Mainline denominations struggle

by Mark Chavez (Director, WordAlone Network)

March 24, 2005

Leaders of the renewing and confessing movements in the mainline Protestant denominations in America and Canada heard reports of continuing struggles and decline in all the denominations at the Association for Church Renewal meeting in Arlington, Va., March 8-9.

Participating in the meeting were more than 20 leaders of movements within denominations including The Episcopal Church USA, United Church of Christ, United Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As we heard reports from the various movements, it was clear that mainline denominations were experiencing one of two trends—they are either “dissolving,” losing congregations and individual members, or they are seeing the formation of a “church within” each of their churches. photo of Mark ChavezDenominations that are more congregational in their polities, like the United Church of Christ, are dissolving, says David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of Biblical Witness Fellowship, a renewal movement within the UCC. The UCC declined from 8,184 churches in 1960 to 5,804 in 2003. Other reports put the number below 5,800 because of churches that withdrew in 2004. “Membership losses in the past year averaged 78 people a day.” (“The Witness,” Winter 2005, p. 17)

Denominations that are more hierarchical in their polities, and which have a stronger hold on local churches’ property and assets such as The Episcopal Church, are experiencing the formation of churches within their churches, such as the Anglican Communion Network, reported Cherie Wetzel. She is a leader in Anglicans United, a renewal movement in The Episcopal Church.

The largest denomination represented at the meeting, the United Methodist Church, is not “dissolving” or experiencing “a church within a church,” but leaders of the renewal movements in that denomination report that more people than ever are talking now about the possibility of forming a new denomination.

Many of the national denominational offices are struggling with the same trends—a decline in financial support from churches, difficulty in recruiting for positions in the national offices and severe financial difficulties for the denominational publishing houses. Recent ELCA news releases confirm that it struggles with loss of support and financial problems for Augsburg Fortress, its publishing house.

The leaders of the other renewal movements expressed great concern for the ELCA and its churchwide assembly this summer. They are praying that the ELCA does not repeat the tragic mistake of the UCC, which formally approves homosexual activity and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, or The Episcopal Church, which has—in effect—a local option for the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions.

The highlight of this meeting—and all of the other Association for Church Renewal meetings I have attended the past four years—is the gift of unity that we receive in Christ despite our diverse traditions and practices. Participants at these meetings run the spectrum from charismatics to Anglo Catholics (Episcopalians who lean toward Catholic doctrine and practices) and yet we always experience unity in Christ at these meetings more often than we do at official gatherings within our own denominations. It is genuine ecumenism. For that, especially this Holy Week, we give thanks to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will work repentance in all of us, as individuals and as denominations, so that we all die with Christ to sin and rise with him so that “we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)

Further discussion of the proposals and votes on the resolutions are expected Tuesday.

WordAlone is meeting in convention at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn. Keynote speakers are discussing the authority of Scripture in teaching sessions.