The Mainline Church: Why They Still Leave

The numbers just came out and once again, bad news for mainline denominations. They can’t stop the leak. The numbers are compiled by the National Council of Churches and were just released in their 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

Here are the five “biggest losers”: United Church of Christ (UCC) down 2.83%; Presbyterian Church (USA) down 2.61%; Episcopal Church down 2.48%; Lutheran Church (ELCA) down 1.96%; and the United Methodist Church down 1%. The percentages may not sound like much but when you look at trends and raw numbers; the leak is more like a hole. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost nearly 800,000 people (over 20% of it membership) since 2001. The United Methodist Church has lost 600,000 during that time.

Why? Some Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors, in an open letter to their denomination, say it is because of their denomination’s “unending controversy.” What controversy? Gay ordination gets the headlines. Apparently more is being haggled behind close doors, though. The authority of Scripture, the nature of Christ, and whether salvation can be found in other faiths is now being bantered about. In studying the 2011 Yearbook numbers, sociologist Rodney Stark blames mainline denominational decline on “modernist theology and the transformation of mainline churches into centers for progressive political action.” He sounds right.

It is not coincidental that the churches in greatest decline are the very churches that made such a sharp “left” years ago. When it comes down to it, the chief issue is the authority of Scripture. When that one erodes, homosexuality is no longer a sin and Muslims go to heaven. And the pew empties when the guy (or gal now) behind the pulpit no longer believes the Book.

When these numbers were released, I stumbled on a blog discussing the “why” behind the decline. Two UCC pastors were part of the discussion. It was clear that Pastor Jeff and Pastor Brian (as they identified themselves) still didn’t get it. Pastor Jeff talked about his denomination needing to realize its not the “50’s and 60’s” anymore and that their church’s “social and organizational mentality” needed to change. Pastor Brian said that the UCC was good at “theological change and diversity” but needed to change their approach toward “a conversational sermon, worship in the round, [and] dump the Robert’s Rules of Order.” There was no smiley face after their posts so I gather they really believe that’s their problem. If that’s why they think people are leaving, what will they come up with next year when the floodgates are still open? Newsflash for Pastor Jeff and Pastor Brian; it’s not what you are doing or not doing—it’s what you are now believing and not believing!

And at the end of the day, is it a bad thing if mainline church members are leaving because their church no longer will “stand firm and hold to the teachings…passed on to [them]”? (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Their decline may be God’s way of preserving His church.

Pastor Rich Hamlin
April 7, 2011


“Amending the Soil” Christian Education Conference

Register or volunteer for Bible Day Camp now