Mainline blues

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Pastordan, good UCC clergy that he is, laments the ARIS news on shrinking Mainline Protestantism. This is hardly new news, but there has been an acceleration in the shrinkage during this decade–down from 17.2 percent of the adult population in 2001 to 12.9 percent today. The good pastor stresses the importance of the Mainline maintaining and strengthening its distinctive vision of progressive morality (leave us not say moralism). The latest Mainline Protestant clergy survey, released a few days ago by Public Religion Research, shows a modest liberalizing trend among this already pretty liberal group. The question is whether they became just the voices of a few crying in the wilderness–whether there will be enough fannies in the pews to make anyone else pay attention. In this regard, it’s interesting the most liberal of the mainline denominations, Pastordan’s own United Church of Christ, has actually increased its (modest) numbers (and percentage of the population) since 1990. So maybe there’s a public out there waiting for a prophetically energized Mainline.

But there’s another possiblity. The late, great church historian Bill Hutchison always used to point out that what came to be called the Mainline was historically always being replenished by the civilizing, so to speak, of evangelicalism. The main case in point was Methodism, which evolved from circuit riding revivalism to central Mainline pillar in a couple of generations. There’s a real possiblity that a good segment of the new non-denominationalism will take on enough of the socially conscious, community-building role of the Mainline to be, to all intents and purposes, part of it. This is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the “common ground” politics that is exercising some of us, for better or worse, these days. While it may not make the lefties happy, it may be their salvation.