There continues to be articles that either lament the decreased attendance in mainline churches in the United States or rejoice in the decline of the institutionalized church. Both see as an increased absence of religion in younger Americans. One side recoils in horror for souls they assume are lost forever while others cheer the downfall ofestablished churches assuming that their own movementscan profit from mainline Protestant decline. I believe that the smaller numbers in attendance do not reflect a change in faith but instead a change in American mores. Ultimately, mainline churches will benefit from congregations of the committed.
When I was a kid in the fifties, church attendance was mandatory in order to function in society. People who did not attend some religious institution were seen as outside the bounds of society. Their businesses were to be shunned and their children proselytized. I lived in a city that was predominately Southern Baptist, so the majorityof church goers were Baptisteven if they were only "Sunday Baptists" engaging in less than Christian practices during the week.
By the sixties, community standards were beginning to relax, As a teenager, I could stop attending church with only mild approbrium from family and friends. (The church my mother and I attended did not approve of members asking questions. I was told my questions were a sign of unbelief.)Adults still faced social stigma for not attending church at least once a month.
By the time I received my doctorate in chemistry in the early seventies, I caught only minor flack for being a confirmed deist and never attending church. God was not present in my life. I never attended church and neither did most of my friends. My supervising professor did. He was a committed member of his Presbyterian church and had tried to persuade me ever so gently not to work in the lab on Sundays. He never succeeded.
When the eighties rolled around, all that remained of obligatory church attendance for younger Americans had devolved into attendance on two occasions: Christmas Eve and Easter. Still, older Americans were entrenched in the weekly ritual of morning worship and indoctrinated in its social benefits.But, there was another form of worship on the rise - the megachurch. Many of these churches had existed since the fifties, but their growth took off in the eighties. These churches vacuumed up members as people fled the cities for the suburbs.
I had a front row seat on the growth of one megachurch. In 1979, I helped start a church in Austin, Texas. (In 1975 I became a Christian and joined a liberal Baptist church) Very few of the sixteen that originally saw the need for a new church thought about becoming a megachurch althoughit was our pastor's dream from the beginning. We started with 60 in attendance on the first Sunday and grew to over 6000 attendees spread over three services every Sundaymorning.
By the nineties, mainline churches had started to see a precipitous drop in attendance. I think two things happened. First, the megachurch provided religious entertainment with few strings attached. One hour Sunday morning was all that was demanded. Second, people who had grown up in the days of mandatory church attendance and for whom it still was a way of life began to die off. Together, these factors caused the decline in mainline Protestant churches.
Who remains in the mainline churches? Some survivors of the days of mandatory attendance have proved to be long lived and continueto occupy the pews. Most of the remaining congregants are believers and true converts. The rest are the flotsam and jetsam of modern society, people who feel lost in a megachurch or are somehow outside societal norms. In the mainline Protestant church they find a welcome if for no other reason than they fillthe pews. Perhaps that is too cynical. In the small church I now belong to, such people are loved, accepted and nurtured. I hope that is true in most churches.
So, the megachurch has siphoned off those that want church as entertainment, a way to compartmentalize religion by reserving it to their occasional Sunday attendance, or a way to meet people in a supposedly safe environment. Megachurches do have their committed, but they are few. The mainline church has shrunk but still cares for the least including, but not limited to, the damaged humans that find their way through their doors. The decline is an illusion of numbers only. The relative number of true followers of Christ remains unchanged. Those that came because society demanded it are gone as well as those that found their answer in the megachurch. Today membership in the mainline church is a matter of belief first, attendance second. I think that is the way it should be.