Tuesday, March 01, 2011

why are mainline churches in decline?

I teach a course here at Uniting College called Reading cultures/Sociology for Ministry. It’s at an introductory level and is compulsory for our candidates. It starts on Thursday. The aim is to equip participants to explore issues at the interface between society and ministry and develop greater social sensitivity about the ministry process. The assessment involves the students, as a group, constructing a field report (based on real life case studies) reviewing a local church’s ministry in the broader community.

So it was interesting to read Tony Jones blog, with data on the continued decline of mainline churches in the United States. The two denominations closest to the Uniting Church of Australia are the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent and the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent. Which raises the why question – Why are mainline churches in decline?

To which Jeff, who blogs here offers a response.

As a UCC pastor, I think that a lot of it has to do with local churches being very slow to adapt to the new cultural reality in which we find ourselves. And it’s something way bigger than video screens in worship or whatever…it’s a failure to recognize that we’re not in the same social place that we were in in the ’50s and ’60s, and thus the same social and organizational mentality no longer addresses what the church needs to be about today. Fortunately, some corners of these denominations have recognized it and there is renewal happening, but we’re still going to lose people and churches along the way. The key is that such renewal needs to happen at the local level rather than the national level, which I think my denomination sort of gets, but it also gets in its own way. I imagine there’s a similar thing happening in other mainline churches, too.

Which sounds to me like Reading cultures/Sociology for Ministry – gaining tools to listen to our communities, skills in discerning the systems and powers which enmesh individuals, sensitivity to new media, awareness of themes emerging in poetry, arts, film. And if Jeff is right “such renewal needs to happen at the local level”, then perhaps the class should be compulsory not just for candidates, but for all local Uniting Church leadership teams?

For a more recent post – raising the topic not of culture, but of theology, see here.

Posted by steve at 07:58 AM


  1. Great blog Steve – I agree with you entirely, it should be compulsory for all local UC leadership teams. Your course certainly interests me as this is what I deal with everyday – by email, meetings with congregations, phonecalls. So many I communicate each day still see ‘church’ through the filter of ‘old model’ or ‘that which worked 40 years ago’ (admittedly many that I am in contact with are baby boomers or in the more senior bracket….). I love to encourage people to see the church in today’s context & as part of that to see that the building is just a tool for mission (we actually don’t need it, but it can be useful as a tool) – for those that don’t know Christ & not for our own comfort & certainly not for our own ‘club’. It’s exciting when we see renewal happen today – goodness! the Holy Spirit can work without the endorsement of the Church Council or UCLT or the Synod?!? Now that’s exciting!

    Comment by Lynne Aird — March 1, 2011 @ 8:12 am

  2. The more I think about what I’m trying to do to even lightly touch the “new” cultural reality the more I realise that many are not ‘not getting it’, but don’t want to face it. I hear people all but say, why can’t we stay where we are. Some, yes, do want to tentatively try and understand. But when you have long term members/leaders get up and walk out of the service when I mention “Twitter” or “Facebook” during the sermon, then you/we/I have a big problem!

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — March 1, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  3. Is there another level as well to the listening? I wonder, for many mainline churches, if an element of their decline is associated with lack of confidence in Christ – and as a result within themselves. As such, I wonder if there is a level of listening needed within the Congregation. I know we are called to make disciples – therefore we must be remembering those who are without the Light of Christ. But how many people in our Churches don’t know that Light for themselves?
    For most UCA churches there is not going to be a change in perception of the church unless the leaders/ministers actually take the time to first “listen” to the local church community (dare I say even before listening to the local community). My heart breaks because a lot of “ordained ministers” try and push their unprepared congregation into the community without first “listening” to the congregation’s faith and social story. (How do I know this… It was my mistake last year, my first year in placement. This year has started different, and I am already seeing results.)
    Perhaps a tool to help all UCA members think about this – and that can only be done by all leaders doing course such as Sociology for Ministry/Reading Cultures.

    Comment by Matthew Stuart — March 1, 2011 @ 8:54 am

  4. Are you doing anything on ecumenism too? And to what extent that still exists in contemporary settings? Came up in class last year when we were talking about whether the mainline churches had made any significant joint public engagements since the 1993 Statement on Social Justice and some participation in the Hikoi of Hope.

    Someone showed mainline NZ church stats on a timeline the other day when talking about the state of the church in NZ. What I was interested in was the stats that were missing – no data points for those that called themselves ‘Christian’ but didn’t overtly identify with a denomination. Also no data points for pentecostal, free church and other types of congregation. Often feel we only get a part of the picture.

    Comment by Stephen — March 1, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

  5. Nice succinct quote from your correspondent Steve… I have started to list some of my ‘tools’ but its a list in progress… I’d love to be challenged by your list… I could already expand on what I’d blog’d about music and film…

    Hope the distance to ‘home’ is not too painful at this time!!


    Comment by Rob Hanks — March 1, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

  6. Thanks for all these. a number of responses

    Lyn – thanks, I’ll send you some publicity brochures for next year 🙂

    Bruce – what I hear in your post is not just a need to reflect on changing culture, but how to lead in change. and we do teach a course on that called missional church leadership.

    Matt – I agree with you that people in church lack confidence. In terms of the listening tools I offer, one way to listen it to the church. Sociologically this is a way of being honest about the fact that those in church are just as buffetted by cultural change in their working weeks as any other. So a tool called appreciative inquiry is very helpful. What I encourage is simply using the tools that most interest people ie have fun doing it 🙂

    Rob – the tools I teach in the class include family photos, demographics, literature, poetry, movies, music, sacred places, social media.

    Stephen – I’m not quite sure where the ecumenism link you are making comes in. Is it that a sign of cultural change is that mainline churches are doing less ecumenically? (Or is it that the decline has given them less resources to work ecumenically). Certainly my take is that institutional survival is now a pretty loud voice.

    All helpful thanks folks


    Comment by steve — March 2, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  7. what chance that course could be offered externally? by distance ed?

    Comment by scott — March 2, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  8. Scott, every chance because it is part of our B.Min. This semester it is offered in online mode ie week by week offerings. Currently have 3 folk enrolled in this way.

    Second semester it becomes available by distance ie do at your own pace.

    What is more, our undergrad papers can be done by those who enrol in Masters!! They need to show working at post-grad level. Want to talk 🙂


    Comment by steve — March 2, 2011 @ 11:38 am

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