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The mainline (also sometimes called mainstream) or mainline Protestant denominations are those Protestant denominations that comprised the vast majority of American Protestantism in the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s. They were the dominant U. S. Protestant denominations. Most are rooted in the U. S. North, and most have maintained moderate theologies that stress both social justice concerns on the one hand, and personal salvation and evangelism on the other hand.[1]

With a steep rise of Evangelical Christian groups in the late 20th century, mainline Protestant denominations inversely declined sharply. From 1958 to 2008, mainline church membership declined from well over 50 percent of all American adults to 15 percent—but still roughly 20 million people. They continue to have pockets of strength in the Midwest and South where many communities are heavily Protestant, and where mainline churches are generally more conservative. Overall, the denominations have struggled vigorously to face their problems, distracted by never-ending debates over gay clergy and gay marriages that still threaten to split one or more denominations.[2]

Most mainline denominations were brought to the United States by their respective historic immigrant groups.[3] The six major denominations typically considered to be mainline are the American Baptist Churches USA; The Episcopal Church (from English Anglican); the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (German, Scandinavian, and Baltic); the Presbyterian Church USA (Scottish); the United Church of Christ (historically known as the Congregationalists); and the United Methodist Church (English and Welsh).[4]

In typical usage, the term mainline is contrasted with evangelical. Mainline churches tend to be more liberal in terms of theology and political issues.[5] This places them to the ideological left of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches.


Mainline denominations have tried to come to terms with the impact of modernity, critical biblical scholarship, and the scientific method. They tend to be open to new ideas and societal changes without abandoning what they consider to be the historical foundations of the Christian faith. They have been increasingly open to the ordination of women.

They hold a wide range of theologies—conservative, moderate and liberal. While about half of mainline Protestants label themselves as liberal, nearly one-third call themselves conservative. Most local mainline congregations have a strong, active conservative element. Yet, evangelical and fundamentalist churches view them as theologically and socially far too liberal.[6]

Moderation is the distinctive emblem of mainline churches. They are generally comfortable with gender inclusive language in contemporary translations of the Bible. Their theologies tend to be moderate and influenced by higher criticism, an approach used by critical scholars to separate the Bible's earliest historical elements from later additions and even intentional distortions. Mainline denominations generally teach that the Bible is God's word in function, but that it must be interpreted both through the lens of the cultures in which it was originally written, and examined using God-given reason. Mainline Christian groups are more accepting of other beliefs and faiths.[6]

A 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 22% of the 7,500 mainline Christians surveyed said the Bible is God's Word and is to be interpreted as literally true, word for word. Thirty-eight percent thought that the Bible is God's Word, but is not to be taken literally, word for word. Twenty-eight percent said the Bible was not the Word of God, but was of human origin.[7]

Theologically, mainline denominations are Trinitarian and proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God; they adhere to the historic creeds such as the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

The inclusion of a denomination in the mainline Protestant category does not imply that every member of that denomination, nor even every member of their clergy, accepts some of the beliefs generally held in common by other mainline churches. They allow considerable theological latitude. Moreover, mainline denominations have within them Confessing Movements or charismatic renewal movements which are more conservative in tone. Unlike evangelical Christian churches, mainline Christian denominations emphasize the biblical concept of social justice. Early in the 20th century they actively supported the Social Gospel. Some theologically conservative critics have accused the mainline churches of the substitution of leftist social action for Christian evangelizing.[3]

Mainline churches were basically pacifistic before 1940, but under the influence of realists such as Reinhold Neibuhr they supported World War II and the Cold War.[8] They have been far from uniform in their reaction to homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, though generally more tolerant of these issues than either the Catholic Church or the more conservative Protestant churches.[9]

Mainline denominations

The largest U. S. mainline churches are sometimes referred to as the Seven Sisters of American Protestantism.[10] The term was apparently coined by William Hutchison[11] in reference to the major liberal groups of American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists / United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians during the period between 1900 and 1960.

The Association of Religion Data Archives also considers these denominations to be mainline:[13]

  • Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) 350,000 members
  • Reformed Church in America 269,815 members (2005)[14]
  • International Council of Community Churches 108,806 members (2005)[15]
  • National Association of Congregational Christian Churches 65,569 members (2000)[16]
  • North American Baptist Conference 64,565 members (2002)
  • Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches 44,000 members (1998)[17]
  • Moravian Church in America, Northern Province 24,650 members (2003)[18]
  • Moravian Church in America, Southern Province 21,513 members (1991)[19]
  • Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 12,000 members (2007)
  • Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church
  • Congregational Christian Churches, (not part of any national CCC body)
  • Moravian Church in America, Alaska Province

The Association of Religion Data Archives has difficulties collecting data on traditionally African American denominations. Those churches most likely to be identified as mainline include these Methodist groups:

Declining membership

While the term "mainline" once implied a certain numerical majority or dominant presence in mainstream society, that is no longer the case. Both evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups have been growing, but mainline Christianity—both membership and worship attendance—has been shrinking.[1] In 1965, membership in mainline denominations constituted well over 50 percent of the American population. They maintained a little growth through 1975, [6] but in 2008 they made up just one-fifth of all Protestant congregations. The decline in mainline Protestant denominations is well-documented and has been occurring for decades. The number of mainline churches in the U. S. declined from more than 80,000 churches in the 1950s to about 72,000 in 2008.[4]

There has been a shift in membership from mainline denominations to other churches. [20] The number of nondenominational Christians in the evangelical-style tradition of the megachurches doubled between 1990 and 2001.[4] At the same time, for example, the United Church of Christ declined 14.8 percent and the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) 11.6 percent.[3]

