The Hundred-Year Transition: From Protestant Privilege to Cultural Pluralism

John B. Lindner

For the last quarter of the twentieth century, I was privileged to serve churches in both denominational and ecumenical forms of ministry at the Interchurch Center in New York, known to many simply by its Riverside Drive address:“475.”

There I participated in the enormous change that unfolded within both the mainline Protestant de- nominations and the larger ecumenical agencies in which they played a primary role. I also witnessed the slow but widely reported decline of mainline influence – the result, ironically, of a mainline strength, its loyalty to Christ’s call to unity and prophetic witness. I want to explore that paradoxical strength in greater detail.

When I arrived at 475 in 1975, many of the structures and leaders from an earlier era were still in place. As a young seminary graduate at the time, I was awestruck to find myself in meetings with leaders of churches, social movements, and nations from around the world. At the time, 475 was head- quarters for several key Protestant denominations as well as the National Council of Churches. The founders’ vision for 475 was to locate denominations in the same building and enable day-to-day engagement in dialogue and cooperation. Fulfilling Christ’s prayer for Christian unity was a fervent goal of these post-World War II church leaders, and 475 embodied that hope.

But meshed with that hope was a deep irony. Plans for the Interchurch Center were conceived in the 1950s, the pinnacle of mainline Protestant power and privilege in American life. Yet even as the doors of 475 opened in Spring 1960, a new era was being born – an era in which mainline Protestant churches would no longer dominate American culture. In the waning years of the old century, many denominations would depart 475, and the landscape of ecumenism changed considerably from its post- World War II arrangements. Indeed 475 had become a metaphor for the change and diffusion that has taken place in Protestant churches over the last six decades.

A Fixation on Decline

As the mainline Protestant churches began to descend from their high perch in American culture and political life in the 1960s, religious commentators initiated what is now nearly a half-century of research and examination of the Protestant giants’ erosion of status and power. Narratives in the press have been content to focus on numerical and political “decline,” asserting how the conservative, evangelical churches were winning over the religious hearts of American from these old liberal mainline bodies.

Yet a fixation on decline misses what is at the heart of the change that has been taking place in American religious culture. If anything, it was the success of mainline Protestant churches in promoting a message of unity that helped to bring about a new era of pluralism and inclusion, even to the extent of triggering declines in denominational loyalties. The search for understanding mainline Protestant churches – and their future role and identity – is not helped or clarified by a focus on decline. It’s far more constructive to identify strengths from the past that inform present and future identity in a radically changed religious demography where no single faith group dominates the culture.

Though research has certainly identified worrisome trends regarding the well-being of liberal and moderate Protestant churches, many studies report a surprising degree of vitality in congregational life. Compared to historic European counterparts, America’s moderate and liberal Protestant mainline churches (American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church) continue to experience a much higher degree of institutional affiliation and regular participation. This is not to ignore that in the last half of the twentieth century there has been definite numerical erosion. But countering the narrative of liberal-decline-and-conservative-growth is evidence that many congregations with strong social-justice commitments experience growth.

Demographic Dramas

Such positive statements are encouraging, but it is also true that more than half of all mainline Protestant congregations have fewer than 100 members and are therefore financially marginal. (Approximately 10 percent of mainline Protestant congregations have 1,000 members or more.) And mainline Protestant congregations tend to be aging congregations.

Beyond such statistics, there is a larger reason for the decrease of mainline Protestant proportions within the U.S. population: demographics. A 2008 study by the Pew Center estimates mainline Protestants now account for 18 percent of the population. These churches are predominately Anglo-American churches, and Anglo-Americans with each decade represent a smaller percentage in the U.S. population that is experiencing significant shifts in ethnicity.

These trends chronicle turmoil and transformation. Yet change and uncertainty are nothing new for American Protestants. A little history can give us insight into possible future mainline trajectories.

