Mainline (Protestant): Wikis


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Mainline or mainline Protestant (also sometimes called mainstream)[1] denominations are those that comprised the vast majority of American Christianity from the colonial era until the early 1900s. Most were brought to America by their respective historic immigrant groups.[2] Today, most are rooted in the Northern United States.

As a group they have maintained moderate theologies that stress social justice concerns together with personal salvation and evangelism.[3] They have been credited with leading the fight for social causes such as racial justice and civil rights, equality for women, rights for the disabled and other key issues. Nearly each of their issues has been embraced by American law and society, but at the same time mainline denominations have been somewhat marginalized.[4]

In typical usage, the term mainline is contrasted with evangelical. Mainline churches tend to be more liberal in terms of theology and political issues.[5] This places them to the ideological left of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches.

Mainline denominations peaked in membership in the 1950s and have have declined steadily in the last half century. From 1960 to 1988, mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, then fell to 21 million in 2005.[6][7]



The largest U. S. mainline churches are sometimes referred to as the Seven Sisters of American Protestantism.[8] The term was apparently coined by William Hutchison[9] in reference to the major liberal groups of American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists / United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians during the period between 1900 and 1960.

The Association of Religion Data Archives also considers these denominations to be mainline:[11]

The Association of Religion Data Archives has difficulties collecting data on traditionally African American denominations. Those churches most likely to be identified as mainline include these Methodist groups:


Mainline denominations have tried to come to terms with the impact of modernity, critical biblical scholarship, and the scientific method. They tend to be open to new ideas and societal changes without abandoning what they consider to be the historical foundations of the Christian faith. They have been increasingly open to the ordination of women.

They hold a wide range of theologies—conservative, moderate and liberal. While about half of mainline Protestants label themselves as liberal, nearly one-third call themselves conservative. Most local mainline congregations have a strong, active conservative element. Yet, evangelical and fundamentalist churches view them as theologically and socially far too liberal.[18]

Moderation is the distinctive emblem of mainline churches. They are generally comfortable with gender inclusive language in contemporary translations of the Bible.[19] Their theologies tend to be moderate and influenced by higher criticism, an approach used by certain critical scholars to separate the Bible's earliest historical elements from later additions and even intentional distortions. Mainline denominations generally teach that the Bible is God's Word in function, but that it must be interpreted both through the lens of the cultures in which it was originally written, and examined using God-given reason. Mainline Christian groups are more accepting of other beliefs and faiths.[18]

A 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of the 7,500 mainline Christians surveyed said the Bible is God's Word and is to be interpreted as literally true, word for word. Thirty-eight percent thought that the Bible is God's Word but is not to be taken literally, word for word. Twenty-eight percent said the Bible was not the Word of God but was of human origin.[20]

Theologically, mainline denominations are Trinitarian and proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God; they adhere to the historic creeds such as the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

The inclusion of a denomination in the mainline Protestant category does not imply that every member of that denomination, nor even every member of their clergy, accepts some of the beliefs generally held in common by other mainline churches. They allow considerable theological latitude. Moreover, mainline denominations have within them Confessing Movements or charismatic renewal movements which are more conservative in tone. Unlike evangelical Christian churches, mainline Christian denominations emphasize the ostensibly biblical concept of "social justice", a term usually understood by them to denote politically liberal approaches to social and economic problems. Early in the 20th century, they actively supported the Social Gospel. Some theologically conservative critics have accused the mainline churches of the substitution of leftist social action for Christian evangelizing.[2]

Mainline churches were basically pacifistic before 1940, but under the influence of realists such as Reinhold Neibuhr they supported World War II and the Cold War.[21] They have been far from uniform in their reaction to homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, though generally more accepting than the Catholic Church or the more conservative Protestant churches.[22]

Declining membership

Protestant churches as a whole have held steady in total membership in the last half century, but since the national population has grown they have shrunk from 63% of the population in 1970 to 54% by 2000. The Mainline denominations comprised 55% of all Protestants in 1973, and 46% in 1998.[23]

