The mainline Protestant church doesn’t have much longer.
At least, that’s the speculation of an April 28 article written by Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair at Wheaton College near Chicago. Stetzer cited a 2016 study from the General Social Survey, which has been tracking people who identify as Protestants with their church attendance. These two lines meet in 2039, meaning that if membership declines continue at their current pace, the Protestant church will effectively be dead in 22 years.
Others who are lifelong Methodists, Presbyterians or Lutherans might not take the news so gladly. Stetzer, who grew up an Episcopalian, wrote that he takes no delight in the downturn of the mainline church. He said, “I am hoping and praying for a reversal. And I know many in the mainline Protestant tradition seek to follow Jesus and are working to change the trend line of decline.”
It’s interesting to me that the mainline denominations, now seen by so many as cold and antiquated, began as red-hot movements. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which criticized the sale of indulgences and abuses of papal power, sent shockwaves through Europe, sparking the Protestant Reformation and giving rise to Lutheranism. Early Methodist preachers broke with hidebound tradition, leaving comfortable church buildings to take the Gospel to fields, coal mines, taverns and settlers’ cabins. The Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ trace their origins to two simultaneous movements in the early 1800s that were backlashes against the rigid denominationalism of that time.
I’m not convinced that the mainline church will be stone-cold dead in 2039. But it just might be if we continue with academic preaching, heresy, biblical ignorance, evangelistic indifference, divisiveness, and ingrown programs that limp along, masquerading as successful ministry. John Wesley’s words, written in 1786, have become prophetic, not only for United Methodists but for mainline denominationalism in general:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Still, if all the mainline churches were to vanish tomorrow, the Church would not be dead. The Church is a tree and the tree is bigger than one dead branch. Remember what Jesus said of His Church: “The gates of hell will not prevail against it.” That sounds like it will be around for a long time.
Maybe even for eternity.