Rodney Stark on the Decline of the Mainline
September 9, 2010 12 Comments
I saw this the other day at patheos.com and had, well, not a chuckle, because I think there is some kind of tragedy lurking, but a starkness in vision (if you will):
The first [reason for the decline of "mainline" Protestantism] is modernist theology. The theology that prevailed in the mainline churches changed dramatically [from post Civil war times]. If you take Paul Tillich’s view of God, in which God is essentially something imaginary, then why do you bother to hold a church service in the first place? If there’s nothing there to pray to, why do it?
“Something imaginary.” Yes, it does follow a sequence of theological moves that made the Divine something “Plotinian” in the extreme. Stark is spot-on in regard to Tillich’s abstractions. They would not seem “worshipable” to the Sunday in church crowd. I remember reading a rather telling criticism of Tillich by one of this students, one Truman Madsen. Madsen was saying in the 1960s essentially what Stark is saying here. There is no God in that god. When you erase prayer from religion, where do you go from there? Stark answers:
The second factor was, when the clergy in the mainline denominations decided that they could no longer save souls — because there were no souls to save — they decided that they should save the world instead. They switched from religion to politics, and that was a politics of Left-wing radicalism.
It’s fine, of course, to be a Left-wing radical. But it was far out of step with the people in the pews. The people in the pews still believed in God, and the people in the pews did not believe that they needed a socialist government next week. Consequently, they stopped sitting in those pews and started going to other pews.
What Stark describes in terms of depopulation of the pews is what I have observed in European Catholicism. Sunday-go-to-meeting is the province of the Elderly, and Elderly Women at that. Even at the home of the Inquisition. And while the reasons given may seem diametrically opposed to Stark’s on American Protestantism, I don’t think at base they really are. Catholicism in Europe lost it’s savor for the “peasants” because it was seen as impotent against reality. Too much history there and faith became irrelevant to daily life. The growth of Evangelicalism in France mirrors in a muted way what Stark observes in America.
As a matter of fact, one of the big changes is that the second-largest Protestant body in the United States today, second only to the Southern Baptists, is the non-denominational Evangelical Protestant churches. They hardly existed forty years ago, but today they probably have half as many members as the Southern Baptists. That’s real growth, and it shows that the product matters and effort makes a great deal of difference. People in evangelical churches witness their faith and bring their friends and neighbors to church, and the people in liberal churches — at least according to survey data — don’t witness and don’t invite anybody into their church.
In some ways the non SBCers are doing what Mormon missionaries do, witness and invite people to church. David O. McKay’s motto not withstanding, the same seems less true of Mormons by and large. (But the perceived success in baptisms in member initiated contacts is not something that can be really forcefully expanded to a great degree, in my opinion. But see Stark’s comments below.)
Stark’s estimation of Mormonism:
They grow, of course, because they work hard at growing. Since they continue to work hard at growing, I would assume that they are continuing to grow. It’s amazing what results you get — in religion as in other things — when you inspire your members to work hard at it. . . .
the circumstances have greatly changed in my lifetime. When I was young, the idea of a Mormon even trying to run for the Republican Presidential nomination was unthinkable. Things have gotten better. They’ve gotten better out here in the West, more than they have in the South and East, largely because there are so many Mormons. Out here in the West, we all know and live alongside Mormon families. That makes a difference. You see the enormous unity on the cultural issues. And you see that they’re good neighbors, who care well for their children.
Every member a missionary? Maybe, but Every Member for the Wholesome Family appears even stronger. See NCT’s recent post on missionary approaches and retention.
I found Stark’s comment on shrinking denominational youth populations interesting, partly because it links well with similar Mormon concerns.
George Barna scared every evangelical preacher in America a couple of years ago by coming out with the remarkable finding that people under 30 had left the church. There were screams and hollers and everybody was going to organize all of these campaigns to save the young people.
Nonsense. As long as there has been survey data, it has shown the same thing. Even back in the 1930s, it was true that people under thirty are less likely to go to church than people over 30. It’s been true ever since.
Whenever you find a difference between two groups, you have two options. Does that difference reflect social change? That is to say, is it a generational effect? Or is it an aging effect? The answer in this case is that it’s an aging effect. People leave home, they stop going to church, the sleep in on Sunday mornings. Then they get married, have children, and go back to church. Simple as that, and it’s been going on for the fifty or sixty years that we know about.
So it’s too bad when people do research they have no background in. I had seen that same data in the 1960s. You always find it, and it’s not too surprising. There are many things that unmarried people do that they don’t do when they’re married and over 30. Sleeping in on Sunday morning is only one of them, and it’s probably because they stay out later on Saturday nights than they do later in their lives.
Bunch of drifters!
Finally I have to say I loved his anecdotal experiences when on tour with some survey data on mystical experiences in America:
In the last Baylor survey, we asked people a series of questions about potential mystical experiences. Fifty-two percent of Americans say, “I was saved from harm by a guardian angel.” Some people say, well, they didn’t mean it. But I had two press conferences about the release of these findings, one in Texas and one in Washington, D.C. In each instance, a reporter from a major media outlet sidled up to me after the press conference and said, “I was saved by a guardian angel.”
One, a woman, said, “I was about eight months pregnant, wearing heels, and I fell off the curb. Two hands grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back up and set me on the curb — but there was nobody there.”
This sort of confession used to be fairly common in Mormon meetings in my narrow experience, but it seems much less common now-a-days and I believe that leadership views this as encroaching secularism (can you say Neal Maxwell?). Hence the recent spate (ok, two or three) of speeches by Elder Dallin Oaks on Miracles. An approach I agree with and hope continues. We need to be more open I think about not just the “personal revelation” experiences, but the kind the Baylor study found, however many may be authentic. I sense a little heat over this, but I’m firmly in favor of it.
 I like Madsen’s little sermon on the subject and I’m going to try and find it and put it up here.