Various causes have been cited, including monotonous and ponderous liturgies, intimidating worship surroundings, and too much tradition.[21] Behaviorally, only one-third (31%) of mainline adults believe they have a personal responsibility to discuss their faith with people who have different beliefs. There is a strikingly brief tenure of pastors in mainline churches. On average, these pastors last four years before moving to another congregation. That is about half the average among Protestant pastors in non-mainline churches.[4]

Mainline churches have had difficulty attracting minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asians. Hispanics comprise 6% of the mainline population but 16% of the US population. The Barna Group considers the failure of mainline Protestants to add substantial numbers of Hispanics to be very significant, given both the rapid increase of the Hispanic population as well as the outflow of Hispanics from Catholicism to Protestant churches in the past decade, most of whom are selecting evangelical or Pentecostal Protestant churches.[4]

Asians represent 4% of the American public, but only half that proportion among mainline congregants.[4]

Mainline denomination members have the lowest birthrate among American Christian groups. Unless there is a surge of new members, rising death rates are predicted to diminish their ranks even further in the years ahead.[6]

Some other findings of the Barna Group:

  • From 1958 to 2008, mainline church membership dropped by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people—15% of all American adults.
  • From 1998 to 2008, there was a 22% drop in the percentage of adults attending mainline congregations who have children under the age of 18 living in their home.
  • In 2009, nearly 40 percent of mainline church attendees were single. This increase has been driven higher by a rise in the number of divorced and widowed adherents.
  • From 1998 to 2008, volunteerism dropped 21 percent; adult Sunday school participation decreased 17 percent.
  • The average age of a mainline pastor in 1998 was 48 and increased to 55 by 2009.
  • Pastors on average remain with a congregation for four years compared to twice that length for non-mainline church leaders.[22]

Recent statistics from the Pew Forum provide additional explanations for the decline.

  • Evangelical church members are younger than those in mainline denominations. Fourteen percent of evangelical congregations are between 18–29 (compared to 2%), 36% between 30–49, 28% between 50–64, and 23% 65 or older.

Not paralleling the decline in membership is the household income of members of mainline denominations. Overall, it is higher than that of evangelicals:

  • 25% Reported less than a $30,000 income per year.
  • 21% Reported $30,000-$49,999 per year.
  • 18% Reported $50,000-$74,999 per year.
  • 15% Reported $75,000-$99,999 per year.
  • 21% Reported an income of $100,000 per year or more, compared to only 13% of evangelicals.[23]

Statistics concerning churches

Protestantism's hundreds of different denominations are loosely grouped according to three fairly distinct religious traditions—evangelical Protestant churches (26.3% of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1%) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9%).[24]

The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) counts 26,344,933 members of mainline churches versus 39,930,869 members of evangelical Protestant churches.[13]

Some denominations with similar names and historical ties to mainline groups are not considered mainline. The Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are often considered too conservative for this category, and thus grouped as Evangelical.

Further reading

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People (1976; 2004) excerpt and text search
  • Balmer, Randall. Grant Us Courage: Travels along the Mainline of American Protestantism (1996) online edition
  • Balmer, Randall, and Fitzmier, John R. The Presbyterians (1993). 274 pp. survey by two scholars
  • Billingsley, K. L. From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches (1991)
  • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Mainstream Protestant "Decline": The Presbyterian Pattern. (1990). 263pp.
  • Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (2001); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (2003); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005 (2006).
  • Hutchison, William R. ed. Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Marty, Martin E. "The Establishment That Was, " Christian Century November 15, 1989, p. 1045. online
  • Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion, Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (1999)
  • Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Tipton, Steven M. Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Wuthnow, Robert, and John H. Evans, eds. The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism, (2002), 430 pp.; essays by scholars


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Chang, Perry. "Recent Changes in Membership and Attendance. " Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) Nov. 2006. Web: Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.)
  2. Stern, Gary. "Mainline Protestants reeling. " The Journal News, May 4, 2003. Web: < NY News> 16 Dec 2009
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bottum, Joseph. "The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline. " First Things (August/September 2008) Web: [1]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches. " The Barna Group. December 7, 2009. Web: 12 Dec. 2009>
  5. The Decline of Mainline Protestantism
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Struckmeyer, Kurt. "Mainline Christianity. " Following Jesus Web site. Web: 13 Dec 2009
  7. U. S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Diverse and Politically Relevant. Washington D. C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. June 2008. Web: September 27, 2009 at Pew Forum Report 2008.
  8. Michael G. Thompson, "An Exception to Exceptionalism: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr's Vision of "Prophetic" Christianity and the Problem of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy, " American Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 833-855
  9. Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005 (2006)
  10. Protestant Establishment I (Craigville Conference)
  11. Hutchison, William, Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1989), Cambridge U. Press, ISBN 0-521-40601-3
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 NCC - 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches
  13. 13.0 13.1 Mainline protestant denominations
  14. Reformed membership
  15. ICCC membership
  16. NACCC membership
  17. UFMCC membership
  18. Moravian Northern Province membership
  19. Moravian Southern Province membership
  20. "The U. S. Church Finance Market: 2005-2010" (April 1, 2006 report)
  21. Tenny-Brittian, Bill. "Why the Mainline is Shrinking. " Church Solutions, 04/02/2009. Web:
  22. "Mainline Churches May Be 'On Precipice of Decline'. " Charisma News Online. 09 December 2009. Web: 12 Dec 2009
  23. U. S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Diverse and Politically Relevant. Washington D. C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. June 2008. Web: September 27, 2009 at Pew Forum Report 2008.
  24. "Report 1: Religious Affiliation, " The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2009. Web: 13 Dec. 2009

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