Why Are Evangelical Churches Growing and Mainline Protestant Churches Declining?

In 1972, sociologist Dean Kelley wrote a book entitled Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Kelly, an executive with the mainline and ecumenical National Council of Churches, wanted to know why mainline Protestant churches were declining in membership and conservative evangelical churches were growing.  He concluded, among other things, that churchgoers wanted to be part of a congregation that made strict demands on their lives.  Mainline churches, Kelly argued, were too concerned about image, courtesy, cooperation, and being non-dogmatic, to attract churchgoers who wanted more from their religion.  Kelly called this kind of Christianity “a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise” informed by a “mistaken view of what success in religion is and how it should be fostered and measured.”

Most of us have come to believe that Kelly was right.  And evangelicals have been touting Kelly’s findings for years.  (See, for example, this recent piece by Southern Baptist conservative Al Mohler).

But if you subscribe to the Journal of American History, or were present at the recent Houston meeting of the Organization of American Historians, then you are familiar with David Hollinger’s keynote address, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern Encounter with Diversity.”  The address has been published in the June 2011 issue of The Journal of American History, but it is only available to subscribers.

Hollinger makes several provocative arguments about 20th century evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism, but Scott McLemee at Insider Higher Education is most interested in Hollinger’s take on why the mainline churches declined and evangelical churches flourished in the 1960s.

According to Hollinger, the rise of evangelicalism as a religious movement and the decline of ecumenical Protestantism in this era is best explained through birth rates.  I will let McLemee explain:

Membership in the ecumenical Protestant denominations (e.g., Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) began falling in the mid-1960s. But here Hollinger’s interpretation departs from the evangelical tale of Christians fleeing the modernist churches in search of that old-time religion. It was not that “masses of believers switched from the liberal churches to the conservative ones,” he writes, “though some people did just that. The migration to evangelical churches was not large and was actually smaller than the modest migration to Roman Catholicism.”

Rather, the decline of ecumenical churches (alongside the steady growth in numbers and power of the evangelicals) reflected a generational shift, compounded by differences in fertility. Ecumenical couples had fewer children than evangelicals did. And the offspring, in turn, tended not to become members of their parents’ churches, nor to send their own kids to church.

“The evangelical triumph in the numbers game from the 1960s to the early 21st century,” writes Hollinger, “was mostly a matter of birthrates coupled with the greater success of the more tightly boundaried, predominantly southern, evangelical communities in acculturating their children into ancestral religious practices. Evangelicals had more children and kept them.”

This makes sense, although I would probably say that birth rates were one of many factors involved.  Whatever the case, I found Hollinger’s talk to be very useful for a lecture I will be giving next month at Georgetown University on the history of evangelicals in the public (political) square. 

One thought on “Why Are Evangelical Churches Growing and Mainline Protestant Churches Declining?

  1. Too much of the literature on this topic ignores an important phenomenon: the re-identification of congregants and congregations within mainline churches either as evangelical or as charismatic. This was probably most common in United Methodism, but wasn't uncommon in other mainline churches.

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