Could the rise of the nones—those who claim no religion when asked by pollsters—actually be good for some churches? That’s the attitude of many mainline churches whose ranks have been hardest hit by defections. And they might even have a point.
Mainline denominations include the Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). And they have been unable to stem their membership losses. The trend dates back in some cases to the mainline’s peak in the 1960s. In 1972, these denominations accounted for 28 percent of all Americans. That share had decreased to 12.2 percent by 2014. So, you’d expect these churches to be panicking. But what if they’ve actually succeeded in their mission while failing? What if the mainline lost the pews in order to gain the world?
Many mainline Protestant churches have long since forsaken preaching Christ and Him crucified for sinners in favor of promoting the latest social causes. And their churches have emptied. Yet their ideas have flourished. Some of those causes, especially their advocacy for abortion and gay rights, have become litmus tests for acceptance into America’s social, academic, and political elite. According to many mainline leaders, the decline in church membership was necessary to purge reactionary elements that resisted this progressive social vision. You can save a lot of time in church catechizing the youth when you know the world will do it for you.
Evangelicals, meanwhile, have retreated again to society’s margins. You don’t dare declare your opposition to same-sex marriage as a college professor. You wouldn’t think of making a career in the Democratic Party while fighting against abortion. Polite company doesn’t want you to disturb their gatherings with talk about mortality, judgment, and the afterlife. It might seem, then, that evangelicals have lost the long-term battle for America’s Protestant soul. You’d have plenty of evidence in politics and media, at least, to support your concern. But what if both sides have actually achieved their stated goals?
The nones have defected from the mainline for the world, which now reflects mainline priorities. Evangelicals have not suffered the same membership loss, despite losing standing in the world. According to a 2014 Pew survey, evangelicals lost less than 1 percent of their share of the American population between 2007 and 2014, while mainline Protestants lost 3.4 percent. Losses in the Southern Baptist Convention have been significant but not nearly so severe as in other large denominations. Meanwhile, the evangelical/charismatic Assemblies of God continues to climb in membership. While the mainline won the world, evangelicals won the church.
There’s a lingering problem, however, for both sides. The world won’t suddenly stop changing. And the world doesn’t need the mainline any longer. It’s unfashionable and on the decline compared to the youthful nones who have discarded dogma. Meanwhile, the world won’t leave evangelicals alone, because many nones resent any lingering influence of organized religion. How evangelicals respond will determine whether they follow the mainline into membership decline.