Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Why are mainline churches in decline? could it be theology?

In my last post I engaged the question of why mainline churches are in decline (full post is here). I pointed to a blog comment which suggested the answer was because the church had lost touch with culture.

This is supported by a number of sociologists of religion, who point to the fact that many voluntary groups, not just the church, are in decline as they lose touch with cultural change. As I wrote last year in a post on being church in a time of cultural change (and drawing on some work by Kevin Ward:

So, consider that alongside the decline in church, is a widespread decline in all voluntary associations: from Lions to labour unions, from political parties to bowling clubs.

In New Zealand in 1970’s about 400,000 people played rugby. By 1990’s it had plummeted to 100,000.

Why? Factors include authoritarian and controlling environment, rigid structures, high institutional overheads, dress code, conformist culture, lack of choice, repression of individual for sake of community.

At the same time, touch rugby, while only started in an organised sense in 1990, had by the year 2000 over 272, 000 registered participants.

Why? It is minimalist, gender inclusive. Individuals can choose their own team, while teams can choose their uniform and name. Time is limited and there is a high value on socialising and fun.

In other words, traditional structures based on long-term commitment and exclusive loyalties are less attractive than single stranded, less formal, smaller groupings.

But another answer to the question of mainline church decline is to point to theology. This comes in two directions.

First, some see the mainline church as liberal. So the church just needs to get beliefs right around notions of conversion, gospel, etc.

Second, some see the mainline church as conservative. This was summed up delightfully in a conversation I had during the week. After I presented on Fresh expressions I was asked if surely a person needed to give up on belief in an interventionist God in order to be part of a fresh expression. My conversation partner wondered if there was a need for a fresh expression not only of church, but of theology. This was defined as moving away from historic notions of a three tier universe and God as an intervenor in people’s lives. In other words, the mainline church is in decline because of theology – it’s too conservatively old-fashioned.

Posted by steve at 10:48 AM


  1. Don’t tell me Steve that the Aussie humour is getting to you or is it that you’re being deliberately provocative? surely not!!
    Granted your critic of other institutions having the same problems as the church is spot on, but since when did a gen x or y give a toss about the old conservative/liberal debate?
    Personally I don’t care if people are conservative or liberal I’m much more interested in why God matters to them and what difference that makes in their lives and in their community.
    If God is not making a difference in the lives of communities whether conservative or liberal then communities are no longer signs of the coming kingdom and the work of God’s reconciling work in Christ then it is no surprise that others are not paying attention.
    If the development of theologies that speak into the current context is holding the church back then let’s do the work but personally I think its a distraction.
    There are plenty of people including your self who are doing a great job of speaking into the current church context.
    Of course there are congregations who don’t have a language to talk about what’s going on or an ability to move past theologies that block fresh emerging expressions of faith. But from my prospective it’s not because there are no theologies that allow that to happen it’s more about church communities willingness to engaging them.

    Comment by Geoff — March 2, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

  2. Thanks Geoff. The longer I spend in Aussie, the less I feel I understand the culture and humour! So I am sure to be missing things.

    Let me relate another example – at the Ballarat event – I was intrigued by how when I talked about faith sharing, a number responded from within a conservative/liberal paradigm. While I might be younger, in terms of people hearing I think the polarities remain. (Whether my naming them simply deepens them is of course another story!)


    Comment by steve — March 2, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

  3. Here’s Mark Sayers on the decline of many institutions.

    Comment by Eric — March 2, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

  4. Thanks Eric for the link


    Comment by steve — March 3, 2011 @ 8:39 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.