Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

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

Interchurch Center, New York City

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.”

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

24 Comments

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  • The right-wing laments begin 3, 2, 1….
    The fundigelical wing of American Christianity has ruined its brand whoring after politicians, including Trump, and issuing meaningless manifestos showing what morons they are.
    They were but morning glories which wither in the noonday sun while the fine old Mainlines flourish like the solid old oaks that they are, to paraphrase the late George Washington Plunkitt.

  • The entire discussion when viewed through the long lens of history merely illustrates, metaphorically speaking, the wave action on a restless sea, the tides of time will meanwhile continue unabated, and those riding the waves will come home safe to shore if they do not abandon the Ark of Safety which bears them: Jesus Christ the Lord.

  • Matthew 16:18 – English Standard Version
    And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
    I was once – “pro-homosexual” (really against them and supporting their sin) until I read scripture and learned that the Lord loves them enough that He placed many warnings for them that should they continue in their revolt against Him, they will not see the Kingdom of Heaven.
    If people take time to read the scriptures, they will see Christ died for the homosexuals so they could have forgiveness of their sin of homosexuality, also, and become members of His family.

  • my sect is losing adherents at a minimally lesser rate than other sects seems to be the dullest of silver linings

  • Makes sense to me. They can get all the social benefits, at minimal cost and inconvenience; do not have to bother with learning any theology or lists of sins to avoid, while maintaining their political correctness. It’s a win, win. Conservatives make religion such a bother.

  • I never bought the story about “true believer” evangelical churches staying strong while biblically eclectic mainline denominations shrink. It has been more a story about demographics…Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc. in the 1960’s happily using birth control and having smaller families…Something Baptists and evangelicals especially in the South started later — and so many evangelicals are now single mothers so large families are not economically possible.

    The Bible as root-canal never made any churches long-term survivors. If that were the case…the Shakers, certainly true-believers, would be going strong…yet we are down to the last one or two Shakers left.

  • Peter 2:16 – But he was rebuked for his transgression by a donkey, otherwise without speech, that spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

    Numbers 27:29 – And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” hen Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me!

    I was once pro-donkey — “…(really against them and supporting their sin) until I read scripture and learned that the Lord loves them (donkeys) enough that He placed many warnings for them that should they continue in their revolt against Him, the ass will not see the Kingdom of Heaven…”

    Sad that Christ did not die for donkeys too, so they could “become members of His family”.

  • Non-conservative evangelicals (that is, churches that stay neutral on the hot buttons, or hide their theology) are finding favor among hip young people and skaters in my neighborhood, especially among those raised Catholics. The young people like to go to concerts and many evangelical worship services are concerts more or less. Some tried going back to Catholicism but found Mass too boring. They also don’t get the peacock vestments thing. Hot Buttons: Abortion, homosexuality.

  • There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament about homosexuality. However it has plenty to say about greed, something the business community should take to heart.

  • No you do not get off that easy. It’s not up to me but you to cite chapter & verse. The gay bashing was by Old Testament rabbis who were defending the Jewish culture from foreign ideas from Greece & Rome.

    BTW, do not refer to me as “friend”. Dr Stan is however very appropriate.

  • I’ve always found it significant that while the Episcopal Church appears to be shrinking, the typical parish is full of people who, like me, came in from other Christian denominations, so much so that we have a term “cradle Episcopalians” to refer to the minority who have been Episcopalians all their lives.

    I suspect that the apparent shrinkage comes from the fact that Episcopalians are friendly to both long-term single people and GLBT people. Of course a church needs the much-sought-after young families, but so many other denominations seem to treat other demographics as less desirable.

    In contrast, the Episcopalians seem to add “neither single nor married, neither straight nor gay” to Galatians 3:28. This is a strength and virtue, but it does tend to cut down on the natural increase that comes from congregations composed mostly of heterosexual married couples with lots of children.

    I also believe that for a long time, the mainline denominations coasted on the basis of the situation in the early to mid twentieth century, when a person had to attend some sort of church in order to be socially acceptable. They didn’t put enough effort into educating and and retaining their members and fell into a routine of going through the motions.

    Such parishes are struggling. The ones where things are happening are thriving, sometimes at the expense of the others. I can see this in the fate of the small Lutheran church that my grandparents once attended. It is now a Zen center, because its lack of anything but an indifferently organized Sunday service left it unable to compete with the large program parish just a couple of blocks away.

  • I’ll take that challenge as long as I get to pick the translation. You’re citing the ESV, which was only written in 2001 (with revisions in 2007, 2011 and 2016; the Apocrypha were not even added until 2009), by an organization with an agenda. You need to read your Scripture a little more closely yourself, particularly those pages that name the publisher, translators, the philosophy and methodology of the translation, and publication date. I don’t put any stock in a translation that did not have scholars involved from Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christian groups as well as Jewish representation in the Old Testament translations, nor should you. Doing otherwise is like trying to make spaghetti sauce and leaving out the onions, garlic and oregano. And your translation should at least be old enough to drink! LOL!

  • I’ll add that he ESV is so valuable, the Gideons pass it out for free in motels and prisons. Guess you get what you pay for.

  • I disagree. Each translation has a reason and most of them agree on most issues. I have quoted from the Complete Jewish Bible to, I don’t know what. They agree on most things.

  • Sandi, I often wonder what makes folks like you so obsesssed over homosexuality. If it were a sin in the manner that you describe, why does any mention of greed not make it into your posts (or any of the “top ten, for that matter)?

    Also, I own a copy of the ESV. I bought it primarily to compare to my NRSV, RSV, and CEB bibles. I have not been impressed. The ESV claims to be “essentially literal”, but makes many of the same mistakes of the NIV 1984: translating texts where there is uncertainty in a particular way, without footnotes indicating other possible meanings. This indicates an agenda. The ESV translation team was less diverse than the team who translated the RSV in the 1950s, and it included exactly ZERO catholic or orthodox translators. Not a translation I would trust.

  • Make you a deal…..when homosexuals stop corrupting children and innocent people by endorsing their immorality and fighting for “rights” for sin, I’ll quiet down a bit.
    Homosexuality is a sin.

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