Religious communities arrived in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with a variety of notions of church, community, and government. Some came with experience as “established churches.” But with the Act of Toleration enacted by the Maryland legislature in 1649, minority religious groups began to tip the scales toward non-establishment, and the colonies began to grapple with the challenge of Christian pluralism. Fierce struggles took place as diverse believers clashed over their differences.

By the late eighteenth century, a voluntary religious culture, undergirded by the right of free exercise of religion, allowed churches to organize themselves in new ways. Non-establishment and religious freedom, embedded in the First Amendment, would soon prevail as critical democratic principles. The principle of free exercise fit well with the individualistic character of Protestant theologies and ecclesiology. But a fragmented religious marketplace did not mean churches relinquished their ambitions of cultural influence. As American church historian Robert Handy argued in his classic work A Christian America, “The passing of patterns of colonial establishment did not at all mean the Christian hope for triumph of Christian civilization was being given up, but that voluntary ways of working toward it were being extended.”

By the 1800s, the Christianization of society was well underway: Christian faith and economic striving were blended together to encapsulate a vision of Christian destiny and civilization. This marriage of piety and progress in the context of special calling (or manifest destiny) and voluntarism in part propelled the century’s great missionary movements and the lead-up to Nobel laureate John R. Mott’s call for the evangelization of the world in the early twentieth century.

These evolving voluntaristic movements soon embraced a broad spectrum of Christian activism – missionary endeavors, “benevolence” initiatives, revivalism. American-grown religious expressions such as the Mormons were arguably as much a part of the voluntary movements as were the Christian social movements that stirred abolition, the social gospel, temperance, woman’s suffrage, and advocacy to end child labor.

Twentieth-Century Limited

In the twentieth century, boldly declared the “Christian Century,” the vision of Christian America matured: social Christian ideas were everywhere, the foundational values of modern mainline churches. The growth and maturing of dynamic voluntary movements included the student Christian movement in the YMCA and YWCA, the Interchurch movement, and the Sunday School movement.

The period immediately following World War II was the climax of the era of this Protestant establishment. In the 1950s local churches continued to grow, and denominational headquarters grew with them. But growth meant leaving behind traditions: in the mainline world, the early 1950s saw the replacement of voluntary movements by professional denominational staffs serving large representative agencies, boards, and commissions. Ecumenical structures also lost their voluntaristic character, most often serving as centers for coordinating collaboration among denominational staffs.

Optimism for these new institutional expressions of Christian unity was both widespread and short-lived. In his later years Eugene Carson Blake, the renowned Presbyterian ecumenical leader, confided to a friend his surprise and disappointment that COCU (the Consultation on Church Union) was still languishing as an unfulfilled hope as late as the 1980s. He had expected an immediate positive response to his famous call for unity in 1962 from the pulpit of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

The triumphal hopes for a unity envisioned in this postwar period by the denominational establishment cannot be overstated. Protestant church leaders spoke with great moral authority, and they believed they were poised to achieve the unity for which Jesus had prayed. But just as the Protestant establishment approached the height of its influence, the 1960s unleashed a new force – contemporary pluralism. Globally, the decade marked the end of colonialism, the beginning of an aggressive, instantaneous media age, and the burgeoning confidence of nationalities that had previously gone unheard. In 1965 the United States passed two land- mark acts of reform legislation: both the immigration act and civil rights act opened the door to new peoples – races, cultures, religions – changing the character of participation in society and gradually the ethnic racial make up of the American population. The old Protestant epoch was over.

By the early 1970s the face of leadership was changing. Women and people of color expected to be included in leadership and to share power in the church. The last vestiges of the old voluntaristic movement, nurtured over the course of two centuries, had come to an end. A notable casualty was the student Christian movement, which was perceived as having failed to adjust sufficiently to the new pluralism.

