New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. photographed on Oct. 15, 2013. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

Mainline Protestants: Vintage or vibrant?

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday (Oct. 15). RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday (Oct. 15). RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Who are the mainline Protestants today? Vintage Protestants? The VPCC -- Vanishing Progressive Christian Church? The Legacy Church? Half a century ago, the denominations under the mainline umbrella dominated the American faith landscape. Now, after decades of declining numbers, only about one in five U.S. adults identifies with a mainline denomination such as United Methodists, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA) and American Baptists. Could replacing the "mainline" name help stem the slide? The challenge came from scholar and Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt. Writing in the venerable Christian Century magazine, she called for a new brand that conveys her view of the mainline’s rising diversity and social justice leadership. “The image of an all-white, elitist church is not going to fly for generations to come,” said Merritt, an author and speaker who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. “'Mainline' was a good historic marker but the future needs to reflect who we are now.” Tradition holds that the term "mainline" was born in the tony suburbs just outside Philadelphia, along the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, that defined the mostly white, mostly affluent churches in the area. Today, it could refer to Hillary Clinton, who once gave talks on Methodist religious principles, or to President Obama, who worships often at St. John's Episcopal Church across from the White House.

President Barack Obama greets former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Outer Oval Office, July 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama greets former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Outer Oval Office, July 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Religion News Service took up the challenge, inviting votes and comments in an informal survey. More than 200 people voted, many posting comments that ranged from theological to historical, serious to snarky:

  • “Liberal Church” led with 24 percent of the votes. But the word carried a double whammy. Some liked the social and political connotation. Others used "Liberal" as a slam on a church they thought was too loose on doctrines of sin and salvation. Merritt said Monday she preferred a different spin: “Liberationist Church,” she said, “because it taps into the good news that our beliefs lead us to seek liberation for all the oppressed, to expand freedom for all.”
  • Next, at 17 percent, were those who said labels just don't work for religious distinctions anymore. National surveys find growing numbers just want to call themselves “Christian.”
  • “Grandma’s Church” drew only 3 percent of votes despite its ring of truth: It has the greatest percentage of members age 65 and older of any Christian tradition. “Old Line” drew 6 percent.

Most folks -- a plurality, or 46 percent -- preferred their own picks. Fans of the mainline highlighted historical faith and social gospel activism:

  • “The Refined Church” came from Carlton E. Allen. “The term plays off of “Reformed” but suggests a church that has been “through the fire: … tried and tested and resistant to fads.”
  • Social scientist and blogger Mark Silk would stick with "mainline" because "it identifies a social location in American communities — a religious tradition that takes a broad view of its responsibilities to the community at large — that continues to serve as meaningful shorthand.” And Alicia Lowry Walker wrote that the old name worked fine to attract her to a mainline congregation that is growing "primarily due to young families from evangelical backgrounds like mine.”
  • John McGrath called for “Forward Christians” because, he says, “These denominations generally move forward as the meaning of Scripture unfolds through better scholarship, translation, and prayerful reflection on the essential humaneness of Christ.”
Church members attend a concent at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C. on Tuesday (Oct. 15). RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

Church members attend a concent at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D.C., on Tuesday (Oct. 15). RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Critics, however, skewered the mainline as a theological washout:

  • Shawne Rantlett called them “The Churches Formerly Known as Christian. Or, The Syncretist Churches.”
  • Ken Peters suggested “The Unorthodox Churches. Their Liberalized doctrines should be noted as unorthodox.”
  • Steven Hunter said names – new or old – wouldn’t matter. “People didn't leave these churches because of marketing or branding, and they won't come back for it either. Sorry. But you can't water down a faith until it's essentially meaningless and then expect to still draw people."

Deb Geelsdottir suggested refocusing the conversation on "Jesus first, last, and always" with the name “Red Letter Christian Church,” which draws on a Bible publishing practice that highlights Jesus’ words in red. Martha Carlson has another twist. "Since the evangelicals are now claiming majority, we should start calling them Mainline! They could then bear the weight of being ‘established,’ ‘establishment,’ or at least all being tarred by the same brush when it comes to popular opinion that all the members of a group think alike.”  Mainline scholar Diana Butler Bass, an Episcopalian, offered her own critique on Twitter: "We'll change ours if 'evangelicals' change theirs." John Leech offered “Legacy Denominations” because, he wrote, they are “like legacy airlines, carrying a lot of baggage from the past … But wait! I still have lots of miles to redeem!” Merritt ultimately came up with her own first choice : "Social Justice Christian.” To her, it conveys “the exciting and vibrant thought that has come out of our tradition in the last hundred years or so (to) ... proclaim the good news that leads us to liberation and salvation.” KE/MG END GROSSMAN


  1. I agree with Steven Hunter’s comments. The decline of mainline churches has little or nothing to do with branding. IMO it has mainly to do with the perception, be it real or perceived, by many that mainline churches have embraced that which is socially acceptable while slowly diluting or even shedding that which has historically been considered fundamental to the faith.

  2. I may have missed it, but did not see the word branding. Naming is not the same as branding in the protestant church. I find it interesting the critique goes there with a cynical fundamentalist apologetic that has been their strawman. I know that the previous responder is ambigious about their personal feelings, but those in the article are not. The reason this has been the definition is because of a lot of money spent and preachers, evangelists, radio personalities and missionaries spreading this mischaracterization.

