Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants

Joe Carter at First Things discusses some comments made by sociologist Rodney Stark in a recent interview. Stark suggested that the Mainline denominations, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and a few others, are now the periphery while Evangelicals are the core.

Carter argues:

No offense to my mainline friends, but I’ve never understood why they continue to be considered mainstream by the the mainstream media. The Southern Baptist Convention has as many members as all mainline denominations combined. Yet the dying denominations get all the attention.

I suspect that within my lifetime the only mainline denominations that will continue to exist will be those that, as Stark notes, are led by clergy who are “generally evangelical in their convictions.”

While Carter may have a point about Mainline denominations receiving an inordinate amount of attention compared to their size, there are still some reasons to consider and track the Mainline:

1. They represent an important historical era of Christianity in the United States and their slow decline is of interest. Once the dominant denominations, they are now in a different position. How their theological beliefs have changed over time is fascinating. Tracing these changes is useful just as tracking how Evangelicalism has changed and will change over time is also useful.

2. Mainline denominations have historically had middle-class and upper-class adherents as opposed to more conservative denominations which had less education and lower incomes. While this gap has narrowed today, these denominations still often represent money, tradition, and influence. These are interesting qualities that are attractive to journalists and others.