Ever since Dean Kelley wrote Why Conservative Churches are Growing in 1972, the death of the mainline denominations has been predicted as imminent. Not so fast, says Ted Campbell, a church historian at Southern Methodist University. In The Sky is Falling, the Church is Dying, Campbell writes that the reports of the death of the traditional Protestant denominations has been greatly exaggerated.
The main subjects of Campbell's book are what are sometimes called the mainline denominations: United Methodists (the denomination in which Campbell has served as pastor and professor), Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church in the USA, United Church of Christ, and others. Looking at attendance trends, he shows that although membership rolls have declined, attendance has actually been strong. "In the 1940s and '50s and '60s the names of inactive members were on the rolls of the churches, and the 'nones' today are not on the rolls of churches. The practical difference it's making in church life is about zero."
A common criticism of the mainline churches is their liberalism. Campbell argues that although the are typically progressive on issues such as gay marriage, the still "espouse very traditional theological views and attitudes toward Christian worship." And while some in these denominations may hold liberal theological views, "Historic Protestant churches, as churches, have remained rather consistent in affirming historic Christian teachings." I'm no church historian nor am I a United Methodist insider. But anecdotally and in my experience, some of these churches seem to be hotbeds of universalism and other forms of theological liberalism. I hope for the sake of these churches and for the Kingdom that Campbell is right and the encounters I've had with un-Christian teaching in the pulpits of mainline churches are a minority.
Campbell's tone is light and his outlook is very optimistic. I appreciated his confidence, not just in the resilience of human institutions of the church, but in the sovereignty of God and the variety of expressions of Christian faith. I still harbor some fear that maybe the sky is falling, though. Even if mainstream Christians aren't universalists, modern tolerance tends to become universalism-lite. Cultural sensitivity becomes a reluctance to evangelize. It's undeniable that European Christians are having fewer children and are not actively evangelizing, while Muslim immigrants are settling in Europe and having lots of children. Demographic trends point to a dying church in Europe. Give the American church a few more decades, and I fear we will be in the same boat.
In the meantime, Campbell and his fellow mainline congregants will carry on. In my evangelical church, we will carry on. All of us will hold out hope for heaven, and look for a day when we all worship together at the throne of God, not caring about one denomination or another.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!