Interchurch Center, New York City

Stop the presses! There's a next generation for mainline Protestantism

Don't get carried away, but if you look closely at PRRI's new report on American religious affiliation, you see signs of life for white mainline Protestants, at least compared to white Catholics and (!) white evangelicals.

First data point: Breaking down both white Catholics and white evangelicals by age cohort, millennials (18-to-29-year-olds) constitute just 11 percent of the total, making them the two oldest religious traditions in the country. White mainline millennials come in at 14 percent.

Of course, being 14 percent young adult is not very good, if a tradition wants to perpetuate itself. But after decades of enduring criticism as the religious grouping aging most quickly into oblivion, mainline Protestantism (white people division) is in a position to look down and ask why conservative churches are shrinking.

For here's data point two: Among all millennials, eight percent are white mainliners, eight percent are white evangelicals, and six percent are white Catholics. By comparison, among Americans 50 and older, white evangelicals outnumber both white mainliners and white Catholics roughly three to two.

Bottom line: While mainline Protestantism continues to shed white adherents, it is doing a better job of keeping and/or attracting young white adults than either evangelicalism or Catholicism. So which is it, keeping or attracting?

As the forthcoming volume on mainline Protestantism in the Greenberg Center's series on the future of religion in America makes clear, keeping the younger generation has been a particular weakness of this tradition for half a century. Rather, what (relative) strength it shows is likely to be coming from outside -- from millennials raised Catholic or evangelical who want some other, dare I say more liberal, form of Christianity.

The other day, Rod Dreher recounted a lunch conversation with some conservative evangelical pastors lamenting the effect of support for the president and the Nashville Statement on homosexuality and transgenderism on younger members of their community.

"All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays," said one. "It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”

If I were a mainline Protestant leader, I'd be praying, "Please God, let my evangelical counterparts keep it coming."