An All-American Ethos

Yet even as the Protestant establishment was losing its central place, it lent its values of Biblical unity and justice to the national movement for civil rights and in support of the immigrant. Even though local churches were divided over civil rights, mainline church leaders were at the forefront of the action: many pastors, especially in the South, were fired for their support of racial integration. But the core of the story is that the leadership of mainline Protestant churches, hand-in-hand with leaders of historic black churches, Roman Catholic leaders, and Jewish leaders, together began to forge a new inclusive vision of America that stood for equality before the law and a spirit of tolerance – and which today is largely the cultural norm.

Only when we grasp this history can we begin to address Protestant identity for the future. I believe the spirit of freedom and voluntarism, a passion for unity, and commitment to justice are themes that remain embedded in Protestant American experience and memory. They have come to be American values.

What of Protestant values now? Protestant identity is complex. From the time of the earliest re- formers, the Protestant churches encouraged both individual practices of faith as well as a social witness. In one sense, the current search for renewed identity for mainline churches is a paradox in that Protestant churches are victims of their own teachings. By valuing an ethos of the individual quest for faith, Protestant practice has resulted in a drift toward the self-authentication of truth, suspicion of ecclesiastical authority, an outbreak of freelance spirituality, launching generations of seekers. As surveys routinely report, denominational influence wanes: people are increasingly selective in the way they recognize authority of Scripture, creed, ethical and moral teaching, or ecclesial disciplines.

Youth Groundswell, Grounded

Today people move between Protestant churches with less regard for denominational labels than be- fore. Previously, to be a member of a denomination was to be raised in an extended, even global, family with all of the disciplines, expectations, and support systems of a family. A century ago, these “vertical,”denomination-oriented relations and loyalties were reinforced by the experiences that congregants enjoyed in the voluntary grassroots movements. Such voluntary Christian associations, including the student YMCAs and YWCAs, were the feeder systems for a vital church life, nurturing generations of committed church youth. These movements served to mentor young people, provide them with an identity in the faith, find them a role in the denomination, and give them exposure to international students and the larger church. That culture of church-oriented youth movements has largely been lost.

Surveying this history, I conclude that we find ourselves in an ongoing, hundred-year transition from Protestant Era to Pluralism. I would argue that two basic markers define a century of transition. The first is the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as first Catholic president of the U.S., an event that marks the beginning of pluralism. The second is the projected date in the mid-twenty-first century when people of color will be the majority population nationwide.

Depositioning, Repositioning

Now almost 50 years into this hundred-year transition, Protestant churches are still reacting and perhaps subconsciously still trying to reassert a lost prestige and cultural dominance. The most common form of reaction is the restructuring of agencies and church organization, as though the problem is simply a matter of attaining organizational efficiency. Others turn to leadership strategies based on corporate models, again assuming it to be a matter of efficiency rather than a more profound struggle for a new identity.

As the former religious elites in American society, mainline Protestants find it difficult to imagine what it might mean to exist as a mere religious minority. For decades, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, Protestants could take for granted their identity when Christianity was at the center of the culture.

“In Christendom Christians needed no such effort, for identity simply came with the territory, as it always does for a dominant faith,” Brueggemann wrote in the Spring 1998 issue of Word & World.

But that was before the “depositioning of Christian faith” now taking place, Brueggemann says. Forging a Protestant core identity now requires alert self-examination.

“The beginning point is the recognition that clear Christian identity is not a cultural given, as it might have been in former times of domination. (Christian identity) is now an oddness that requires courageous intentionality,” he wrote.

Incongruities abound in transitional times. Currently, for instance, our Protestant self-perception assumes an assembly of churches that embraces the world’s diversity. We have been advocates for a multiracial/multicultural society. But our practice as churches looks quite different. Surveys indicate that less than 10 percent of mainline Protestant congregations are even modestly multicultural. In an article in the Christian Century (Feb. 28, 2001) on the subject of racially mixed churches, sociologist Nancy Ammerman was quoted: “Mainline (Protestant) folks, for all their talk about diversity, lag significantly behind.” She says there are a host of reasons for this. “One surely is the disproportionately upper-middle class, highly-educated character of traditional Anglo mainline congregations and their clergy.” 

