Patheos has an excellent interview with sociologist and historian of religion Rodney Stark. As with anything from Stark, it’s difficult to choose just one section to quote. But here’s the core of his claim:
When I was very young, there was a Protestant mainline and they were the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, American Baptists, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and more recently the media would include the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Once in a while they would even stretch things far enough to include the Unitarians and Quakers. These were the high prestige denominations, and when people became prominent and successful they would shed their old denomination and join one of these.
Now, the belief that these are the mainline denominations simply won’t go away. Everyone keeps pretending that these are the folks that count. But the fact is: that’s ancient history.
. . . Yet one keeps hearing about the “mainline” denominations and this “periphery” called evangelicalism. Well, the periphery is now the mainline, and the mainline is the sideline.
I also decided to write [How Denominations Die: The Continuing Self-Destruction of the Protestant "Mainline] partly because of the misperception that this transformation began in the 1960s. The 1760s may be more accurate, and certainly the 1860s, but it didn’t start in the 1960s. The 1960s is just when it began to be noticed.
Exactly. No offense to my mainline friends, but I’ve never understood why they continue to be considered mainstream by the the mainstream media. The Southern Baptist Convention has as many members as all mainline denominations combined. Yet the dying denominations get all the attention.
I suspect that within my lifetime the only mainline denominations that will continue to exist will be those that, as Stark notes, are led by clergy who are “generally evangelical in their convictions.”
Anyway, back to the interview. With Stark, I can’t ever stick to just one excerpt so here are a few more quotable passages:
I’ve had people tell me: “I quit that mainline church because, in the whole year, the minister didn’t say the words Jesus Christ.”
[. . .]
What if you went to a baseball game, and nobody brought a ball? The players just stir around for two hours. I don’t think you’d go back, would you? Likewise, when you go to church, but the minister doesn’t bother to hold church because he wants to talk about Medicare or something, why go back? Well, people don’t.
[. . .]
The denominational leaders would pass resolutions that “everybody in prison is a political prisoner,” for example, or that “everybody commits crimes but only the poor are sent to prison for it.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many friends who engage in drive-by shootings and stick up liquor stores. I just don’t. (Granted, they’re a bunch of cowardly professors, but still.)