If you’ve been paying attention to the virtual world of Christian blogs over the last week or so, no doubt you’ve stumbled across a spirited debate concerning the future of mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. Ross Douthat precipitated this debate by suggesting in his rather bold opinion column in the New York Times that the declining membership of these denominations is a direct result of their alleged capitulation to the values of secular liberalism, citing the Episcopal Church’s recently approved rite for blessing gay relationships as a tell-tale sign of this decline. Diana Butler Bass immediately proffered a wealth of sociological data in her response in the Huffington Post, thereby exposing the false premises behind Douthat’s strident inferences. In an effort to problematize his triumphalist ecclesiology, she trotted out the well-known statistic that Douthat’s own denomination, Roman Catholicism, is hemorrhaging members just as quickly as most mainline Protestant denominations once immigration from Latin America is left out of the picture. Unfortunately, her making this move almost gives one the impression that her defense of mainline Protestantism is: ‘We may be diminishing, but so are you.’ On an optimistic note, she asserts (in my estimation, correctly) that liberal Protestant communities are undergoing “a quiet renewal” in spite of their declining numbers, but she offers no concrete examples to substantiate the claim.
Being a 30-something convert to Catholicism myself (like Mr. Douthat), and as one whose family members are for the most part members of mainline Protestant denominations, I’d like to offer another perspective on these ecclesial realities.
A critical issue left unaddressed in Bass’s response to Douthat is the state of power relations within mainline Protestant denominations. In her well-intentioned attempt to counteract the corrosive and controlling ‘narrative of decline’ that plagues mainline Protestant communities, she inadvertently diverts attention away from the reality that the majority of their leadership positions and financial resources are firmly in the control of the Baby Boomer generation. Many who actually attended the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church at which the rite for blessing same-sex relationships was approved noticed that the vast majority of those presiding as committee chairs and, indeed, the vast majority of bishops were still male, white, and over 50. To an extent, this state of affairs can be explained by reference to the older demographic of mainline Protestant denominations in general and their inability to retain members entering into early adulthood. In After the Baby Boomers (2007), Robert Wuthnow observes that most 20-somethings (Millennials) and 30-somethings (Gen-Xers) are not joining conventional parishes not only because they marry less often, and later, and have fewer children. Perhaps more fundamentally, they are not joining because this outdated model of Christian community simply does not offer, and perhaps does not know how to offer, adequate institutional support to these generations as they face the most pressing social realities of their lives (70).
But this is not to say that these denominations have no younger members. I am personally acquainted with dozens of committed young adults in their 20s and 30s who have joined the Episcopal Church, and these persons did not join simply to fill up the pews. Most of them are deeply involved in cutting-edge forms of ministry beyond the walls of church buildings, and not all of them are seeking ordination in order to do this work. If one observes Millennials and Gen-Xers, the established sociological correlation between joining a conventional mainline Protestant parish and getting married and having children is becoming less and less able to predict their behavior. Instead, members of these generations are simply showing up, equipped with evident gifts for ministry. Many of them are unmarried and without children, and they want to be leaders. The problem is that Baby Boomers already control most of the leadership positions, most of the money, the dominant community narrative, and the political agenda. In this sense, the generational patterns characterizing mainline Protestant denominations internally are beginning to duplicate the power dynamics in U.S. society more broadly, in which younger adults are generally struggling to find adequate employment, often while burdened by significant amounts of debt.
Now, there are many, many Baby Boomer-generation mainline Protestants who are not complicit in maintaining the status quo in the Church or in society and who in fact founded many of the cutting-edge ministries in which Millennials and Gen-Xers now participate as leaders. However, I would argue that these Boomers are largely the exception to the rule and generally are not representative of their demographic group. Episcopal priest Joshua Griffin has argued that, on the whole, members and leaders of mainline Protestant denominations “talk a good talk but (just like political conservatives) have sold out people at the bottom and the planet.” Despite their profession of liberal values, they “have bought into the neoliberal ideology of corporate-capitalism, which revolves around the mythology of growth at the expense of human and nonhuman wellbeing.” Indeed, it is not at all surprising that this has happened, given that the Baby Boomers who run these denominations were the first generation of Americans whose childhood was influenced by the corporate culture of intense marketing, advertising, and consumption beginning to emerge in postwar American society (think: Mad Men). In response to eager queries about what can be done to entice Millennials to join mainline Protestant parishes, ELCA Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has repeatedly explained to Baby Boomers that Millennials simply do not want to have Christianity marketed to them. Instead of trying to change the ‘look’ of these parish communities via cosmetic adjustments intended to suit the tastes of Millennials, Bolz-Weber has suggested that ELCA Lutherans aim to rediscover their own neglected tradition of openness toward theological paradox, which has an intrinsic appeal to younger generations. Overall, what is most damaging to the future of Protestant denominations, numbers aside, is the particularly transparent form of hypocrisy according to which well-meaning mainline Protestants profess a set of progressive, Gospel-based values yet act in direct contradiction to these values due to their insensitivity to the influence of consumer culture.
Therefore, in response to Mr. Douthat I would argue (in agreement with Ms. Bass) that declining numbers in mainline Protestant denominations are indeed attributable to sociological trends outside the direct control of these denominations. But this is only half the story. Their decline is also attributable to Baby-Boomer Christians’s uncritical acceptance of a decadent and morally bankrupt consumer culture and their refusal to share power with younger generations of committed Christians who might be able to provide some leadership in addressing this systemic problem. In the end, it is not the embrace of liberal and putatively “secular” values but the failure to convert the profession of these very same values into meaningful sociopolitical action which is contributing to the decline of mainline Protestantism. To invoke one of Luther’s favorite passages from Scripture, “the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love” (Galatians 5:6). All else is mere talk.
Michael P. Jaycox is a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate in theological ethics at Boston College.