Mainline Turnaround: Strategies for Congregations and Denominations

Mainline Turnaround: Strategies for Congregations and Denominations

by Lyle E. Schaller
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001 because they were subjected to conditions they were never designed to bear. However unwittingly, they were designed to fail when the unexpected happened. So it is, says Lyle Schaller, with mainline Protestant congregations and denominations. Designed to meet the needs of previous generations, they


The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001 because they were subjected to conditions they were never designed to bear. However unwittingly, they were designed to fail when the unexpected happened. So it is, says Lyle Schaller, with mainline Protestant congregations and denominations. Designed to meet the needs of previous generations, they were destined to fail when the needs of current generations diverged radically from those of their predecessors-as indeed they have. But it is not too late for these churches to reinvent themselves, to redesign their ministries, programs, and mission to focus on those born after 1960. With his customary insight and wide-ranging perspective, Schaller offers prescriptions for how mainline churches can respond to the needs of a new era.

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Abingdon Press
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A Mainline Turnaround

Strategies for Congregations and Denominations
By Lyle E. Schaller

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2005 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-05401-5

Chapter One

What Happened?

In the summer of 1980 a new 750-room hotel opened in Kansas City, Missouri. The Hyatt Regency was distinguished by a huge atrium covered by a steel and glass roof fifty feet above the floor. Three walkways at the second- , third- , and fourth-floor levels crossed the atrium and were suspended from the roof. The upper one on the west side connecting the fourth floors hung directly above the one connecting the second floors.

On a Friday evening in mid-July 1981, a dance was scheduled for the atrium with more than sixteen hundred people in attendance. Spectators on those second- and fourth-floor walkways began to stomp in rhythm with the music. The lower walkway was suspended from the one above it, so the two fell together, crashing down on the dancers and spectators below. A total of 114 people were killed, and another 200 were injured.

Eventually the National Bureau of Standards concluded the walkways were not designed to carry the stress created by that combination of the weight of the spectators plus the vibrations generated by the stomping. In effect, the walkways were designed to fail if the unexpected happened.

Why did the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City collapse on September 11, 2001? The National Institute of Standards and Technology subsequently concluded the combination of the intense heat, the inadequate fireproofing, the design of the floor trusses, the grade of the steel used in the construction, and other variables in the design meant that the buildings could crumble if the unexpected should happen. The unexpected came on a sunny September morning when the fuel-laden wings of two commercial aircraft traveling at nearly 600 miles per hour cut through those exterior walls and the fuel was ignited.

While it was completely unintentional, those walkways in that hotel in Kansas City and those office buildings in New York were designed to fail if the unexpected became the new reality. We see similar patterns in other areas of contemporary American life. New retail stores open with a business plan designed to fail. Many public schools are designed to produce failure among a significant number of students. Scores of new missions are planted every year using a design to produce failure. All across our society are hundreds of systems designed to respond safely and effectively to unanticipated circumstances while others are designed to fail.

A Detour Through Recent History

The half century following the Civil War brought a rapid increase in the number of Christian congregations and the number of church members in America. The combination of the frontier moving west, the immigration from Western Europe, the urbanization of America, the emancipation of the slaves, and the third great religious revival stimulated the demand for more churches. That demand increased the supply, and the increase on the supply side produced an increase in the demand. One of the consequences was the creation of several new denominations. Another was that growth curve in several denominations turned into a plateau in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

While the population of the United States increased by approximately 18 percent between 1926 and 1936, the census of religious bodies conducted by the United States Bureau of the Census in 1890, 1906, 1916, 1926, and 1936 reported an increase of only 2.3 percent in church membership between 1926 and 1936. Several religious traditions reported substantial increases, but several of what later were described as the mainline Protestant denominations reported decreases. The Mormons (LDS), for example, reported a 25 percent increase in numbers. The Roman Catholic Church reported an increase of 7 percent. Jews reported an increase of nearly 14 percent, the relatively new Assemblies of God reported an increase of 209 percent, while the Church of the Nazarene reported an increase of 114 percent, but the recently merged Evangelical and Reformed Church reported an increase of 7 percent, and Northern Baptists reported an increase of only 3 percent between 1926 and 1936.

On the other side of that ledger, the Southern Baptist Convention reported a decrease of 23 percent, the recently merged Congregational and Christian Churches reported a decrease of nearly 2 percent, and the Disciples of Christ reported a drop of 13 percent, while Presbyterians as a group reported nearly a 5 percent decrease in membership. The Methodist Episcopal Church, which had enjoyed an increase in membership of 25 percent between 1906 and 1916 and another increase of 10 percent between 1916 and 1926, reported a decrease of 14 percent between 1926 and 1936. The Methodist Episcopal Church South, which had experienced an increase in membership of 29 percent between 1906 and 1916, plus another gain of nearly 18 percent between 1916 and 1926, reported a drop of 17 percent between 1926 and 1936.

