Ways to Address the Decline of Mainline Churches


I began ordained ministry in the mid-1970s. I know: a long time ago. It soon became apparent to me that my part of church world — liberal or mainline Protestantism — faced big challenges. So much so that a better word for us than “mainline” was “sideline.” We had the problem of all established groups, that is, we thought we had no problems and that our future was secure.

In the 1980s and ’90s, I began my own modest campaign to suggest otherwise — that liberal Protestantism’s prospects were anything but secure and serious efforts at renewal needed to be undertaken right away. I did this not only through my own pastoral ministry, but by writing articles and books, and then peripatetic speaking and teaching. With the success of some of my books, I increased the traveling and speaking/teaching to the point that I was soon doing that work full time, which I continued until several years ago.

Over those years I noticed a change in the mind-set of my audiences. During the ’80s and ’90s I mostly ran into denial. “No, decline won’t happen to us.” “Yes, some weird mega-church thing is getting a foothold, but it’s a fad and will fade.” “We’re indispensable; what would this town or that city be without us?” Often denominational leaders were the cheerleaders for this mindset. Meanwhile, the numbers were telling a different story. Decline was happening apace.

Then sometime in the 2000s and the 2010s, denial was replaced by despair. Gradually, the stories of decline had filtered from media down to the grassroots where empirical observation provided further confirmation. But instead of saying, “Oh yeah, something is indeed happening, maybe we’d better pay attention,” what I began to hear was, “Gee, I guess our decline is inevitable.” “Our church will probably close.” “Just the way things seem to be going.” Now some denominational leaders sang a new tune. “Let go of the past . . . (even) decline is good . . . now we’re getting down to the real Christians.”

Neither denial nor despair were, as you’d imagine, particularly helpful.

Where do things stand now? Well, the big picture remains one of decline for perhaps 75% of these churches. But there are a curious number of exceptions to the general trend. That is, there are 20- to 25% of these churches that are vital, even flourishing. The questions you’d think we might be asking are, “What are these flourishing churches doing? What can we learn from them?” But sometimes these flourishing churches are dismissed as outliers, not team players.

In fact we are still being told decline is inevitable, that the church is dying (even “must die”), so adjust. Future predictions of decline are presented as inevitable, ignoring both the counter-indicators and the way we become victims of self-fulfilling prophecies.

These knowing and pessimistic projections have now been turned into strategies in the world of declining mainline Protestant denominations. One such example of this despairing counsel advises that there will no longer be full-time clergy in the future. It will be part-time gig at best, with more and more tiny congregations being led by modestly-trained lay people.

Another counsel that is popular is called “leveraging your building.” You have a large facility but a small congregation. You need to figure out ways to house or start new not-for-profits that will fill the space and bring in revenue. In these instances, clergy are told “be entrepreneurial, start a business, be creative” (even though you’re only part-time!).

A third strategy is a combination hospice for churches with an estate-planning operation attached. This usually goes under some variation of the name “legacy.” What it amounts to is the denomination trying to capture what funds or assets will be left when a church closes.

To be sure, there is enough decline that all three strategies make a certain amount of sense. But to the extent that they become the “taken-for-granted” future reality to which we must adjust, they risk becoming (already are, I’d say) self-fulfilling prophecies. As regards the first, for example, there is actually a shortage of full-time clergy for churches that need and want them, especially if you want someone who has a track record of success.

But let’s return to the vital 20-25% of mainline churches that are defying the odds and mostly doing so beneath the radar. What is going on there? I’m painting in very broad strokes here, but there seem to be a couple of common themes. One, they have healthy, capable ministers who actually believe what they preach. Two, these aren’t civic or social clubs with stained glass — or to put that positively, they are places where people experience something transcendent, a gracious and active God. When you put one and two together, then you get, third, a church where there is a buoyancy, a confidence in the power of faith — even joy.

A necessary caveat lest struggling clergy friends feel I gaslight them: Is this easy work? No, it’s hard, tough work. And, yes, there are some congregations have such a high percentage of difficult people that it can be impossible work.

That said, these exceptions to the rule of decline are not right-wing, “Christian nationalist,”  nor even mega wannabes. They continue to be liberal in the broad meanings of that word, as in, “thoughtful, generous, and engaged” — to borrow the key self-descriptive words of the seminary where I have worked the last three years. Moreover, they do actually believe that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), treat the Bible as God’s message, and believe in the power of faith to provide meaning and belonging for human lives in the midst of challenging and changing times.

Beware the danger of turning projections of an unknown future into self-fulfilling prophecies. And be the church — it is still needed.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Another minister has mentioned another reason for decline. Many people, avoiding being drafted, enrolled in divinity school with mild commitment to the ministry, and years later steered their churches to political and self-help causes. The 1960s issues provided only temporary relief for their congregations.

  2. The book of Acts is a history of the church as it expanded across the known world. There were no buildings, no technology, no denominations, no strategies only born again people filled and led by the Holy Spirit. God has not changed. Rather than seeking large crowds we should preach Christ as Lord and Savior. As He said If He be Lifted up He would draw all men to God. Biblical preaching without compromise was the original plan to proclaim Christ. There are no substitutes.

  3. There is only one way to address the predictable decline of mainline churches… and that is to embrace the one true religion, the Church of the SubGenius. For a short time, we are offering Eternal Life Or Triple Your Money Back™. Can your religion do that? Didn’t think so. But hurry, this offer ends at midnight tonight!

    J.R. “Bob” Dobbs — The One True Deity — invites you to Repent! Quit your job!! SLACK OFF!!! Invest in the end of the world before it goes public! “Bob” will never sell you out …unless it’s for big $$$. Get mad, get even, get rich! Tired of trying to justify your sins? Let “Bob” justify them for you!

  4. Anthony, I really appreciate your columns. I am a non- believer, but I think churches have historically provided a moral foundation for communities, invaluable comradeship, and a volunteer base to do the many small acts of care and kindness that are needed to fill the cracks in our safety net.

    I disturbs me greatly to see erasure of the church structures in the name of housing or maximization of financial assets. In the urban landscapes it is the churches, punctuating seas of skyscrapers and bland cubes with their historic towers and remnants of ornament, that remind us there is something higher worth contemplating. Subtract the churches and the urban landscape is soulless. Utilitarian. Symbols matter.

  5. Thanks Iskra. I appreciate you reading and commenting. Yes, I think churches are some of our best public art, though never claimed as such.

  6. I’ll go along with the majority of that, but not the “moral foundation.” My grandfather who grew up in a solidly churched town in the midwest, would be rolling in his grave. The decline of churches may bring some problems with it, but to the extent we are afflicted with some degree of moral degradation, its causes are elsewhere.


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