The Day the Mainline Disappeared

thermometerAccording to a new Pew Research Survey:

  1. People think more positively about their own religious groups, or about groups that their friends belong to, and
  2. On a scale of warmest/most positive feelings to coolest/least positive feelings, Americans have warm feelings toward Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians, neutral feelings about Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons, and cooler feelings toward Muslims and atheists.

While this data is interesting, it is also troubling.  As a lifelong member of mainline Protestantism, I cannot help but notice my own group’s absence.

So What?

Diana Butler Bass, popular religious commentator and author of Christianity After Religion, rightly called out the good folks at Pew for this exclusion.  Her initial remarks on social media led others to express their disappointment, and to remind Pew just how large a group mainline Protestants really are.  After the conversation progressed, she posted the following status message on Facebook:






Her update was followed by the formal response posted by Michael Lipka, an editor at Pew

Mainline Protestants – as well as Muslims, Buddhists and members of many other religious groups – were among the Americans we surveyed. But we did not ask Americans about “mainline Protestants” because we had doubts about how many people would understand and be familiar with the term. One possibility would have been to explain what “mainline Protestants” means within the survey question, but this is also difficult, since denominational names like “Lutheran” or “Presbyterian” are associated with some evangelical Protestant denominations as well as mainline denominations.
In a similar survey discussed in their book “American Grace,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell did ask Americans for their feelings about mainline Protestants and found that mainline Protestants (along with Jews and Catholics) all “rise to the top, receiving similarly positive assessments” from other groups. Putnam and Campbell also point out that “‘mainline Protestantism’ is a blurry social category.” The questions they asked “did prompt respondents with examples of denominations within mainline Protestantism,” but they also note that “for many Americans it is simply not a salient category.” We hope this clarifies the reasoning behind the survey. Thanks for reading and for your feedback.

Mainline Protestantism has a rich history.  It is a group currently comprised of nearly 1 out of every 5 Americans.  It is also a group without a familiar name.  Whether we like it or not, those outside our ranks don’t typically use or even know the term to speak of us. In fact, many in our midst have been looking for (and some already use) another name for quite some time.  Additionally, when I provide an overview of  the makeup of American Christianity to undergraduate students I expect that I am introducing something new to most of them when I speak of Mainline Protestants.

  • Do you think the term Mainline Protestant still has meaning to the average American? Explain.
  • How many denominations can you name that you believe are included in the group known as Mainline Protestants? (If you are able to list 4 or more be sure to indicate how you came to know this data as my assumption is most who do so either will have some history within one of the Mainline Protestant denominations and/or will know how to Google the full listing.)

As for me, I will continue on as a follower of the Way of Jesus recognizing that there is no “brand” known as Mainline Protestant in the minds of most Americans. Additionally, I think it is important to note that there is also a rapidly waning awareness of the term Protestant more generally.  Frank Newport, Editor and Chief at Gallup, rightly pointed out that Protestant is a generational term that has gone “out of fashion”, is rarely used by those under age 40, and may soon disappear from usage (God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America, p.41-42 – my review).

Note: Those wanting a substantive overview of the history of Mainline Protestantism should consider reading Jason S. Lantzer’s  Mainline Christianity: The Past and Future of America’s Majority Faith (my review).


  1. Perhaps the term now is “denominational Christian.” Of course, some evangelicals would be a part of a denomination, as well. However, the psychography is different. The loyalty in Evangelicalism is relational, not organizational. Anyone who replies to the question, “Are you a Christian?” with “Yes, I’m (a) __________ (denominational name) is the missing person in the survey. Protestants are a bounded set. Evangelicals are a centered set.

  2. Interesting take, Dave. I know very few adults under age 40 who are members of churches affiliated with denominations who would consider themselves a _____ Christian. At least anecdotally that holds true whether the person is linked to an Evangelical or Mainline congregation. Also, as one with experience in a mainline tradition focused on connectionalism I find the relational element can (and, in my view, should) always trump the organizational.

    I have argued for many years that American Christians are increasingly post-denominational all across the theological spectrum inasmuch as denomination as defined in an organization or hierarchical manner with top down involvement at the level of local congregations. Denominations (Evangelical as well as Mainline) are not what they once were. The rate of change structurally and pragmatically varies widely. It is our role to advocate for new or newly reformed/updated frameworks that are meaningful in our postmodern context.

  3. Ron Thompson says:

    I sat across the table at church last Sunday from a couple in their early 70’s who are looking for a church and visiting the church I serve. I asked about their church background and they named off almost every “mainline church” I recognize as having attended, and many in the congregation I serve I find would say the same thing. This is the end of the WWII generation, early baby boomers perhaps too. The church denomination is not as important as the people they attend with is my observation. Amongst my age of 54, many would know the term mainline protestant, but most do not care what denomination the church is. They too are looking for spirituality over religous organization.

  4. Ron, your observations align with what I continue to see as well. If most insiders no longer care, surely almost no outsiders do. People choose to affiliate with a local church because they find it to be spiritually enriching, relevant, and a place where they can contribute their gifts.

  5. billy k says:

    Actually, maybe what they were too kind to tell you at Pew: mainline Protestant and ‘warm feelings’ are an oxymoron ….regards, lifelong congregationalist !

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