  3. May I suggest, “the largely irrelevant churches” for a name? Their numbers are either dying off or not something most young people see any reason to join.

  4. People are looking for religious experience and “spirituality”: witness the growth of pentecostal churches and charismatic movements; consider T. M. Luhrmann’s experience in the Vinyard, in a small group working through The Spiritual Exercises.

    Mainline churches were uncomfortable about religious experience and during the 1960s and 1970s, as they became involved in political and social justice movements, many became distrustful of religious experience which they saw as “escapist”–self-indulgent navel-gazing that distracted people from social service and political action. REAL prayer was working in a soup kitchen, marching on a demonstration, doing the good in the Secular City, yada-yada. Arguably most members weren’t turned off by the liberal politics and social activism, but by the absence of religion and the strong hints from activist clergy that churchy stuff and “spirituality” was escapist and wicked: REAL religion was working for the good of the other and every grain of incense was bread from the mouths of the poor…

    Offer religion–spirituality, religious experience, mysticism–and let people know about it by advertising, advertising, advertising and they will come. And mainline churches, particularly liturgical churches have plenty to offer: high liturgy is potentially much, much more emotionally intense, much more conducive to religious experience, than anything evangelical churches can offer. But they won’t do it. Pity.

  5. Barack Obama is “mainline”? Seriously? Hmmmmmmmm.

  6. Third paragraph…
    “Writing in the venerable Christian Century magazine, she called for a new brand that conveys her view of the mainline’s rising diversity and social justice leadership.”

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with your closing statements about the more liturgical churches and what they have to offer. It’s a very underappreciated aspect of worship in our day of loosy-goosy, feel-good liturgy.

  8. I agree with most of what Thecla said with the caveat that her description is a majority, but not all inclusive.

    I attend a fairly small ELCA church. We renovated our big old building and now share it with a UCC and a Disciples of Christ congregation. Yes indeed we are all 3 liberal, but we approach our liberalism in different ways. For the UCC it seems to be in their blood. From my perspective on the outside, social justice is the root of what they do and all else flows from that. I really can’t say about the DC. They were late comers to our threesome. For us Lutherans our social activism arises organically from the congregation and is filtered through the Gospels. We are conscious of the Liberal label, and we want to be Christians first. We want our direction to come through reading Scripture, prayer and meditation. We don’t want to simply react to the cause of the moment. We especially try to meet our neighborhood’s needs. It’s lower income in Minneapolis.

    Okay, that’s all. Just thinking that generalizations aren’t always helpful and only tell part of the story. Thanks for listening.

  9. All of the “mainline” churches should unite under the banner of The United Church of Christ. Forget about the jots & tittles and center on “the greatest of these, Love God and your neighbor as yourself.”

  10. I attend a liturgical church that believes God’s word. Those who do not believe God’s word have no part in Christ. The mainline churches that hate God’s word should be called “pagan”, because that is what they are.

  11. I’m curious Con Luth. What is your definition of “believes in God’s word?” Are you referring to selective literalism, inerrancy? Also, which flavor of Lutheranism are you? There are several dozen.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer.

  12. I believe that a “confessional Lutheran” may be simply and accurately defined as one who believes that the 66 canonical books of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God for all time, and who subscribes to the 1580 Book of Concord in its entirety as a faithful exposition of Holy Scripture. Confessional Lutherans see the world through the lens of the cross. Justice and mercy are matters of deep concern, but the faithful proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament is the foremost concern in the life of the church.

  13. I like the term “Ecumenical church” as it reflects the fact that most churches within the historically “mainline” denominations (NOT ALL, but most) take a broad view of who qualifies as a Christian, whereas evangelical denominations and evangelical nondenominational churches tend to define the term very narrowly (see Confessional Lutheran’s comment above for a very common example of this thinking). Inclusivity vs. exclusivity is 21st-century Christianity’s biggest fault line, not liberalism vs. conservatism, which aren’t very precise terms anyway. As Marcus Borg once pointed out, “conservative” encompasses a range of views from Jerry Falwell to Karl Barth, both of whom would be horrified to find themselves lumped together, and “liberal” is even more vague, as evangelicals use it to describe everyone outside their narrow definition of orthodoxy, including some churches that are arguably more conservative in certain ways than they are, such as the LDS and Christian Science. So “Ecumenical” and “Evangelical” (in its modern sense) work best for me.

  14. The Church Growth gurus of the 80’s and 90’s used the word “Old-line.” I find it fascinating that, while the conservative “evangelical” churches resist changes in theology or Biblical interpretation, they embrace changes in style and practice, whereas the more “progressive” (may I still use the word “liberal”?) churches embrace theological/interpretive change, but by and large resist change in style or practice! Perhaps we still have something to teach each other!

  15. My suggestion would be “Churches You Don’t have To Turn Your Mind Off To Participate In.” Here in the South that seems a telling difference between those groups mentioned and the others.

  16. What part does recent Biblical scholarship play in your understanding of the Sacred Scriptures play in your understanding of God’s message to our current situation? God is still speaking to us today with messages applying His love and saving grace to current situations.

  17. The main reason religion, of all kinds, is declining? It’s unbelievably tedious. Why waste time, effort and money on something this boring?

  18. I know this is late to this discussion but as an evangelical, I tend to agree with this insightful observation. However, in light of the mainline churches’ doctrinal drift that seems to have no anchor, the broadly defined evangelicals would reject the “theological/interpretive change” which many of us departed from when we left the mainline denominations.

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