What’s at stake in the dying of the mainline church

by Chris Gehrz

Last year my family started attending Roseville Lutheran, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in our neighborhood. This is my wife’s religious tradition, not mine, yet I have found a lot to love in becoming familiar with this church. So this past winter it was dismaying to hear two of our pastors repeat a statistical projection from the ELCA’s own research office, explaining that while the denomination currently counts over 3 million members, it expects to be down to just 67,000 by 2050 — with fewer than 16,000 in church on an average Sunday as early as 2041.

While it is shocking to be told that the country’s fifth-largest Protestant denomination may virtually disappear before my children start having children, the trend should not surprise anyone. In 1968, the Lutheran Church in America and American Lutheran Church had nearly 6 million members between them. When they merged 20 years later to form the ELCA, that number was down to 5 million, then just over 3 million another two decades after the merger. And as I look out from our choir loft, I can see a demographic profile that does not augur well for the ELCA. Our congregation remains relatively large, but like most Lutheran communities in this country, it is much older and much whiter than the overall population.

And it is not just the ELCA. Recent projections show both the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada all but evaporating by 2040. According to Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer’s analysis of the General Social Survey, current trend lines would take mainline Protestant membership and attendance to 0% by 2039.

Like Stetzer, “I take no delight in mainline Protestantism’s decline and am hoping and praying for a reversal.” In fact, he expected that current trends would slow or modestly reverse, since it is likely that “Churches will be restarted and revitalized and there will be advancement initiatives.” Presenting the ELCA projections last fall, Luther Seminary vice president Dwight Zscheile was hopeful that “Amidst the disintegration and decline, the church has an opportunity to rediscover its identity,” as the mainline both goes back to “basics” and becomes more adept at “vernacular translation” in a changing culture.

Most importantly, as our visitation pastor preached this past Advent, the kingdom of God will endure, even if the ELCA doesn’t.

Yes, and amen. But for all its problems, there is much about the mainline that I would hate to lose — either because it has withered away in numbers, or because it has drastically reinvented itself so as to avoid that fate. As American Christianity goes through a period of realignment and (God willing) renewal, I hope that several features of my mainline experience survive. Let me name just three:

Women in ministry

In an inscription on the balcony in our sanctuary, the Apostle Paul reminds us that it is by “the power of the Holy Spirit” that we “may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Truly, I have hope for the renewal of the ELCA, the mainline, and all the church, because I trust that God’s Spirit continues to move in our midst: comforting, counseling, and gifting us to accomplish more than we can imagine.

Whenever I need to be reminded of that truth, I turn my head to the right of the choir loft, where I see the two women who serve as our senior pastor and associate pastor preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. Then I think of the women on our staff who direct the church’s children and youth ministries. And while I don’t put a lot of stock in church hierarchies, I should note that women currently serve as the bishop of our local synod and as the denomination’s presiding bishop.

In a time when most non-Pentecostal evangelical denominations deny such roles to women or fail to back up egalitarian words with regular calls to pastoral ministry and leadership, it is the mainline that best embodies the Pentecost message that God has poured out his spirit on all humanity, such that daughters and sons alike will speak for him.


“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,” continued Paul’s letter to the Romans, “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5-6). It is the mainline wing of Protestantism that has generally taken most seriously the dis-evangelical effects of post-Reformation disunity.

Here I don’t so much mean the institutional ecumenism of the National and World Councils of Churches as the lived faith of congregations like ours, where we are regularly reminded both of our Lutheran distinctiveness and our participation in the unity of the church catholic. To consider the example of just one recent Sunday, we sang hymns by Lutherans like Philipp Nicolai and Martin Franzmann, but also one by the Benedictine nun Delores Dufner. During communion, our choral anthem came from the nineteenth century Anglican, William Monk. It started with Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17: “At that first Eucharist before you died, / O Lord, you prayed that all be one in you.” The regular celebration of that sacrament itself is my favorite ecumenical practice, as the broken body gathers together to join “with each other and with all the saints in heaven” in singing God’s praises and receiving his grace.

“Go in peace,” we were told at the end of worship, “and serve the Lord.” This is a charge we can only fulfill together, with Christians who might belong and believe differently than us. During the education hour that followed, we learned about our church’s partnership with Dorothy Day Place, which continues that Catholic writer’s commitment to living in solidarity with the poor. The week before, children of all ages had assembled materials for Bridging, a local nonprofit that helps Minnesotans transition out of homelessness. Its Catholic founder had died the day before.

Music and worship

In Paul’s much-debated passage on the mutual submission that marks a united church, he also describes being “filled with the Spirit” in these terms: “you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19).

Of course, there are many ways of living this out in practice. My preference is for the liturgy and music of “traditional” worship, but I would guess that Zscheile would find in our 9 a.m. service many examples of how “mainline churches’” language and cultural forms are inaccessible to most people in their neighborhoods. Whenever it becomes rote and staid, such worship exemplifies what historian Jaroslav Pelikan (a Lutheran who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy) meant by traditionalism: “the dead faith of the living.”

But at its vibrant, creative best, such worship embodies Pelikan’s definition of tradition: “the living faith of the dead.” My heart swells as the centuries-old words of Nicolai’s Epiphany chorale again “teach us / God’s own love through you has reached us.” It is worth pointing out that five of the eight texts our congregation or choir sang in that morning’s hour of worship were written by authors born in the twentieth century. This, too, is a living tradition: Christian composers and writers continuing to adapt old musical forms to accompany still older words, and Christian laypeople continuing to sing them (many in four-part harmony, another way we may learn Christian unity).

That this happens is not the result of mere inertia. It has taken the conscious, ongoing investment of mainline churches in publishing houses that encourage musical creativity and in colleges that provide musical training for professionals and amateurs alike.

I don’t mean to sound naïve. Each of these elements can be problematic. Beautiful music can become the end of worship, rather than one of its means. Practiced for its own sake, ecumenism easily turns bureaucratic or latitudinarian. And the conviction that the Spirit is bringing renewal can tempt us to exchange dead orthodoxy for living heterodoxy.

But I am not sure that any of these problems are inherent to the practices themselves. If mainline Protestantism as I have known it is bound to decline or die, I pray that whatever succeeds it will develop healthy new expressions of these enduring commitments to a living tradition of music and worship, an ecumenism formed in worship and lived out in love of neighbors, and an openness to the Spirit that God pours out on women and men alike.