While the term "mainline" once implied a certain numerical majority or dominant presence in mainstream society, that is no longer the case. Both evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups have been growing, but mainline Christianity—both membership and worship attendance—has been shrinking.[3]

The number of mainline congregations in the U. S. declined from more than 80,000 churches in the 1950s to about 72,000 in 2008.[24] About 40% of Mainliner Protestants in the 1990s were active in church affairs, compared to 46% of the conservatives.[25]

Various causes have been cited, including monotonous and ponderous liturgies, intimidating worship surroundings, and too much tradition.[26] Behaviorally, only one-third (31 percent) of mainline adults believe they have a personal responsibility to discuss their faith with people who have different beliefs. Tenure of pastors in mainline churches tends to be somewhat brief. On average, these pastors last four years before moving to another congregation. That is about half the average among Protestant pastors in non-mainline churches.[24]



Demographers have examined the statistical basis of the long-term decline in the mainstream membership versus the growth in the conservative denominations.[27]

There are four basic factors: birth rates; switching between denominations; departure from Protestantism; and conversions from non-Protestant sources. By far the main cause is birth rates—low for the mainline bodies, and high for the conservatives. The second most important factor is that fewer conservatives switch to mainline denominations than before. Secularization (moving to "no religion") is a third factor.[citation needed]

Despite speculation to the contrary, switching from a mainline to a conservative denomination is not important in accounting for the trend, because it is fairly constant over the decades. Finally, conservative denominations have had a greater inflow of converts.[27]

Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend: conservative denominations have grown their own. Mainline denomination members have the lowest birthrate among American Christian groups. Unless there is a surge of new members, rising death rates are predicted to diminish their ranks even further in the years ahead.[18]

Statistical analysis gives no support for the notion that theological or social conservatism or liberalism has much impact on long-term growth trends.[28]


Mainline churches have had difficulty attracting minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asians. Hispanics comprise 6 percent of the mainline population but 16 percent of the US population. The Barna Group considers the failure of mainline Protestants to add substantial numbers of Hispanics to be significant portent for the future, given both the rapid increase of the Hispanic population as well as the outflow of Hispanics from Catholicism to Protestant churches in the past decade, most of whom are selecting evangelical or Pentecostal Protestant churches.[24] Asians represent 4 percent of the American public, but only half that proportion among mainline congregants.[24]


Some other findings of the Barna Group:

  • From 1958 to 2008, mainline church membership dropped by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people—15 percent of all American adults.
  • From 1998 to 2008, there was a 22 percent drop in the percentage of adults attending mainline congregations who have children under the age of 18 living in their home.
  • In 2009, nearly 40 percent of mainline church attendees were single. This increase has been driven higher by a rise in the number of divorced and widowed adherents.
  • From 1998 to 2008, volunteerism dropped 21 percent; adult Sunday school participation decreased 17 percent.
  • The average age of a mainline pastor in 1998 was 48 and increased to 55 by 2009.
  • Pastors on average remain with a congregation for four years compared to twice that length for non-mainline church leaders.[29]

Recent statistics from the Pew Forum provide additional explanations for the decline.

  • Evangelical church members are younger than those in mainline denominations. Fourteen percent of evangelical congregations are between 18–29 (compared to 2 percent), 36 percent between 30–49, 28 percent between 50–64, and 23 percent 65 or older.

Not paralleling the decline in membership is the household income of members of mainline denominations. Overall, it is higher than that of evangelicals:

  • 25% Reported less than a $30,000 income per year.
  • 21% Reported $30,000-$49,999 per year.
  • 18% Reported $50,000-$74,999 per year.
  • 15% Reported $75,000-$99,999 per year.
  • 21% Reported an income of $100,000 per year or more, compared to only 13 percent of evangelicals.[20]

Statistics concerning churches

Protestantism's hundreds of different denominations are loosely grouped according to three fairly distinct religious traditions—evangelical Protestant churches (26.3 percent of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1 percent) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9 percent).[30]

The Association of Religion Data Archives ARDA counts 26,344,933 members of mainline churches versus 39,930,869 members of evangelical Protestant churches.[11]

Some denominations with similar names and historical ties to mainline groups are not considered mainline. The Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are often considered too conservative for this category, and thus grouped as evangelical.

