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Mainline Churches’ Decline

Mainline Protestants reeling By GARY STERN THE JOURNAL NEWS (Original publication: May 4, 2003) http://www.nynews.com/newsroom/050403/a0104mainline.html

They sit stately and unadorned in every community, churches of stone or white clapboard that link today’s frenetic culture to a pious, inconceivably mannered past. It is easy to drive by these old-time Protestant churches, where generations of immigrants thanked God for their lot, and assume they will anchor the culture forever.

But scores of churches across greater New York that are part of the “mainline” Protestant tradition are now gasping for life. Aging congregations of only a few dozen people have become commonplace, presenting the possibility that many churches will close over the next decade or so.

A Journal News review of the five most prominent mainline denominations shows that their membership in New York City and the surrounding suburbs has fallen by 45 percent since the heyday of 1960, when the spiritual descendants of Luther, Calvin and Wesley composed the white-bread religious mainstream.

The five denominations – the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ – have been loath to close churches and sell off valuable real estate. As a result, they continue to operate more than 1,000 churches in the region for 300,000 members.

By comparison, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York runs 414 parishes for an estimated 2.5 million Catholics.

“For decades, the mainline churches were in denial; for the past few years, people were grieving for the days of yore,” said the Rev. Michael Caine, minister of the Southeastern Region of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. “Now, we’re starting to look at what’s out there, to figure out how to bring our understanding of the Christian gospel to those who need it. How do we do that? I’m not sure we know.”

Mainline leaders in the region know they are at a crucial point. The pool of New Yorkers with mainline Protestant backgrounds is getting smaller and smaller. The surrounding community is increasingly Catholic, with growing numbers of evangelical and Pentecostal churches elbowing into the mix. Outsiders with no strong religious affiliation, the group most available to replenish mainline churches, know virtually nothing about the difference between a Lutheran and an Episcopalian or what a Methodist believes.

It’s no wonder that mainline ministers often say the Holy Spirit will lead the way.

Unable to adapt

The Rev. James Vande Berg, head of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Hudson River Presbytery, expects that half his churches could close in 10 to 20 years. He foresees a day when several mainline congregations in the Hudson Valley will share church buildings and perhaps ministers. Other leaders are less frank but predict that churches that do not change – and soon – will die.

“Churches in decline often have no idea that they have any purpose other than to keep the church going,” Vande Berg said. “We’ve put too much time and energy into keeping old wheels running, instead of seeing how people live and experience God. That’s what it means to be faithful, and we’ve lost that.”

In greater New York, where the Catholic Church and the Jewish community dominate a diverse religious landscape, the slow demise of mainline Protestantism has attracted little notice. But if the mainline traditions cannot reverse their course, the larger culture may lose a brave voice for social justice and interreligious understanding, not to mention a Christian tradition that today represents a rational, liberal, very New York approach to worship.

Mainline denominations have been shrinking nationally for decades. They still have pockets of strength in the Midwest and South, where many communities are heavily Protestant, and mainline churches are generally more conservative. Overall, the denominations have struggled mightily to face their problems, distracted by never-ending debates over gay clergy and gay marriages that still threaten to split one or more denominations.

But the five denominations have fared particularly badly in New York.

There is widespread agreement within their New York jurisdictions that many churches have been unable, or unwilling, to adapt to their fast-changing communities. Too many congregations stayed white, European and insular, rejecting evangelism as beneath them or politically incorrect, even as German and Dutch immigrants stopped arriving at Ellis Island and church neighborhoods underwent ethnic and religious transformations.

Some mainline churches in the city and suburbs have staved off decline and even prospered, thanks to forward-thinking lay leaders and charasmatic pastors. Scattered congregations have become multiethnic or entirely nonwhite. The five denominations continue to operate hospitals and institutions that serve the greater good. They are proud of sponsoring worldwide missions to combat poverty and of they way they responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

But evidence that the New York jurisdictions face a highly uncertain future is plain:

. Thirty-three percent of United Methodist churches in the New York Conference, or 157, did not add a single new member in 2001.

. More than one-third of churches in the New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are “at risk,” with 75 or fewer members.

. A mid-1990s attempt to start a new Presbyterian church in a booming area, by the Woodbury Common shopping outlets in Orange County, died within three years.

. In fast-growing Putnam County, five Episcopal parishes served 1,000 people in 2000, while five Catholic parishes served 53,000 people, according to a national study.

In the past few years, the five denominations have started intense programs in New York to reinvent mainline Protestantism by reconnecting church and community. Their vision calls for churches to be lean and outward-looking, focused on neighborhood concerns, dedicated to the spiritual and material needs of all who come to them, and led by laypeople who reflect their communities.

It’s a streetwise, missionary vision that some say will require a mini-Reformation – and it’s contrary to everything for which mainline Protestants are known.

“If we do our job right, we will reflect the cultures around us,” said Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, who oversees Westchester, Rockland and Putnam. “If we don’t, we will die. And we should die, because we would be failing to respond to the mandate of the Gospels.”

Opportunities lost

The term “mainline” itself is a tag from a bygone era, a misnomer.

It became accepted over a long period that started at the birth of the nation, when these churches were intricately tied to the political, economic and cultural establishment. The United Church of Christ is a descendant of the Puritans. Presbyterians inspired the pre-Revolution revival known as the Great Awakening. Two-thirds of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Episcopalians.

By the middle of the 20th century, the WASP mainstream had touched the larger culture in countless ways, the most famous being the “Protestant work ethic” that supposedly fed the development of capitalism. The mainline denominations themselves were arranged by socioeconomic status, with the leaders of government and industry worshipping in prestigious – many would say elitist – Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.

