Dead End For The Mainline?

To join it, one would never know that the Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., is Lutheran--or that Pastor Walther Kallestad had been educated in a traditional Lutheran family, college and seminary. From the Steven Spielberg-like Sunday-school gimmicks to the generic, Amy Grant music at worship services, everything is designed to "meet the needs" of his nondenominational babyboomers. "Be quick" is the first commandment. Moving faster than a Wendy's at lunch hour, the Church of Joy needs only five minutes to distribute communion to 1,000 worshipers. Still, Pastor Kallestad insists, "It's a very meaningful moment for our people." Sermons take a bit longer because Terey Summers, Arizona!s Actress of the Year, likes to stage skits in the sanctuary instead of having ministers preach from the pulpit. "People today aren't interested in traditional doctrines like justification, sanctification and redemption," the pastor has concluded.

Whatever it is, it works. The Church of Joy has over 6,000 members and another 6,000 who participate in the more than 100 recovery and other special-interest programs that keep the church doors turning seven days a week. That's not what Martin Luther may have had in mind when he set out to reform Christianity--but that's the point. There's a new Reformation in American religion, and this time it is not the Church of Rome but Lutheran and other mainline Protestant denominations that are under siege. Like the officers of beleaguered IBM and other seemingly solid American institutions, the leaders of the nation's once robust Protestant establishment face the loss of brand name loyalty.

For 25 consecutive years, liberal Protestantism's seven-sister denominations* have watched their collective membership decline. Although the number of Protestants in general is growing--an evangelical church is opening somewhere almost daily--the mainline denominations are not. They now account for just 24 percent of the American population. Their flocks are aging, their budgets shrinking. Morale is low. Many local congregations are rejecting control by denominational leaders and cutting back on funds to support their national programs. From every angle, mainline Protestantism is gripped by crisis: of identity and loyalty, membership and money, leadership and organization, culture and belief.

Across the mainline this summer, there's a mood of embattled introspection. just last month the bishops on the United Methodist Church's Executive Committee pushed aside their position papers and for three hours simply searched their souls. "What does it mean to be a United Methodist?" they asked each other. "What, if anything, is distinctive about our church?" "Churches without any self-understanding lose members," acknowledges the Rev. Jim Andrews, head of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which recently eliminated 175 staff positions for lack of sufficient funs from its declining flock. And in a remarkable gesture of defiance, more than 1,000 dissatisfied Episcopalians will pay their way to St. Louis later this month to air ideas for radically decentralizing church authority. If this breakaway pattern persists, observes Methodist Lyle Schaller, a consultant on church development, "denominations will be left with what they do best--administering clerical pension funds."

Mainline Protestants were bred for bigger things. For more than a century, these seven denominations helped define Am ca and its values. Now they are struggling to define themselves in a world where adjectives like "Methodist" or "Presbyterian" no longer mean anything to most Americans. "God is killing mainline Protestantism in America," says Methodist theologian Stanley Hauer was of Duke Divinity School, "and we goddam well deserve it."

As a way of organizing believers, the religious denomination is essentially an American innovation. In their infancy, the oldest denominations were like extended ethnic families: voluntary confederations of like-minded Scottish Presbyterians or English Congregationalists who looked after their own and competed with each other for converts under the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. But after the Civil War, the mainline developed--like American business--into large, bureaucratic national corporations. In addition to controlling their own foreign and domestic missions, denominations produced Sunday-school curricula, hymnals and other products that they marketed to local congregations. They also credentialed ministers and ran colleges. By the middle of this century, the corporate denominations were the most prominent feature of American Protestantism. Politicians heeded their leaders, and the circulation of journals like the now defunct Presbyterian Life almost matched

For most of this history, observes D. Newell Williams, a church historian at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, "denominational differences were important and the people understood them." Some, like Lutherans, united around inherited confessions of belief. Baptists stressed adult baptism and individual liberty, Congregationalists the life of the local church. Methodists sang the hymns of Charles Wesley and preached the social gospel. Presbyterians were cerebral, self-contained and bent on making civic life conform to God's will. Episcopalians prized the liturgy. And while they all defended the solemnity of the Sabbath--and of marriage--many were loath to see their children marry a Protestant of a different denominational stripe.