In the second half of the century-long transition to a plural society, it will be critical for mainline Protestant denominations to forge an identity with new humility as a minority among minorities. Such transformation of identity raises many issues. I will mention a few:

• What does it mean to be a progressive Christian? Have we spent too much energy in these last decades setting agendas in reaction to the religious right?

• What is a compelling Protestant vision?

Finding a balance between individualism and community, or between private and public faith, deserves attention. How do we fully engage both a public community spirit and congregational cohesion?

Is multicultural Protestantism possible? Or are the old mainline Protestant churches destined to become an enclave of ethnically Anglo churches? How much will our churches continue to be defined by ethnicity and class? What needs to change to free our congregational identities from race and class?

What might “connectional” church life and authority look like in the future? Are mainline denominations any longer sufficient carriers of tradition and connection?

• What global, linguistic, and interfaith competencies will be required of a Protestant church in an age of globalization and pluralism?

Can we find vigorous consensus around the meaning of the creeds and other teachings of the church?

We need to find plausible ways to express the meaning of spirituality, authority, the role of Scripture, and theology in community life as Protestant churches.

These are just a few of the questions to probe as we shape a lively and compelling life of worship and witness for the years ahead. We are navigating uncharted territory both for churches and for our society. There are no simple fixes. Though I focus here on the experience of mainline Protestants, I can imagine that my friends in historic black churches and in Roman Catholic parishes face similar challenges of future identity.

Those of us raised in the last days of the Protestant epoch have a special vocation after living through much struggle and change. We baby boomers might better be known as the Transitional Generation. Of course, every generation has a special calling for its time, and it is for us now in our later years to serve the role of community memory, to raise wise questions that point the way; like Moses we will not see the end of this journey. The young are the inheritors of this wonderful faith tradition. They will be looked to for leadership into the future.

In its best moments this faith tradition has been willing to be vulnerable and abandon patterns of privilege and power in order to share in community much more widely than anyone could have dreamed. The central story of the mainline Protestant churches should not be one of decline but one of further commitment to unity and justice, forged with creative intentionality.

That creativity must shape a community by ethics and liturgy, with a message that brings to our community and our children a clear and distinct story of what it means to live Protestant Christian lives in religiously plural and secular societies. The challenge is to move beyond an excessively individualistic piety as well as the old monochromatic notions of unity that were a form of cultural domination, and instead live into new notions of unity and freedom that come from sharing community with others. For that day I live in hope.

John B. Lindner is Director of the Department of External Relations at Yale Divinity School. He has also served widely in ecumenical and international work, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and the World Council of Churches. He is co-author of By Faith: Christian Students Among the Cloud of Witnesses (Friendship Press, 1991), a history of the ecumenical Christian student movement in the U.S.

SIDEBAR: Vitalities and Liabilities

   Congregational vitality faces embattled times, according to a new FACT2008 national survey of church life.

   Between 2005 and 2008, fewer congregations claimed to have spiritual vitality, strong finances, and a clear sense of mission. Fewer claimed worship attendance growth of 2 percent or more.

   Only 19 percent said their current financial health is excellent, compared to 31 percent in 2000 (the FACT2008 survey pre-dates the market collapse of late 2008).

   The study said mainline Protestant congregations face a special challenge, because their memberships are significantly older than other faith families. In nearly six of every ten mainline congregations a quarter or more of participants are 65 or older. This is nearly three times as great as for evangelical Protestant congregations.

   But this periodic survey records bright spots too. Pockets of church vitality disclose a pattern of key ingredients for strong church life, including openness to change, clarity of purpose, attentiveness to new members, and appreciation of volunteers.

   It found vitality especially among congregations - port of lay volunteers. Such congregations are more likely to extend invitations to new people to become involved in introductory classes, take roles in worship (reading, singing, taking up offering), and get involved in a social ministry. These congregations also are more likely to provide training for volunteers.

Source: Fact2008, a product of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a multifaith coalition of American faith communities affiliated with Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research. See html.