Says theologian Oden, “… finally students got through to me. They want nothing less thanthe faith of the apostles …”

Roman catholic scholar James Hitchock says: “Extrapolating from present trends” it is not unlikely that “by the beginning of the 21st century most of what are presently considered the mainline Protestant denominations in America (Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Methodist, along with some branches of Baptists and the Lutherans) will either have ceased to exist or ceased to claim any distinctively Christian character for themselves.”

• James I. McCord, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, acknowledges that “the mainline churches are hurting at the denominational level.”

• Dennis Oliver, a Presbyterian Church of Canada specialist in church growth, said recently that for the first time in Canadian church history, the evangelical option is a bona fide choice for those in and out of the church, and poses a threat to the “mainline.”

• Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr., formerly chairperson of the Office of Review and Evaluation of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, sometimes called the denomination’s “official watchdog,” says in Mainline Churches and the Evangelicals, a book recently published by John Knox Press:

“These have not been the best of times for mainline Protestantism. Steadily declining membership, radically slashed denominational budgets, shrinking agency staffs, waning influence on a secularized society—this has been the picture in every one of the Protestant denominations usually labeled mainline. Sunday school enrollments have plummeted since the flourishing fifties. Youth programs are moribund. The average age of members has climbed steeply. Churches are polarized internally, and a widely noted gap has developed between clergy and laity. An even greater gap—alienation, in fact—has developed between social activist, denominational agency bureaucrats and many of the people in the pews.”

Not all would accept this dismal portrayal, but everyone admits these are hard times. It is all the more significant that the people making these statements are not enemies of mainline denominations, but are writing from within, hoping to reverse the trend. That is what makes Hutcheson’s book so important. As an insider, he candidly discusses the problem, analyzes it, and suggests a possible solution.

The Trouble Within

Just what is the problem? Simply put, mainline Protestantism is in a serious state of disarray, and the bottom seems to be falling out. Hutcheson expands on this, identifying six crisis points. All indicate continuing disintegration of the mainline unless something is done.

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1. The Youth Vacuum. During the sixties when protest was “in,” the liberal establishmentarians seemed to have it all their way. “Today they find a newer generation of young people—success-oriented, non-protesting, with traditional values—baffling and unsettling. Now all we have is a lingering image of the sixties, the middle-aged clergyman with long graying hair, guitar, and denim jacket striving desperately to ‘relate’ to youth.”

And where did all the young folks go? “Primarily to Young Life or Youth for Christ; to Campus Crusade, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, or to the Sunday evening programs of a nearby Southern Baptist church. Or nowhere.” Times have, in fact, changed. The latest Who’s Who Among American High School Students showed a sharp swing back to traditional values. Eighty-six percent belonged to organized religion; three-quarters said religion was important in their lives and 67 percent chose their religious beliefs after independent personal investigation.

The Princeton Religion Research Center reported evangelical gains “often at the expense of mainline churches,” with a high percentage of teen-agers claiming a “born-again” experience. Thirty-three percent of Protestant teen-agers and 20 percent of Catholics said they were involved in Bible study groups. Almost all of this goes on outside the mainline churches. The young people “are finding their meaning structure elsewhere.”

Thomas C. Oden, a United Methodist seminary professor, says: “The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching.… They have had a bellyful of the hyped claims of modern therapies and political messianism to make things right. They are fascinated—and often passionately moved—by the primitive language of the apostolic tradition and the church fathers, undiluted by our contemporary efforts to soften it.… Finally my students got through to me. They do not want to hear a watered-down modern reinterpretation. They want nothing less than the substance of the faith of the apostles and martyrs.”

2. The Parachurch Organizations. They have become the second home for mainline evangelicals and probably will continue to be. Martin Marty has suggested that movements rather than denominations are the true center of loyalty today and that they are likely to remain so throughout the eighties. Hutcheson says pointedly: “At present, they [the parachurch organizations] meet needs that mainline evangelicals do not find met in their own denominational structures. Though the liberal-ecumenical establishment finds the idea of a pocketbook vote distasteful, the massive pocketbook vote which has poured millions into the Billy Graham organization, Campus Crusade, World Vision, and the 700 Club—while denominational mission funding melts away—must be saying something. To continue to tell evangelicals that if they are loyal Methodists or Episcopalians they must give their money to fight multinational corporations in developing countries and institutional racism at home, and that they must do this because majorities of General Conferences have voted to support such activities, is futile. The outflow of money into parachurch organizations supporting evangelical causes is not slowing down. By every sign it is accelerating.”

