When people leave mainline churches they go somewhere else. As Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas describes it, they are not leaving religion so much as they are looking for religion. About 44 percent of Americans say they have a religious affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey."
"Everybody knows that the so-called 'mainline' is now the sideline. The United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Methodists and the Episcopalians have been shrinking at a rather prodigious rate. But that isn't because people left church, it is because people left THOSE churches," says Stark. "Groups like the Assemblies of God have doubled and redoubled in size in the same period of time."
The flight from mainline churches, Stark says, has been going on since the 1800s. It wasn't really noticed until the 1960s because overall population growth made it look like mainline churches were growing, while all along their percentage of the population was dropping.
Among the groups that have benefited from mainline church leakage are nondenominational churches — independent geographically-based Christian churches that do not espouse a particular denomination affiliation. These churches — some of which are so big that they are called megachurches — are most likely evangelical flavored (75 percent), but some are more akin to the mainline tradition (20 percent) and a few are more like the historically black Protestant tradition (5 percent).
Part of the reason Stark thinks denominations are declining is that they used to be, at least partly, connected to a person's ethnic identity. "My generation is much less concerned to be Lutheran than my parents — and especially my grandparents — were because they were Norwegians and Swedes and immigrants. And being Lutheran was part of the package."
Over time with marriage and intermixing, ethnicity became less important.
The Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, has seen the shift of identity. "We are seeing a breakup of regional identity," she says. "We are now a global community with global communication. … And so we are finding a melding of culture, a melding of regional identity and with that goes a melding of denominational identity."
Stark points out another example of how denominational identity has lost its importance: Some churches just appear to be nondenominational. Rick Warren, bestselling author of "The Purpose Driven Life" is Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. — which is a Southern Baptist church. "I bet half the people who go there don't know," Stark says, "because Warren doesn't make a big point out of it. I think in that sense denominationalism has receded."
As denominations are less linked to identity, it opens churches up to greater competition. Timothy Dalrymple, associate director of content at Patheos.com and an evangelical columnist, says "American Christianity is a vital open marketplace of religious ideas in churches. These non-denominational churches can try 100 things and find a model that works."
Often that model includes a well-defined conservative expression of Christianity that contrasts with mainline churches' more moderate theology. Dalrymple thinks this "dissipation" of mainline churches' theology is part of the reason why people are leaving. "They became less committed to traditional Christian teaching regarding the authority of scripture, regarding salvation in Christ alone, and so forth."
Cannon Nestler doesn't think this conservative trend is a good thing — particularly the danger of defining things in inflexible ways, regardless of how appealing they might be. "The developments of theologies that say 'we are the only right way' have had a profoundly detrimental effect on our culture," she says. "We are called to live here in toleration of each other. The scariest part of the religious right is the voicing of the idea that 'It's not part of the American culture that we are called to live with other religious expressions.' That scares the heck out of me."
Stark, however, sees it as a simple desire to hear religion over social agendas. "People go to church for religion, not for all these social things. Strange as that may seem," Stark says. "If you get up in the morning and go to a church where religion is not being taken seriously, you go someplace else. I don't think that is very surprising."
Dalrymple agrees that part of the weakness of mainline churches is that they became centers of left-wing political activism. "That may be where the leadership was, coming out of the seminaries, but that was not where the congregations were."
He admits, however, that people are more open now to churches that have a commitment to social justice. "The more successful of the non-denominational churches right now are those that bring together solid Biblical teaching with dynamic social activism. And they may do it in ways that remain socially and culturally conservative."
Cannon Nestler says it is often the liturgy — traditional Christian rituals and worship — that attracts people to the Episcopal Church. The progressive theology is more difficult to define, she says: "How do you sell moderation? How do you sell toleration? How do you sell openness?"
But Stark says that if mainline congregations are going to grow, they need to stress religion: "You go in there and start holding church instead of having a discussion group. And you motivate people to bring their friends and neighbors."