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Pastimes : Discussion Thread

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From: Brumar898/10/2010 11:27:19 AM
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Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?

Monday, August 9, 2010, 9:00 AM
Joe Carter

Patheos has an excellent interview with sociologist and historian of religion Rodney Stark. As with anything from Stark, it’s difficult to choose just one section to quote. But here’s the core of his claim:

When I was very young, there was a Protestant mainline and they were the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, American Baptists, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and more recently the media would include the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Once in a while they would even stretch things far enough to include the Unitarians and Quakers. These were the high prestige denominations, and when people became prominent and successful they would shed their old denomination and join one of these.

Now, the belief that these are the mainline denominations simply won’t go away. Everyone keeps pretending that these are the folks that count. But the fact is: that’s ancient history.

. . . Yet one keeps hearing about the “mainline” denominations and this “periphery” called evangelicalism. Well, the periphery is now the mainline, and the mainline is the sideline.

I also decided to write [How Denominations Die: The Continuing Self-Destruction of the Protestant "Mainline] partly because of the misperception that this transformation began in the 1960s. The 1760s may be more accurate, and certainly the 1860s, but it didn’t start in the 1960s. The 1960s is just when it began to be noticed.

Exactly. No offense to my mainline friends, but I’ve never understood why they continue to be considered mainstream by the the mainstream media. The Southern Baptist Convention has as many members as all mainline denominations combined.

[ And they seem to have stalled. Though that may be due to over-counting in the past. ]

Yet the dying denominations get all the attention.

I suspect that within my lifetime the only mainline denominations that will continue to exist will be those that, as Stark notes, are led by clergy who are “generally evangelical in their convictions.”

Anyway, back to the interview. With Stark, I can’t ever stick to just one excerpt so here are a few more quotable passages:

I’ve had people tell me: “I quit that mainline church because, in the whole year, the minister didn’t say the words Jesus Christ.”

[. . .]

What if you went to a baseball game, and nobody brought a ball? The players just stir around for two hours. I don’t think you’d go back, would you? Likewise, when you go to church, but the minister doesn’t bother to hold church because he wants to talk about Medicare or something, why go back? Well, people don’t.

[. . .]

The denominational leaders would pass resolutions that “everybody in prison is a political prisoner,” for example, or that “everybody commits crimes but only the poor are sent to prison for it.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many friends who engage in drive-by shootings and stick up liquor stores. I just don’t. (Granted, they’re a bunch of cowardly professors, but still.)

Read more . . .

Comments (9)

August 9th, 2010 | 10:02 am The Assemblies of God has 2,899,702 members, while the Episcopal Church has 2,057,292, according to the NCC. Given our British heritage and the influence of the Episcopal Church, I find this fascinating.

[ The AoG number is probably understated. I went from Southern Baptist to nothing to Methodist to nothing to General Baptist and unaffiliated to defacto AoG (recently). And the AoG church I go to hardly ever mentions AoG or even keeps a church roll. The only people they keep track of are the little kids - they print out a little sticker and you need it to pick them up. ]

Your post deals largely with numbers, with quantity. Working as I do at an evangelical institution, I see another, qualitative, indication that evangelicals are becoming the mainline: We’re often given over to a more experiential pietism than an intellectual, cognitive-propositional orthodoxy. (This shift happened, I think, in the 70s and 80s.) And, as pietism is wont to do, evangelicalism is devolving into a sort of theological liberalism. I see my students regularly embracing ideas that are essentially classical liberal Protestant ideas. This qualitative shift should be something sociologists pay attention to…

August 9th, 2010 | 10:21 am I am Catholic but have had significant interaction with mainline Protestant institutions (mainly schools). The Episcopal church I know is barely a church anymore – it is a social institution and performance space that caters to the rich while it works very hard to become diverse, mostly by reaching out to the very poor. The school attached to it will do anything to boost its diversity numbers – as long as it keeps test scores up and donor funding flowing. The one subject everyone can discuss amicably is sports – a “safe space” where discussions of character are attached to achievement by people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Mike Melendez
August 9th, 2010 | 11:50 am I wonder if “mainline” applies to any church anymore. The old mainline used to be source of the powerful in the U.S. The evangelicals are not in that position. I suggest that it is good for a religion not to be in that position. Power seems to corrupt religion disproportionately. Much better to be influential with the ideas and beliefs that form the faith.
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