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3. Crisis in Overseas Missions. The shift from “missions” as evangelism to “mission” as a broad category of churchly activities—including the support of revolution when necessary—has created unprecedented crisis within the mainline. The number of mainline missionaries started skidding and continues to fall to this day. Dean Kelley, in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, notes that between 1958 and 1971 the six major Protestant denominations lost 31 percent of their overseas missionaries. The Department of Overseas Mission of the National Council of Churches (NCC-DOM) says that between 1969 and 1975, the total number of missionaries it represents dropped from 8,000 to 5,010. During that same six-year period, the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) had an increase of 15 percent, from 6,500 to 7,500. Hutcheson observes:

“Financial comparisons are even more striking. While overseas mission funds contributed through NCC-DOM decreased in that period from $145 million to $125 million (down 13 percent), funds contributed through the other two associations, EFMA and IFMA [Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association], increased by 135 percent, from $95 million to $225 million. When the agencies not affiliated with either EFMA or IFMA are taken into consideration, total overseas mission income, when adjusted for inflation, increased in this six-year period from $317 million to $404 million. The number of missionaries increased from 34,460 to 36,950. The ‘decline in overseas mission,’ then, is not a decline at all, but is rather a shift from mainline dominance to evangelical and parachurch dominance.”

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4. The Charismatic Renewal. During the sixties and seventies, the impact of the charismatic revival spread throughout the denominations. In 1966, the Presbyterian Charismatic Commission was founded. In 1972, a Lutheran Conference on the Holy Spirit was held. The Episcopal Charismatic Fellowship was begun in 1973, and by 1979 more than 2,000 Episcopal priests, nearly 25 percent of all priests, were members. In 1977, the United Church of Christ Charismatic Fellowship was organized.

All this works mainly as a cross current to the liberal establishment, and in close concert with evangelical theology. That their people seek fellowship in other terms is clearly an indictment of the mainline and its failure to meet their specifically spiritual needs.

5. The Membership Crisis. Every mainline denomination has been losing members steadily for at least the last 15 years. In 1978, the Gallup organization and the NCC sponsored a research project to study the unchurched. The following year a major study, Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950–1978, was published. Among the many valuable things that emerged was confirmation of the basic fact that the mainline was in serious trouble. But among the conservatives, things were different: they are growing.

“From an overall denominational standpoint the contrast is obvious. Membership trends in major denominations generally regarded as conservative, such as Assemblies of God (1965–75 growth rate, 37.3 percent); the Church of the Nazarene (28.4 percent); the Seventh-day Adventist Church (35.9 percent); and the largest of the Protestant denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention (18.2 percent) have been in sharp contrast with the declining numbers of the mainline denominations.”

6. Fragmentation of Denominational Life. Hutcheson summarizes this strikingly:

“This fiscal, organizational, and experiential evidence of disintegration has been mounting rapidly. So has plain talk. More and more reports have come to denominational headquarters reflecting the disinterest of the local church. As I have traveled around the church, I have heard with increasing frequency what the Charlotte group was saying, and colleagues in other denominations report the same thing. ‘Folks around here are not interested in what’s going on at headquarters. They just don’t care any more.’ ”

They don’t care because the mainline churches apparently are not in touch with their people anymore.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Because the underlying reason for all these crises is the evangelical resurgence of the last two decades, the mainline churches must decide how to respond. Here Hutcheson makes a positive suggestion: “It is the thesis of this book that mainline churches—for their own sakes and the sake of the health of the Body—must recognize the challenge and rise to it in a positive and affirming way.”

Hell of a Choice

I have created hell

for the devil and his offspring,

saith the Lord,

not, oh man, for thine.

To thee I have granted

one fearful choice:

thou mayest have thy heaven

or Mine.


He suggests a “planned pluralism” with the goal of establishing a new consensus of the middle that will include evangelicals in a meaningful way. This will require new strategies and attitudes, mainly on the part of mainline leadership, in recognition of new realities.

