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The facts and the questions

First, a disclaimer: I am happily married to a person whose vocation is sociology of religion.

What this means is that, if only because of the influence she has had on my thinking about all matters religious, data matter. It’s not that I dislike theories. It’s not that I fail to appreciate them in the same way that I appreciate guesses and hunches. After all, as someone once put it, “Nothing is more practical than a good theory.” Still, when data speak, I am inclined to listen — with greater attention than I would be willing to heed another version of yet another theory that’s not supported by hard data.

Thanks be to God, then, for The Barna Group. A couple of years ago, it completed a thorough study of the state of the mainline Protestant church in America. The results were sobering, to say the least: Throughout the past five decades, mainline Protestant church membership has dropped by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people. A mere 15 percent of the American population associate themselves with a mainline Protestant congregation, and, throughout the past decade, we’ve seen a 22 percent drop in the percentage of adults attending mainline Protestant churches.fact_1

The authors of the study offer a blunt assessment of the predicament in which we find ourselves: “Demographics suggest that the mainline churches may be on the precipice of a period of decline unless remedial steps are taken.”

The question that many mainline Protestants have already asked (ad infinitum, some would say) is, “Why?” Why has the mainline Protestant church in America suffered the loss of membership, and, beyond that, a steady decline in commitment and worship attendance among people who continue to regard themselves as members?

There are too many possible answers to count, to be sure. But, in the interest of making a positive contribution to a conversation that’s already happening, let’s ponder a few of them — again, with the help of data provided by Barna.

At the risk of offending friends and colleagues who remain proud of (and happily defend) their identity as mainline Protestant Christians, we might safely suppose that a significant reason for the mainline Protestant decline is the character of the faith of persons who identify themselves as mainline Protestants. The Barna study informs us that an overwhelming majority of mainline Protestant adults are perfectly willing — eager, even — to consider “other spiritual options.” Fewer than half describe themselves as “absolutely committed to Christianity,” while only slightly more than half (51 percent) are open to the idea of trying a new (different kind of) church. Almost three-quarters say they are “more likely to develop their own religious beliefs” than to accept and practice the beliefs taught by their church, and fewer than half believe the Bible is accurate as a source of instruction.

Finally, there are these two nuggets of data that are, I suppose, sufficient to inspire genuine concern: only half of all mainline Protestant adults say they are on some sort of quest for spiritual truth; and, when asked to ponder their highest priorities, fewer than one in 10 say that “some aspect of faith constitutes their top priority.”

Sobering, yes. Maybe even depressing. But not altogether surprising, if we’re honest. For years, we have watched and listened as evangelical churches have grown in number and influence — in no small part because there’s something about the faith of evangelicals that inspires a wholehearted commitment to the gospel as they interpret and live it. As one of my self-professing “PC(USA) and evangelical” colleagues puts it: “For the most part, the character of mainline Protestant faith does not inspire a wholehearted, sacrificial commitment to Christ’s incarnational ministry. What’s at stake for you? It’s almost as though mainliners are slightly embarrassed by their faith.”

As I reflect upon my colleague’s insight, H. Richard Niebuhr’s take on the liberal church in America comes to mind: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” If ever these words packed a powerful punch for mainline Protestants who have all but relinquished the language of sin and judgment, it’s now.

Is my colleague right? Is there something about mainline Protestant faith that invites the admittedly pejorative characterization “religion light”? Do we, as ordained leaders who wring our hands in worry over the decline in membership, wish and pray for more adherents (more members “on the rolls”) while simultaneously refusing to preach, teach and nurture a faith that dares to keep people interested and active — a deep, passionate faith that demands much in terms of time and energy, and, by God’s grace, transforms the world in ways that we can neither predict nor imagine?

Possibly. OK, if we’re being honest, likely. If leadership really does matter, then we have reason to ponder the trends. To borrow again from the Barna study:

One of the enduring idiosyncrasies of mainline churches is the brief tenure of pastors in a church. On average, these pastors last four years before moving to another congregation. That is about half the average among Protestant pastors in non-mainline churches. Equally significant is the fact that 93 percent of mainline senior pastors consider themselves to be a leader, yet only 12 percent claim to have the spiritual gift of leadership.”

Twelve percent? Seriously? If one form of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results,” then maybe we should entertain the stark hypothetical that we mainline Protestants have been flirting with one version of insanity for a long while. Year after year, we educate, ordain and install men and women to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament (parish ministry) who, if the data are correct, know they’re expected by God and God’s people to lead, but remain fully convinced that they do not possess the gift of leadership. My own experience affirms this revelation. How many times have I listened as a colleague in ministry speaks defensively of his day-to-day work as the parish pastor: “I was called and trained to preach, teach and provide pastoral care. All of that keeps me busy, and that should be sufficient.”

To refer to this particular finding as “disturbing” fails to do justice to the gravity of the crisis now before us. Generations of pastors have learned the technical aspects of pastoral ministry — translating biblical texts, crafting liturgy, reflective listening during hospital visits or premarital counseling sessions — while the sense of call to lead God’s people in the practice of a faith that’s radical and demanding and risky has been tragically neglected.Yes, it would be all too easy to point the finger of blame at the character of the faith being confessed (half-heartedly) and practiced (barely) by many laypeople “out there in the pews.” But, as it turns out, we’ll not fully grasp the nature of the steady decline of the mainline Protestant church in America until we’ve turned our attention to the pulpit, and more specifically, the man or woman standing in the pulpit.

The hypothesis that may emerge from a careful study of the data is that because the mainline Protestant decline has everything to do with the character of the faith that’s being proclaimed and lived, as well as the manner in which pastors are interpreting and practicing the vocation of parish ministry, we should swiftly turn our attention to the matter of leadership, and, more particularly, leadership education. This is the conclusion reached by George Barna himself. He identified “the quality of leadership provided — especially regarding vision, creativity, strategic thinking, and the courage to take risks — as being the most critical element in determining the future health and growth of mainline congregations.”

Vision, creativity, strategic thinking, and the courage to take risks: it all looks great on paper, in church “mission statements” and elsewhere. But are we practicing what we’d like to think we preach? Are we able to recognize gifts for leadership when we see and hear them? Are we seeking out and calling men and women who clearly possess these gifts for leadership in parish ministry? Are the members of seminary boards and faculties amending and reforming seminary curricula so that increased attention is invested in the art and practice of leadership of people, even at the possible expense of attention paid to pastoral counseling and church history? Are the members of presbytery CPMs prioritizing the gifts of leadership above all else?

This is the great thing about data — they are “the facts” by another name. And facts inspire questions.

May God lead and guide us as we seek the answers together.

SAMUEL E. (“SAM”) MASSENGILL is senior pastor of First Church, Metuchen, N.J.