The Protestant Episcopal Church, which reported a net increase in membership of 23 percent and nearly 26 percent in the two previous ten-year periods, reported a drop of 6.7 percent for 1926–1936. Northern Presbyterians went from an increase of 36 percent in 1906 to 1916 and 16 percent in 1916 to 1926, to a decrease of 5.1 percent between 1926 and 1936. The southern Presbyterians reported an increase of 34 percent for 1906 to 1916 and 26 percent for 1916 to 1926, but experienced a modest drop of 0.4 percent for 1916–1926.

The fifty-year-old policy-makers in those mainline Protestant denominations of the 1950s, however, were more likely to be influenced by what had happened recently, rather than what had occurred back when they were in college. The statistical record in recent years was favorable. Thousands of new missions were being planted every year during the 1950s by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others. When three Methodist denominations were reunited in 1939 to form The Methodist Church, their combined membership was well under 6 million. Thirteen years later that total had grown to 9.2 million and by 1959 it was nearly 10 million.

While the Evangelical and Reformed Church had experienced a decrease in the number of congregations from 3,135 in 1916 to 2,875 in 1936 to 2,700 in 1956, the membership decline had been reversed and stood at 785,000 in 1956. The Congregational Christian Church reported 5,300 congregations in 1936, down from 7,163 in 1916, but by 1953 that number had grown to 5,573, and the membership had increased from slightly over 1 million in 1926 to 1.3 million.

The Disciples of Christ had recovered from a drop in membership of nearly 200,000 between 1926 and 1936. In 1953 they reported 1,848,000 members in 7,864 congregations compared to 1.2 million members in 5,566 congregations seventeen years earlier. The Southern Baptists had grown from 2.9 million members in 13,815 congregations in 1936, down from 3.5 million in 23,374 congregations ten years earlier, to nearly 7.9 million members in 29,481 congregations in 1953. The Northern Baptists had grown from 1.3 million members in 6,284 congregations in 1936 (down from 9,282 in 1906) to nearly 1.6 million members in 6,531 congregations in 1952.

The focus had changed. Those new congregations organized in the 1870–1915 era had been designed to serve people born before the transformation of American agriculture and prior to the drop in the immigration from Western Europe or the increase in the number of people who had not been born into slavery. They had been designed to serve adults who had not learned as teenagers to drive a gasoline-powered motor vehicle. Most of the Protestant churches founded in that 1870–1915 era were not designed to respond effectively to the rural-to-urban migration that marked the twentieth century.

By the mid-1920s it had become apparent that most of those aging congregations had a half dozen choices, (1) initiate and implement the changes required to reach and serve new generations, (2) watch their numbers grow smaller and focus their resources on institutional survival, (3) dissolve, (4) merge with another congregation in hopes of avoiding change, (5) focus on transmitting the Christian faith to their children, or (6) relocate the meeting place as part of a larger strategy to begin to outline a new role in their history. Most chose one of the middle four options on that list.

Preparing for the Post–World War II Era

After World War II a growing number of denominational policy-makers concluded it would be easier to organize new congregations to reach Americans born after 1920 than to reform the congregations founded in the 1880s to serve people born after the Civil War. It would be easier to organize new congregations to reach recent immigrants from the Pacific Rim than to transform congregations that had been organized decades earlier to reach and serve immigrants from Western Europe.

While thousands of American Protestant congregations founded before 1915 did implement the changes required to reach, attract, serve, nurture, assimilate, and challenge younger generations, tens of thousands were not able to make that transition. Likewise, while thousands of those new missions planted in the 1945–1960 era are now reaching the generations born after 1960, a larger number have either disappeared or are watching their constituents grow older in age and fewer in numbers.

Concurrently, denominational systems were being redesigned to be compatible with the culture, the economy, the American religious scene, and the social and demographic patterns of the 1950s. In several cases they also were designed to take better care of the clergy, to advance ecumenism, to facilitate denominational mergers, to enable denominational leaders to accept and fulfill a prophetic role, to challenge congregations to send money to denominational headquarters to hire people who would do ministry on behalf of congregations, to expand the capability of congregations to teach people of all ages the essential tenets of the Christian faith, and to resource that ministry often referred to as Christian education, to equip full-time professionals for that vocation as a Director of Christian education, to expand what was widely believed to be a needed regulatory role for denominational agencies, to require a seminary degree for ordination, to enhance denominational loyalty among the parishioners, to take advantage of the economy of scale by creating larger institutions, and to encourage interdenominational cooperation.

