In the last three decades, the story of American mainline Protestantism was rewritten. Once considered the very definition of American religion, a host of late 20th century social trends and historical movements assailed venerable traditions of Protestant churchgoing, making mainline religion increasingly outmoded in a pluralistic and post-Christian society. These old-line churches lost the cultural power, prestige, and influence they previously wielded. Scholars identified, studied, analyzed, and debated the patterns of and reasons for the changes and the increasing irrelevance of America’s historic mainline denominations. Mainline Protestantism—including the story of its decline—became a sidebar in the epic of American religious pluralism, the growth of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and the emergence of secular postmodernism.
Mainline Protestants neither expected nor welcomed these changes. This cultural displacement forced them to focus inward and deal with issues of identity, vision, resources, and organization—often with great conflict and smothering self-doubt. But conflict and internal questioning signaled something more than just anger or confusion; they indicated that unnoticed creativity and innovation were at work in unexpected places in the old mainline. “Chaos often breeds life,” wrote Henry Adams in 1906, “when order breeds habit.” In the last decades of the 20th century, mainline churches were being forced to break old habits.
Thirty years removed from the initial studies of mainline ennui, the most precipitous drops seem now to be ending and these denominations may be entering, however tentatively, into a new period of their history. In some cases, numerical decreases have slowed or stopped, mainline church attendance appears to be rising, mainline theology is demonstrating new sophistication, and higher levels of commitment and giving are beginning to register among the laity. Quietly, without much attention from either an uninterested public or skeptical scholars, reports of emerging vitality are being heard across the old mainline.
While academics and pundits have made much of the decline, far fewer studies have appeared accounting for the reorganization and revitalization of old mainline churches. Sociologists Nancy Ammerman, Jackson Carroll, C. Kirk Hadaway, Donald Miller, Wade Clark Roof, David Roozen, and Robert Wuthnow have offered studies suggesting the development of new styles of congregational life in American mainline religion. Yet, despite their work identifying nascent patterns of vitality, other scholars, the media, and critics have not paid attention to the emerging creativity and new congregational experiments in mainline Protestantism. Stories about American religion tend toward the exotic (typically about the growth of Eastern religion), conflict (usually about women’s issues or homosexuality), or the fanatical (fundamentalism of all sorts). Mainline churches rarely make news unless the story involves sex, scandal, or corruption.
The problem is not the lack of ability or even interest on the part of many writers to tell new stories about American Protestantism. The problem is that many observers have neither closely examined the decline theories (largely accepting them as fact) nor paid serious attention to the styles and patterns of religious life and spirituality in mainline churches that are now emerging in what appears to be a post-decline period. That is the new news: American mainline Protestantism is changing—maybe more than it has in a century. And those changes are part of a much larger story about religious life and spirituality in contemporary America—the patterns and trends that are shaping the way in which future generations will experience the Protestant faith, one of the most venerable forms of American religion.
Excerpted from The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church , copyright © 2004 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
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The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
In this provocative book, historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are changing, finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices and laying the groundwork for a new type of congregation. Invigorated by stories from Bass’s own experience, The Practicing Congregation provides a hopeful and exciting vision for the church in the 21st century.
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From Nomads to Pilgrims is the highly anticipated follow-up to The Practicing Congregation. The contributors are innovators, representing some of the most dynamic leadership voices among today’s clergy. Their experiences challenge conventional thinking and inspire creative experimentation. Congregational leaders searching for positive models will appreciate these insightful essays.