha I’ll drag my younger brother out with me to go…It’s been a long time since I haven’t felt frustrated in a church.

    Thanks so much,

  11. Please stop with the nonsense! Homosexuality is not a sin! It’s not a choice, and it does not change. Evangelical Christianity IS NOT THE ANSWER! You are ruining America!

  12. Could you please site the source of your statistics. Also, could you please supply the growth rates for other denominations to show that these sects are losing more people. I searched the article you linked and could not find the stats to support your argument. I did however find on page 22 of the link below from your article that baptists are leading protestants with 3.7% lost during this generation.
    Any clarification would be appreciated.

  13. Todd, the bullet-pointed stats in the post are not from the Pew Forum report, but from a separate study published by the Institute for Religion and Democracy and referenced in World Magazine, December 2005.

  14. Oh ok. I cant seem to access that magazine. I dont mean to be confrontational, but to make such a sweeping accusation based on ‘the data’, which will shape people’s perspectives, you should cite the data and supply context. You havent shown that the attrition rates in these denominations is worse than others. Again, your own source, which i referenced, shows Baptists as losing the most people.

  15. Todd: accusation? I am not making an accusation, I’m analyzing data and making an observation: “The data shows [that] the churches that aren’t [abandoning historic orthodoxy] are growing, while the churches that are seem to be on a path to imminent death.”

    You are welcome to consult the data yourself and offer an alternative hypothesis if you so desire.

    You say: “You havent shown that the attrition rates in these denominations is worse than others.” Baptists 3.9% (which is the highest attrition rate among ‘evangelicals’) compared to ELCA 16% (which is the lowest attrition rate among ‘mainline’ denoms)? I trust my readers to be able to do the math.

  16. I dont really appreciate the inference that i cant do math. I am simply asking for the proper data so that i can do the math. I attempted to ‘consult the data myself’, but you have yet to provide it.
    youre comparing two separate studies… you cant do that. In the study you gave, Baptists were -3.9%, Presbyterians were -.7%. Hence why i was asking for more information so that your readers (myself included) could actually see the data.
    You may be analyzing the data. However, this post has not supplied sufficient data. so from my perspective, it’s an accusation. Which is why i was asking for clarification.

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