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In order to arrest and reverse the decline in active participation in so-called mainline Protestant churches, one must first have some understanding of why that decline has occurred in the first place. Theories abound regarding the reasons so many Protestants began to lose their commitment to their denominations and began to minimize active participation in their churches. Among those theories is the suggestion that the anti-establishment movements of the 1960s and 1970s encompassed perceptions among many of the nation’s young that Church doctrine was simply irrelevant to their lives and that organized religion was a manifestation of the very establishment they held in contempt. Conversely, others have argued that Protestantism began increasingly to diverge from gospel and embraced the alternative lifestyles of that same anti-establishment constituency. Christianity is, after all, fundamentally autocratic and, consequently, inconsistent with the individualism and rebelliousness at the heart of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate environment in which we now reside. Also many adults are waiting longer to marry and start families, the relevance of which is the fact that individuals who leave their churches while young and single often return to them when married with children. Regular attendance at church and adherence to Church doctrine tends to resonate more with parents than with single, childless individuals. Perhaps the most solid explanation for decline in mainline Protestantism is in the article Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline, the link to which is provided below. In this article, which was the result of research conducted by a professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, the most compelling reason for the decline has been the growing unease among many otherwise religious individuals with the ‘one-size fits all’ school of theology. In other words, individuals increasingly questioned elements of their faith and discarded those they deemed inconsistent with personal experiences and observations. As described in this useful article:
“[W]e also discovered a pattern in the theological views of people who, on the Gallup-style theological questions, seemed to pick and choose their responses in unorthodox ways. We have named this pattern the theology of lay liberalism. It is "liberal" because its defining characteristic is the rejection of the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth. It is ‘lay’ because it does not reflect any of the theological systems contained in the writings or seminary lectures of today's post-orthodox Christian intellectuals. Our interviewees did not speak the language of liberation theology, feminist theology, or the theology of Presbyterian General Assembly pronouncements. Lay liberalism does borrow from the views of certain dead intellectuals, but it is largely a homemade product, a kind of modern-age folk religion. Unlike contemporary evangelicalism or other versions of Christian orthodoxy, lay liberalism is not a highly elaborated or richly developed system of thought.
“Most lay liberals ‘prefer’ Christianity to other faiths, but they are unable to ground their preference in strong truth claims. A few simply told us that Christianity is ‘true for me,’ whereas Buddhism or Islam may be true for others, and some explained that they preferred Christianity because they were raised in that faith. But most lay liberals we talked to were uneasy with the nihilistic implications of this line of thought, and they proposed some universal grounding for their religious preference.”
The decline in mainline Protestantism, then, is grounded in the increasing tendency to reject the notion that the theology underpinning one’s denomination represents the sole path to wisdom and enlightenment and, ultimately, heaven.
The more difficult question is how to reverse the trend. If Protestantism has become less relevant to the lives of many Christians, than how can Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others make themselves more relevant without sacrificing their core principles? It’s entirely possible that they cannot. Human history has witnessed the adoption and eventual discarding of many schools of thought, as well as the elimination through war, famine, genocide, disease, and myriad other causes of entire peoples. There is nothing that indicates that any one denomination will or must exist in perpetuity. That said, if one is tasked with suggesting concrete measures for reversing the decline in mainline Protestantism, then one could look at the methodologies currently employed and consider ways to change or reform them. At the end of the day, monotheism is the most compelling underlying tenet unifying not just Christianity, but Judaism and Islam as well. The obvious central place in Christianity of Jesus of Nazareth is the unifying theme of all Christians. To the extent that the practices associated with strict adherence to Protestantism are less relevant to more Christians, subsumed as they are with the responsibilities of raising children, working jobs, participating in local parent-teacher associations, attending soccer, hockey, basketball, and tae-kwon-do practices, etc., then Protestantism has no choice but to adapt accordingly. The key to retaining congregants is the commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. If modern lifestyles are not conducive to some Biblical prohibitions or practices, then greater selectivity on the part of clergy may be required. Reform Judaism is not particularly well-respected among Orthodox or many Conservative Jews, but it has succeeded in retaining greater levels of affiliation with temples among vast numbers of practicing Jews. At the end of the day, what is most important? Remaining relevant in the lives of families with unprecedented numbers of distractions, most prominently the Internet and social networking, requires institutional innovations that can be implemented without abandoning the central tenets of religion. There is likely no other way for some denominations to survive.
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