Reinterpreted Christianity may appeal to the deconstructing, but it does not win the hearts and minds of the lost. We have no guarantee that faithful churches will thrive. But after almost 60 years of constant mainline decline, we have a pretty good idea of how churches die.
I grew up in the mainline church, and it won’t be until I’m nearly 80 years old that I will have spent more of my life outside the mainline church than inside it. I was born, baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the Reformed Church in America, a smallish (originally) Dutch denomination that, with its roots dating back to 1628 in New Amsterdam, boasts of being the oldest Protestant denomination with a continuing ministry in the United States. I am thankful for the many good people, good churches, and good pastors in the RCA. I met Jesus in the RCA, so there will always be reasons for gratitude.
If you aren’t a baby boomer or a student of religious history, it can be hard to fathom the cultural influence and social cohesion that once resided in mainline Protestantism. At its height in 1965, mainline Protestant churches counted 31 million members out of a U.S. population of less than 200 million. Most Protestants were in the mainline denominations, and the country’s cultural norms were set, for better or for worse, by the old school Protestant establishment.
Almost 60 years later, all of that has changed. In its recently released demographic report, the Presbyterian Church (USA) announced it lost another 51,584 members. From a membership peak of 4.25 million in 1965, the PCUSA rolls are now down to 1.19 million. And that membership decline hardly conveys the severity of the situation. In the last reporting year, the denomination dissolved 104 congregations and dropped four presbyteries. More than 40 percent of the congregations have fewer than 50 members. Almost a third of the denomination is more than 70 years old, and another 26 percent are older than 55. Keep in mind that only 16 percent of Americans are 65 or older. The PCUSA is literally dying.
Relevant Christianity doesn’t stay relevant for long.