One reason this was done and one reason it worked was the 1933–1960 era was marked by a strong affirmation of the need for regulatory bodies in all segments of the American economy from public schools to commercial air travel to the practice of medicine to the sale of stocks and bonds to the use of airways for communication to the adoption of land use regulations.

A second reason it worked was the post-1941 era in American history marked a new peak in institutional loyalty. Patriotism was one expression of this. Loyalty to one's labor union or to one's alma mater or to one's employer or one's religious heritage or to one's lodge or service club or to the local public school or to a particular brand name were other expressions of institutional loyalty. As recently as 1955 only a tiny proportion of the Christian congregations in America were not affiliated with a clearly defined religious heritage. That heritage often was reflected in the name of the congregation. The concept of an independent Protestant church was seen as an oxymoron.

A third, overlapping reason was the competition for future constituents was far less intense than it is today. Inherited denominational loyalties encouraged churchgoers born before 1930 to look for a new church home affiliated with their denomination when they changed their address.

In 1956, for example, Methodist congregations in America received a combined total of 310,00 new members by letter of transfer from other Methodist churches. In 2002 the number of intradenominational transfers in The United Methodist Church had dropped to 109,000! In several denominations that earlier loyalty had been reinforced by ancestry, language, or skin color. Equally significant, the churchgoers of 1955 brought relatively low expectations as to what a church should offer parishioners. The adult churchgoers had been reared in a culture that taught, "This world offers you two choices—take it or leave it."

A fourth reason it worked was that respect for persons in positions of authority probably peaked in the 1930–1960 era. Respect for the value of academic credentials also peaked during the 1950s. That was not an egalitarian culture in 1955!

One consequence was the vertical top-down organizational structures of the Roman Catholic Church in America, the Protestant Episcopal Church, the various Methodist Episcopal denominations, and several other denominational systems were consistent with the culture.

Overlapping that, a fifth reason most of the denominational systems of the 1950s worked so well traces back to the first quarter of the twentieth century, but was reinforced by the Great Depression. Who should determine the final destination of the charitable dollar? For the wealthy the usual answer was "the donor." For many Christians, however, the right answer was "the people who have an overall view of the larger picture and that are in a position to evaluate the competing demands for money." That conviction reinforced the concept that the basic needs of a congregation were a meeting place, a name, a budget that included sending money to denominational headquarters, volunteer leaders and workers, and a pastor.

A sixth reason it worked is one that should not be discussed in ecumenical gatherings today. It goes back to one of the oldest organizing principles in human history. How can we transform a collection of strangers who tend not to socialize with one another into a closely knit and cohesive group? The answer is to identify a common enemy and rally the people together in opposition to that common enemy. That central organizing principle has been widely used to amend the United States Constitution to prohibit the production and sale of beverage alcohol, to create labor unions, to mobilize people in war time, such as after December 7, 1941, to create the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, in community organization efforts of the 1960s in community renewal efforts, and, most recently, following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.

Between 1920 and 1960 the identification of the Roman Catholic Church as the common enemy was a powerful unifying force in several of the larger American Protestant denominations.

A seventh reason the denominational systems of the 1950s worked so well was the differences among the various religious bodies in America on doctrine, polity, traditions, ancestry, social class, skin-color heritage, practices, and priorities usually were greater than the differences among either the clergy or the differences among the affiliated congregations.

While far from an exhaustive list, those were seven of the reasons the denominational systems of America worked so well. They were designed to be effective, relevant, influential, valuable, needed, and respected components of the larger religious scene in the America of the 1950s. They were designed to work in that context. They were not designed to fail.

And Next Came the 1960s!

The Twin Trade Towers in Manhattan were designed to withstand the impact of a medium-sized aircraft carrying only a modest load of fuel and traveling at a speed of perhaps 350 miles per hour.

September 11, 2001 brought an unanticipated change in events. A larger commercial aircraft carrying a full load of fuel and traveling at a speed close to 600 miles per hour crashed into one tower. A little later another aircraft carrying a full load of fuel crashed into the other tower. The design did not envision those events. Both towers were designed, unintentionally of course, to collapse if the unanticipated occurred.

The parallel is the denominational systems of 1955 were designed by and for adults born in the pre-1935 era to serve in the circumstances that marked the 1950s. They were designed to succeed. They were not designed to fail as long as the circumstances of 1955 continued to prevail.

Why are those systems far less relevant and effective today than they were in 1955? One reason is the people who designed them are no longer in charge.


Excerpted from A Mainline Turnaround by Lyle E. Schaller Copyright © 2005 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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