The fundamental shift from clergy to lay dominance now occurring makes adoption of new strategies and attitudes all the more urgent. Among these, according to Hutcheson, must be a willingness to allow pluralism in mission financing, an acceptance of different “internal consensus groups,” a more positive attitude toward charismatics, and a willingness on the part of all parties to foreswear the struggle for complete political control.

Will It Work?

Some are cautiously optimistic that a new consensus of the middle is possible. Princeton Seminary’s Diogenes Allen said in 1979: “There are signs that a middle ground or a central channel, as I prefer to call it, is being reconstituted in a new way today. This middle ground or central channel once set the pace for American Christianity.… It can be a channel in which diversity, instead of being a source of antagonism, can strengthen us and make us grateful for each other.”

Hutcheson would also like to be optimistic, and he outlines a strategy for implementing his goal. But serious questions arise to cast a rather long shadow on any easy solution, and Hutcheson is well aware of these.

First, Where is the middle to be located? Hutcheson is probably right in saying that unity will never come by trying to return to a nineteenth-century classic evangelicalism, a twentieth-century neo-orthodoxy, or a social-gospeling liberalism. But where do we go? Liberal theologian Robert A. Evans speaks of a “transforming middle” of social and cultural involvement, while evangelical scholar Richard F. Lovelace envisions a “live orthodoxy” characterized by applied biblical truth. To imagine that these are the same thing is to ignore the very real differences that exist between them; yet, both claim to be the middle.

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Second, for some evangelicals, neither a planned pluralism nor a consensus of the middle is of much intrinsic worth if adopted simply for unity’s sake. Already existing, and cutting across denominational lines, is a doctrinal unity that includes belief, will, and action. These evangelicals wonder what denominational unity can add to that. One would like to find unity in essentials and liberty in nonessentials. For at least the last 50 years, however, the mainline has turned that around, insisting on unity in such nonessentials as church polity, finances, societal issues, and allowing liberty—some evangelicals would even say license—in essentials like the Virgin Birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ. Is the mainline willing to reverse this trend?

Third, some evangelicals are asking, “Why now?” Why this sudden interest in us when we have been ignored for so long? Without doubting the sincerity of many of those who want the evangelicals back, it still has a pragmatic look to it: the evangelicals are in the ascendency and the mainline is on the decline. Many evangelicals remain leery of the liberal establishmentarians, and not without reason. Hutcheson himself admits, with disarming honesty:

“The signs—at least at the mainline denominational level—are not encouraging. A power establishment which insists on only one model of mission and maintenance and which manipulates political processes and budgets to support that one model (this is how many evangelicals perceive what is happening in mainline churches with liberal-ecumenicals in control), encourages the battle option. I personally come out of the liberal-ecumenical ethos. My background, education, training, and experience have all been mainline liberal-ecumenical. By every instinct I respond to situations in liberal ways. Yet after six years of close, intensive observation in the heart of one mainline denominational bureaucracy, and with continual opportunities to observe others, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the evangelical perception is, on the whole, accurate.”

However, not all evangelicals have given up. In fact, large numbers have stayed within the mainline denominations and are willing to engage in discussion, with a view to working at an accommodation. But the ball is in the court of those who have been trying to push them out. If the liberal establishment will allow for genuine participation by committed evangelicals and will show its good faith in some substantive ways, then perhaps progress can be made.

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Hutcheson wishes it so. He closes his book with this observation:

“Perhaps the most important thing the diverse elements in a pluralistic church can do is to pray together. In committee meetings, in congregational gatherings, in worship services, in leadership groups, in conferences and conventions, in ecumenical gatherings, the most effective single method of coping with diversity is to pray. Prayer for unity, prayer for understanding, prayer for a spirit of love, prayer for adversaries, prayer for dissenters, prayer for the particular congregation, prayer for the whole church—an atmosphere of continuing and earnest prayer places the responsibility for creating a constructive pluralism where it belongs. Regardless of options perceived, choices made, and human successes or failures, the church is God’s. Its future is in God’s hands.”

Hutcheson’s book is strong medicine and it will challenge anyone who reads it. Whether his answers are completely right or not is debatable, but he has started asking the right questions. That is certainly a step in the right direction.

Walter A. Elwell, professor of theology in Wheaton College Graduate School, is Christianity Today’s book editor.

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