Further reading

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People (1976; 2004) excerpt and text search
  • Balmer, Randall. Grant Us Courage: Travels along the Mainline of American Protestantism (1996) online edition
  • Balmer, Randall, and Fitzmier, John R. The Presbyterians (1993). 274 pp. survey by two scholars
  • Billingsley, K. L. From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches (1991)
  • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Mainstream Protestant "Decline": The Presbyterian Pattern. (1990). 263pp.
  • Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (2001); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (2003); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005 (2006).
  • Hutchison, William R. ed. Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Marty, Martin E. "The Establishment That Was, " Christian Century November 15, 1989, p. 1045. online
  • Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion, Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (1999)
  • Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Tipton, Steven M. Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Wuthnow, Robert, and John H. Evans, eds. The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism, (2002), 430 pp.; essays by scholars


  1. ^ Moorhead, James H. World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things, 1880–1925. (Religion in North America, number 28.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1999. Pp. xxii, 241
  2. ^ a b Bottum, Joseph. "The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline." First Things (August/September 2008) Web: [1]
  3. ^ a b c Chang, Perry. "Recent Changes in Membership and Attendance. " Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) Nov. 2006. Web: Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.)
  4. ^ Oliver, Thomas. "Where have all the Protestants gone?" USA Today. 1 March 2010, p.17A
  5. ^ The Decline of Mainline Protestantism
  6. ^ Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992) p 465
  7. ^ Ellen W. Linder, ed. Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches: 2009 (2009)
  8. ^ Protestant Establishment I (Craigville Conference)
  9. ^ Hutchison, William, Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1989), Cambridge U. Press, ISBN 0-521-40601-3
  10. ^ a b c d e NCC - 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches
  11. ^ a b Mainline protestant denominations
  12. ^ Reformed membership
  13. ^ ICCC membership
  14. ^ NACCC membership
  15. ^ UFMCC membership
  16. ^ Moravian Northern Province membership
  17. ^ Moravian Southern Province membership
  18. ^ a b c Struckmeyer, Kurt. "Mainline Christianity. " Following Jesus Web: 13 Dec 2009
  19. ^ One of the most controversial features of several recent versions of the Bible has been the use of gender-neutral language. Some translators have even preferred to call it 'gender accurate' language, because they claim that only the use of such language in a translation will accurately reflect the inclusive intent of the original. Most conservatives have preferred to call the new style "gender-neutral.'" Marlowe, Michael D. "The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy." Web: 13 Jan 2010. Gender-Neutral Language Controversy
  20. ^ a b U. S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Diverse and Politically Relevant. Washington D. C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. June 2008. Web: September 27, 2009 at Pew Forum Report 2008.
  21. ^ Michael G. Thompson, "An Exception to Exceptionalism: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr's Vision of "Prophetic" Christianity and the Problem of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy, " American Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 833-855
  22. ^ Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005 (2006)
  23. ^ Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," American Journal of Sociology 2001 107(2): 468-500
  24. ^ a b c d "Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches. " The Barna Group. December 7, 2009. Web: 12 Dec. 2009
  25. ^ Hout, Greeley, and Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," (2001) p 493
  26. ^ Tenny-Brittian, Bill. "Why the Mainline is Shrinking. " Church Solutions, 04/02/2009. Web:
  27. ^ a b Hout, Greeley, and Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," (2001)
  28. ^ Hout, Greeley, and Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," (2001) p 494-5
  29. ^ "Mainline Churches May Be 'On Precipice of Decline'. " Charisma News Online. 09 December 2009. Web: 12 Dec 2009
  30. ^ "Report 1: Religious Affiliation, " The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2009. Web: 13 Dec. 2009


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