The changing role of religion in American culture is a popular topic of conversation among religious leaders. Those leaders situated within Mainline Protestantism (a tradition I claim as my own) are talking more openly than ever before about decline. Even the names used to describe the tradition increasingly recognize that the decline is both about diminishing numbers of adherents (Oldline) and a more marginalized role (Sideline). While I am encouraged by increased attention given to the topic, I am often discouraged by just how frequently people advance arguments based on faulty data. It is important to know not only how the Mainline has changed, but how such changes compare to overall shifts in American religion.
The chart below illustrates the shift over the most recent forty year period based on data from the General Social Survey (1972-2012).
While individuals within denominations tend to speak about how their own denomination has fared by referencing either the number of adherents lost during a given time period (e.g., fell from 2.2 million to 1.1 million) or the percentage of adherents lost since a certain date (e.g., 50% decline), a better measure is what percentage of the US adult population their membership reflects over time since it takes into account changes in the country’s population.
During the last forty years, Mainline Protestants have declined more significantly than any other group. The reality is that Mainline Protestants have gone from being roughly 3 out of every 10 American adults to 1.5 in 10. By comparison, Evangelical Christians experienced growth during the 1980s and 90s before experiencing decline in the 2000s. The most stable of all Christian traditions during the last four decades is Catholic.
- Review how your religious group has fared over the last 40 years, especially in comparison to other groups. Is what you observed consistent with what you assumed? If not, what specifically did you learn from this exercise?
- Review how all religious groups have changed over the last 40 years. In a single sentence, describe the changing landscape of American religion from 1972-2012.
- How might this information be helpful to you? your local congregation?
For further reading on the topic, consider these posts on So What Faith
- The Great Decline
- The Day the Mainline Disappeared
- The Decade of Christian Decline (2000-2010)
- America the Religiously Diverse
- Religious Profiles
- Reality Check: Religious Non-Affiliation
- Shifts in Young Adult Protestantism