Tuesday, May 17, 2005

A Mainline Paradigm Shift?

Last Sunday I chaired my third ecclesiastical council in the past month. It was considered by many of those attending the most important of the three because it was to approve or deny the ordination of a pastor.

The By-Laws of our Association require that 50% of the congregations making up the Association be represented in order to have a quorum for an ecclesiastical council. I've been aware that we have come close to not having a quorum ever since the first one I chaired as president of the Association.

There are now 25 congregations in the Association and last Sunday, when I called the meeting to order, there were only 11 present. The agenda I have created for ecclesiastical councils begins with my introduction, followed by a prayer and the singing of a multi-verse hymn. The idea is to allow as much time as possible for late-comers to arrive before the roll is called. We were on the 4th verse of that hymn before representatives of 2 congregations came into the sanctuary: 13 congregations out of 25 really cut the margin for a quorum close.

Since Sunday I have begun feel as if I may be hitting my head against a brick wall. In past years we have had no problem in obtaining a quorum for meetings. Yet, over the past several years, we have had a lot of difficulty.

Today I raised this question with pastors from several other Mainline denominations. In the main (that wasn’t meant as a pun) they report the same problem and concern, although we seem to identify it differently. For example, one pastor spoke of older congregations, where the average age has increased to over seventy. He said he thinks that folks have more difficulty attending extra-worship activities. Another responded that his congregation was also elderly, but attended the activities such as dinners and weddings, but seldom attended functions such as ecclesiastical councils. He suggested the reason was apathy towards the wider church.

That word—apathy—became central to our discussion. Have members of Mainline denominations truly become apathetic toward the Church? If I had taken a poll of those pastors, I would suspect that the majority would answer that question with “Yes.” However, I didn’t take a poll.

And I admit that I myself do not have an answer. I recognize that there has been a paradigm shift in mainline Christianity in the United States over the past thirty or so years. I encountered this while I was pastoring my first congregation almost twenty years ago. In that small community, churches were not then affected by the shifting paradigm that had already touched so many Mainline denominations that people were beginning to say, “Mainline Christianity is no longer on Main Street.” What we were experiencing there and then was that a number of people were no longer attending worship, either because they did not feel the need or because they felt that their needs were being met by TV and radio evangelists.

It was during those days that I was first introduced to the books of Lyle E. Schaller. He seemed to have some insights into the “new paradigm.” In the first of Schaller’s books that I read back then—I don’t remember its name and do not even know if it is still available—he made the statement that contemporary churches and pastors were facing dilemmas that had never before been encountered in the history of the Church. I remember then feeling that I had chosen a poor time to shift careers from social work to ordained ministry.

Back to the present. During today’s discussion of the existing problems that our Mainline Churches are facing, Schaller’s name came up again. A Presbyterian pastor said that he had just obtained what he believes is Schaller’s latest book, A Mainline Turnaround: Strategies For Congregations And Denominations. He said that he is reading the book, along with several others, to discern what is currently going on in U.S. Christianity and if there are ways of addressing the apathy that each of us, in one way of another, have identified.

I hope Schaller can provide some insights and new strategies. I firmly believe that there is a place for Mainline Christianity in the United States, whether or not we are “on Main Street.” So I just ordered A Mainline Turnaround: Strategies For Congregations And Denominations. I’ll let you know more after I read it.


  1. At the risk of sounding stupid, could you define "mainline christianity" for me? I have a guess but I'm not sure.

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  3. Another excellent question for which I may not have an answer!

    The term ‘mainline” is used a lot; however, the definition differs depending upon the user. A Google search for “Mainline Christian” that I just made came up with 10,800 hits. In checking about ten of those I found that the term seemed to be used differently.

    From my own perspective, the 16th Century Protestant reformers contended that there had been ecclesiastical continuity with the church of Christ in every age. They traced their own denominations directly back to Jesus and his disciples.

    Today when one hears the term “Mainline” it often refers to specific Protestant denominations which have, for a long time, occupied a central place in American religious life. Those who are in that designation include the United Church of Christ (a union of the former Congregational, Christian, German Evangelical, and German Reformed denominations), the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, and the American Baptist Church (northern Baptists).

    I may be unique, but when I use the term, I mean those denominations that historical trace their origins and teachings to the earliest Church. Besides the Protestant denominations listed above, I also include the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, and the various Orthodox denominations.

    Does that provide any insight into the term?


  4. Thanks Nick. That's kinda what I would have guessed but I wasn't sure. Sorry for making you work so hard to find a definition. I'm going to reread your post and think on it for a bit. I'd love to hear your theories on the relationship of people and the church. If you're of a mind sometime that is.

  5. Ok. Absolutely I think apathy plays a large part in the shifts churches are seeing now. Also, it's amazing how many times while reading random blogs that people have mentioned how that don't feel they need to go to church to sustain their faith.
    I think that people are looking to have their needs met in less conventional ways. It's like the Progressive car insurance commercial. You used to have to go out and search out your own quotes. Now they come to you. And churches are not coming to the people. People have always gone to them.
    I've seen churches start offering non-traditional services. Something I think may be successful is multi-tasking. Instead of having a bible study with child care provided, have bible study with a "fit kids" program (kids do physical activities, learn teamwork etc etc) or, have a "fit kids" program and offer bible study for the adults, marriage seminars etc that run concurrently. I could think of a billion ideas but of course I don't have to add in budget and man power. Anyway, I appreciate your blogs and the opportunity to pull myself out of children shuttle duty and do a little thinking!

  6. Sonson, the ideas you suggest are good ones. It’s those types of activities that the non-denominational “mega churches” feature to gain memberships of 4,000 to 10,000. The primary problem I see is that the mega churches have large paid staffs, huge buildings, as well as enormous budgets. Most of the traditional mainline congregations I know can’t afford the financial burden it would take to conduct such programs.

  7. Second opinion for Sonson. Mainliners are like Mammoths, big and doomed.

  8. "Doomed" is OK for Christ’s disciples. Legend says the majority of the original followers of Jesus met frightful deaths.

  9. Well Nick, I'm still trying to figure out how these sorts of sites work. You do remember your 'tiny dancer' don't you? Anyway, I left you a question about the derby party, but now I can't figure out how to go back and check if I ever got a reply? I'm still feeling a bit under the weather, well, down right crappy in fact. I told you in my email, that I'd wade through all the mails ASAP, so here I am working my way down! Great blog site, not that I know WTF a 'blog' is! But it's entertaining reading. Way to go nick!

    g/tiny dancer

  10. Go to the archieve, Tiny Dancer, and down to the first and oldest post. My response is there.