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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Chasing down a rumor

As members of the ELCA, we belong to what’s long been called a “mainline” denomination. But we’re ever more aware that the growing edge of Christianity in the U.S. has been happening in the nondenominational churches. Observing the trend, some pundits have proclaimed that the “mainline has been sidelined.” The obvious question seems to be, “What should we be doing to get back our place on the playing field of religious influence in our country?”

Not so, say the authors of Chasing Down a Rumor: The Death of Mainline Denominations (Augsburg Books; www.augsburgbooks.org). Two experienced ELCA “church watchers”—Robert Bacher, retired in 2001 as executive for administration in the Office of the Presiding Bishop; and Kenneth Inskeep, director of the ELCA Department for Research and Evaluation—collaborated to take a deeper look at the “sidelined” situation and other claims they believe contribute to what they maintain is a false perception.

Here’s an excerpt (from page 11) that shows how their research reveals a different picture:

“The mainline has been moved to the sideline. This claim, of course, plays off the term mainline. When tied to falling statistics about membership and financial giving, the argument can be made that the mighty ones have been displaced from the centers of power and influence they once enjoyed. As a result, the specter of decline or even demise raises its ugly head and the fretting begins.

“The label mainline stems from a period in American history, roughly 1930 to 1960, when fortified by a seemingly endless growth in members and money, certain denominations did seem to occupy a central place in American society. They were seen as the norm of what it meant to be religious in America. Other religious groups had to position themselves accordingly. That time has passed. Now pluralism is center stage for religious groups and society as a whole. The mainlines must adjust to the changed situation, and we will present evidence that shows they already have. Our objection is that the observation of being sidelined should not be taken as proof of decline or imminent death. We object on two grounds. First, the denominations labeled mainline were ‘up there’ or ‘in the middle’ not because they coveted center stage but because they had taken on a great dream—creating what we call the American Community.

“It didn’t work, but they tried. A fall from the heights is a fall, but let’s give them some credit for pursuing a society of peace and justice. Second, is a displacement from mainline to sideline a bad thing? Rather than fuel The Rumor, it can be welcomed as an opportunity to serve in a new and courageous way.”


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