Mainline preachers spoke to the larger society about the major issues of their day, from unemployment to the threat of war. At the same time, mainline attitudes toward minorities, women and other religions were often patronizing at best.

“In those days, people would line up on the sidewalks, around the corners, to get inside the overflow rooms, not just to worship, but to hear what the preachers said,” said the Rev. William Lawrence, dean of the theology school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, whose 1996 book, “Sundays in New York,” described the influence of mainline preachers up until 1955.

At midcentury, as Irish, Italian, German and finally Puerto Rican immigrants transformed the Roman Catholic archdiocese, mainline sanctuaries were still overflowing with new arrivals speaking German, Dutch and Norwegian.

Then everything changed. Several factors that ganged up on the mighty mainlines were beyond their control.

For one, immigration from northwestern Europe, the cradle of the Protestant Reformation, dried up. Predominantly Catholic immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and many other regions started pouring into New York City, Port Chester, Haverstraw and elsewhere. In recent years, they have been joined by growing numbers of Pentecostals and other evangelicals, Protestants who want to feel worship before intellectualizing it.

Then there was a lack of baby Protestants. A 2001 study by Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley and two colleagues found that low birthrates between 1903 and 1973 – especially compared with evangelicals – was an overlooked reason for the startling drop in mainline membership.

Mainline denominations also fell prey to the overall secularization of society that has watered down belief and practice among Catholics, Jews and others. Particularly in high-culture urban centers like New York, church attendance is no longer a social expectation.

At the same time, mainline Protestants are to blame for many of their gravest problems.

Church leaders agree that they couldn’t shake off their establishment mind-set. For many congregations, a deep-set complacency took hold.

Reaching out to minorities from different faith backgrounds, let alone recent immigrants, just seemed too hard. In some cases, it was simply not desirable.

“We’ve always been real good at missions overseas, but not too good at welcoming Hispanics and African-Americans next door,” said Everett Parker of White Plains, the retired head of national communications for the United Church of Christ. “Too many congregations are run by old folks who would rather sink the ship than give up their parking spot.”

At the same time, an aversion to naked evangelism as unseemly or even, in a liberal sense, un-Christian, made it awkward to approach neighbors who did not grow up in mainline families.

Many churches closed their doors to the outside world. They have lived off endowments or rents paid by immigrant congregations that often have more people and vitality than their hosts.

The struggle to transform

Even today, mainline leaders and congregations, while committed to reversing their fortunes, can be deeply conflicted over how to proceed.

They are worried about membership losses, but don’t want to operate like number-crunching corporations. They promise to market themselves, but don’t want to shove their messages down anyone’s throats. They want to take lessons from conservative churches that are growing – evangelicals, Southern Baptists, Mormons – but are queasy about emulating groups they see as offering quick-fix messages about life and salvation.

“Numbers are important, but we can’t buy into the cultural focus on success and glory,” said Bishop Stephen Bouman, who leads the New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “In the Bible, it’s OK to be vulnerable and small. But it’s not OK to not have a mission or not be welcoming. If our congregations can answer the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ we can experience a renaissance. If the Lutheran church doesn’t love the poor and all those who God loves, Jesus will find a church that will.”

Critics say that one of the most daunting problems facing mainline Protestants, particularly in liberal New York, is that they much prefer to focus on their myriad social causes than their faith.

The region’s few conservative mainline churches, which often describe themselves as evangelical, feel like soul-saving islands in a sea of bland political correctness.

Randall Balmer, a church historian at Barnard College in Manhattan, contends that the mainline traditions have replaced the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with a new trinity of “peace, justice and inclusiveness.” Dean Hoge, a prominent sociologist of religion, maintains that mainline denominations are dominated by what he calls “lay liberals,” people who promote social activism but exhibit little intensity of faith and prefer an “I’m OK, you’re OK” brand of religious relativism.

Indeed, mainline denominations have been perfectly suited to deal with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack. They have dispersed large amounts of aid to those affected, re-emphasized the importance of interfaith understanding and grappled with the spiritual dimensions of tragedy in their trademark “no easy answers” way.

The question some ask is whether such priorities, however noble, are enough to propel the mainline denominations forward.

“It seems obvious, but churches need a religious message, a spiritual component to what they do,” said Kirk Hadaway, who researches church reform for the Episcopal Church. “Soup kitchens and Midnight Runs are good work but can’t be your focus. Too many mainline churches – the majority – are flailing around, not knowing who they are or what they offer as churches.”

In their new rush to connect with neighborhoods, the five mainline denominations have the same basic strategy: meet and understand your neighbors; entice people to church with after-school care, concerts, English classes, etc.; offer niche ministries; and pray they eventually come to services.

Mainline churches do not feel comfortable promoting their traditions, say Lutheranism or Presbyterianism, as the best Christian choice, more worthy than others.

Former Roman Catholics already sustain many mainline congregations in New York. Bouman estimates that half the ELCA’s members in greater New York were once Catholic. But the five mainline denominations say they have little interest in targeting disenchanted Catholics.

“We’re all the body of Christ, and our different expressions are important,” Roskam said. “Roman Catholics are welcome, but we don’t need to make them Episcopalians. We don’t need notches on our spiritual belt.”

Even if mainline leaders wanted to market their brands, they are not sure it would make a difference. This is a day, they say, when people have few church loyalties and simply seek a congregation where they feel at home.

“You can’t just go out anymore and say, ‘I’m a United Methodist and think you ought to be one, too,’ ” said Bishop Ernest Lyght, leader of the United Methodist Church’s New York Conference. “But you can say, ‘I invite you to come to my church. It has been nurturing to me and my family, and we think you will find the same experience.’ Today, if young people check a church and don’t find action, they’re gone.”


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