What happened? Some leaders see the loss of denominational distinctiveness as an inevitable result of Christian ecumenism. "We have said implicitly and explicitly throughout this century that the differences between denominations are negligible," says John M. Mulder, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Others blame the triumph of a selfcritical liberal theology within the mainline churches. "The denominations no longer offer a distinctive Christian standard for judging statements about God or moral action," says historian Williams, who counts himself apolitical liberal. "Many people now see no reason to be Christian. The mainline churches are just plain boring, but the Gospel is not boring."

These churches have lost their children. Few baby boomers raised in Presbyterian families, for example, have become adult Presbyterians. Rather than join other denominations, surveys show, fully 48 percent opt out of churchgoing altogether. "There used to be an ecology that nurtured the faith of children through parents, Sunday schools, youth conferences, summer camps and church-related colleges," observes Mulder. But in the last 25 years, the Presbyterians and other mainline denominations have diluted these programs. "We provided our children with a theological rationale for embracing secularism," says the Rev. William Williamson, Methodist dean of the chapel at Duke Divinity School.

The mainline is also suffering from its own urge to merge. Over the last decade, parishioners found themselves belonging to newly formed national denominations that often did not mesh well. Synergy is as hard to come by when three distinct branches of Lutherans are bound together as in any corporate conglomerate. To the people in the pews, the national denominations look increasingly like "regulatory agencies," says Craig Dykstra, vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. For example, denominational program officers tax the congregations for support of political and social movements that the local faithful sometimes do not want or think they can't afford. Moreover, in most denominations, there is a large gap between the liberal national staff and its more conservative congregational constituents. One reason the United Church of Christ moved its headquarters from New York City to Cleveland last year was to blunt the denomination's liberal East Coast image. But leaders of the denomination have alienated many of their new neighbors by launching a fruitless crusade against Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians' popular logo, as an offense to Native Americans.

Rather than support denominationally determined national programs, more and more local congregations are running their own projects for the homeless and commissioning their own foreign missionaries. "The leadership forgets that the parish church is the front line, where people are taught and served," says Jon Shuler, the rector of an Episcopal parish in Knoxville, Tenn., who is organizing next month's protest meeting in St. Louis. "We are not here to serve the dioceses or the presiding bishop. What a lot of us on the local level want is an entire rethinking of the church's constitution."

In response to such grass-roots demands, church leaders are gradually granting more freedom to their local congregations. The more optimistic are talking about reinventing the denomination for a new, post-Protestant age. But they may already be behind the curve. Television preacher Robert Schuller recently formed Churches Uniting in Global Mission, a national coalition of 200 pastors of "the most dynamic and successful" congregations, like Arizona's Community Church of Joy. The aim of this determinedly antidenominational network is to lure baby boomers back to church by welcoming all comers regardless of their beliefs and appealing to their lack of theological convictions.

This, of course, is precisely how American denominations got started-by belittling the competition. The difference is that the old-line Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans saw themselves as heirs to coherent traditions they thought worth passing on. Even when competing for converts, they put doctrinal and devotional integrity before success. "To give the whole store away to match what this year's market says the unchurched want is to have the people who know least about faith determine most about its expression," warns American church historian Martin E. Marty. The mainline denominations may be dying because they lost their theological integrity. The only thing worse, perhaps, would be the rise of a new Protestant establishment that succeeds because it never had any.

Religious preference of Americans, age 18 and older.

Protestants 59% Roman Catholics 27% Jews 2% Eastern Orthodox 1% Muslims 1% Others 3% None 7%

SOURCE: GALLUP

PRESBYTERIAN Membership 1965: 4.2 million 1992: 2.8 million Status: Church slashes budget by $7 million and 175 staff positions AMERICAN BAPTIST Membership 1965: 1.3 million 1993: 1.2 million Status: Overshadowed by Southern Baptists, now 12 times larger LUTHERAN Membership 1965: 5.7 million 1992: 5.2 million Status: Made up for $14.8 million shortfall in '88 by streamlining staff and spending UNITED METHODIST Membership 1965: 11.0 million 1992: 8.7 million Status: Membership continues to slide but at slower pace than in '91 UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST Membership 1965: 2.0 million 1992: 1.5 million Status: Local giving increases, but less is passed on to national budget EPISCOPAL Membership 1965: 3.6 million 1991: 2.4 million Status: Major cutbacks to compensate for million- dollar shortfalls in '91 and '92 DISCIPLES OF CHRIST Membership 1965: 1.9 million 1991: 1.0 million Status: No major cutbacks or restructuring on national level

*The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.