COMMENTARY: Understanding the History of the Mainline Protestant Decline

c. 2006 Religion News Service

HOUSTON _ In a city where bigger is expected and megachurches abound, I took frustrated leaders of three small Episcopal parishes and one Methodist church back to 1964.

That's the year membership in the Episcopal Church peaked and a four-decade decline began. Other mainline Protestant denominations sagged, too.

``What happened in 1964?'' I asked in a church wellness seminar. Answers came flying. ``Beatles on `Ed Sullivan.''' ``Vietnam.'' ``Bra-burning.'' ``Martin Luther King.'' ``The Ford Mustang.''

All actual events, but not the biggest event of 1964 affecting church membership. Neither was the early rumbling of liturgical change or emergence of women in church leadership. ``What happened in 1964,'' I told them, ``was that post-war Baby Boomers began to graduate from high school. They left home, and many parents lost their main reason for attending church.''

``We didn't give them other reasons to stay,'' I said. We went one decade not even acknowledging their absence and then two decades blaming their absence on whatever we didn't like.

Meanwhile, we clung to locations, facilities and operating methods that worked in the 1950s, but became increasingly outmoded, inefficient and burdensome. Think corner drugstore, I said, corner hardware store, mom-and-pop market, neighborhood one-screen movie theater.

Now think CVS, Home Depot, Kroger, 16-screen theater and NetFlix. Think megachurch, the religious equivalent of Wal-Mart.

Don't scoff at the megachurch, I said. Their theology might be more conservative than ours, and their Sunday productions might seem glib to us. But we should study their methodology. For they aren't succeeding because of theology, PowerPoint slides or super-size, but because they operate according to solid business principles.

They study their market. They study people's needs. They evaluate constantly. They keep improving. If something stops working, they stop doing it. They use modern tools, like the Internet, and they go where the people are. They have a fresh and well-considered purpose for everything they do, from traffic flow to strategies for ministry. It helps that they aren't burdened with denominational overhead. But we shouldn't make too much of that. Any organization, even a historic one, can retool for a new day.

Don't pine for yesterday, I said, and don't pretend yesterday is coming back. Your congregations are struggling, I said, because the world changed and you didn't. You hung on to the corner-store model too long. Don't feel guilty, don't blame clergy or past lay leaders, and don't blame the megachurches for being successful. Better to learn than to blame.

People change, needs change, neighborhoods change, markets change. In the years after World War II, as Americans moved to cities and suburbs, people looked to church for socialization, a sense of belonging. They endured institutional overhead in order to belong.

Now their 2006 counterparts look to church for meaning and depth and for a Christian community that can nurture faithful living. They have zero tolerance for institutional overhead and stale arguments. We might think we are saving society with our power struggles. In fact, we are just driving people elsewhere.

Changes continue to happen. Every institution, even today's megachurch, needs to be attentive and nimble. Consider the boom in online religion and house churches unaffiliated with any institution. We need to be as responsive to market preferences as any business.

The world out there is largely unchurched, I said. There's no shortage of people seeking God. They just don't want to buy what you're selling. So do it differently. You have something life-changing to offer. You just can't keep offering it the same old way.

Then from one participant came those magic words that any teacher longs to hear: ``How can we do it better?''


(Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant and leader of workshops. His book, ``Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask,'' was published by Morehouse Publishing. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. His Web site is

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