The Future of Mainline Denominations

The Future of Mainline Protestantism

As a group, mainline Protestants have experienced ongoing decline in membership for multiple decades.  In recent years some have replaced “mainline” with terms like “old line” or “sidelined.”   Looking forward, almost everyone agrees that unless something changes significantly the decline will continue.  While some writers have focused on the decline including the likely causes and others are calling for the end of denominationalism in favor of a post-denominational faith, a third group is seeking to revitalize the mainline denominations by reshaping the very idea of denomination.  

Patheos has assembled a rich collection of articles on the future of mainline Protestantism.  From the twenty plus articles, I have selected three voices and excerpted one big idea from each.  As you read them, consider their merits both in drawing together the diverse traditions that comprise mainline Protestantism and in shifting the group from numeric decline to numeric growth.

Peter Wallace, host and producer of the “Day1” radio program.  In “The Mainline Church: A Confusing Yet Hopeful Future,” he offers several suggestions, beginning with the recognition that the “mainline brand” is in desperate need of re-branding.

One important issue to think about up front is nomenclature . . . the term “mainline” puts people off — it either sounds terribly dated or is simply not understood. And I’m not sure any of us could define “mainline” with any mutual specificity. And while most of the sermons we present on “Day1” could be described as “progressive,” that term can come across as political and restrictive. With the wide variety of preachers we present representing the various mainline denominations, our program message is broad enough to displease folks on either side of the spectrum from time to time.
Is there another descriptive term we could be using, other than mainline or progressive, for what is considered to be mainline Protestant thought and practice? We have struggled diligently to come up with something, and are still at it. Lately we’ve been saying that we proclaim “a passionate faith for thinking people.” But that’s a mouthful. It would be helpful to come up with a better “brand” for what we’re talking about here going into the future.


Bruce Epperly, Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary.  In “Process Theology: An Open Future for God and for Us,” he proposes that “a creative future will involve a lively focus on the integration of theological reflection, spiritual formation, and social action. I believe that process theology provides a ‘good enough’ theology, a theology that will preach, teach, and inspire an integration of spirituality, social action, and care for the earth.”

Process theology preaches, teaches, and inspires. It provides a vision that motivates creativity, inspires care for the earth, calls us to partnership, and awakens us to beauty. In a time of growing polarization and compartmentalization, despite the claims of quantum physics, biology, and mind-body medicine, process theology proclaims an integrated vision of reality, grounded in God’s omnipresent, relational, and non-coercive activity. If God is present everywhere as the artist, visionary, and non-coercive power of the future, then wherever truth and healing are present God is their source, whether in the laboratory, fossil field, medical ward, meditation room, or sanctuary. Process theology provides one path to a lively, world-affirming, spiritually-centered, and socially responsible faith for the future. Process theology inspires a faith that can energize the mission of moderate and progressive Christians in the 21st century.


Bruce Reyes Chow, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA and the youngest person ever elected to that officeWhen interviewed for “Something’s Going On: The Future of the Denominational Church,” Chow was asked: “What would a vibrant mainline church of the future look like?”  He responded:

It is one where you walk in and you feel that there is life. You feel that there is theological integrity and you feel like people in that space have been part of its birth. There is this sense that there is something greater happening and that it is because of this that people have gathered. In a reformed understanding where we believe God is unfolding some reality, it’s a place that knows its role in that and is journeying along that way.


So What?

Which of these three ideas (re-branding, focusing on process theology, journeying together with theological integrity) do you find most helpful or most hopeful? Why/how?

Do you think the most strategic next step is to allow the decline to end in death or to re-think and in some way re-birth the denominational traditions themselves?  If you opt for death and the end, what do you see beyond the grave?  If you opt for a re-birth or a renewal of the existing denominational traditions, how do you believe this can come to pass or what do you think are necessary conditions to help the possibilities surface?

Have you added your voice to this important conversation about the future of the mainline Protestant church?  If you were asked to write an article to be added to the collection on patheos, what would you say?


  1. […] Peter Wallace, Bruce Epperly, and Bruce Reyes Chow […]

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