YORKTOWN, Va. — St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church in this historic southern Virginia town welcomed 24 new members last month — a tiny breath of life in a denomination faced with a daunting decline in national membership.
Next week, when Virginians vote in 2006’s divisive midterm elections, the people of St. Mark may split “red” conservative or “blue” liberal. But when they gather to pray, this is a “purple” place, red and blue mixing in the pews.
“God is calling us to something bigger than just our political views,” says the Rev. Gary Erdos, pastor of St. Mark.
It is classic mainline Protestant in nearly every respect: It embraces an interpretive approach to Scripture rather than taking the Bible literally. It makes a strong commitment to social justice and social action drawn from Gospel teachings.
Classic in every respect but one: St. Mark is growing. Membership has jumped from 500 to 1,200 people since 1997, and Sunday attendance climbed from 200 to 500.
By comparison, total membership in the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations — United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (USA), Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches — fell a total of 7.4% from 1995 to 2004, based on tallies reported to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.
Meanwhile, the total membership count for Roman Catholics, the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention, Pentecostal Assemblies of God and proselytizing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) reported to the Yearbook is up nearly 11.4% for the same period.
Yet church historian Diana Butler Bass argues that St. Mark is not an anomaly but a signpost of revival. It’s living proof that headline-dominating conservative and fundamentalist churches aren’t the only face of American Christianity.
In her new book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Bass visits churches coast to coast to bolster her claim that the mainline is not dead — yet.
“Mainline” is shorthand among historians, statisticians and theologians for the Protestant faiths of the Founding Fathers, housed in landmark churches on downtown corners, still preaching the social justice teachings that have shaped many political, academic and philanthropic leaders to this day.
Bass set out on a Lilly Foundation grant to find 50 mainline churches rooted in the Gospel, rich in worship, strong in social justice, creative in spirituality and radiating hospitality. Instead, she found 1,000 thriving congregations from California to Virginia. St. Mark, nestled in the town where the British surrendered to Colonial forces 225 years ago, is one of the 10 churches highlighted in her book.
Erdos says “orthodox preaching, hospitality and attention to details” enable St. Mark to prosper. “We hew to the gospel of Jesus. It’s the reason we exist, or we’d just be Habitat for Humanity doing good things.”
Under the high wooden beams of its simple sanctuary, St. Mark offers a traditional service, with a pipe organ sounding.
“We chant and stand in a line of Christians who, for 1,700 years, have been saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in a way that a praise band and a PowerPoint presentation just don’t do,” Erdos says.
The church’s welcome is exemplified in Cafe St. Mark, set up twice a week in the atrium. Staff and volunteers cook and serve a bountiful buffet, including waffles and omelets cooked to order, every Sunday morning.
It’s free to visitors and a nominal charge to members, as are the Wednesday restaurant-style dinners offered so families can socialize and still be on time to Bible study or hand-bell choir rehearsal.
“We pay attention to the small things that show respect. Our worship doesn’t sound or look like a third-rate high school play. There are no typos in the newsletter or half-hearted sermons,” says Erdos, who preaches without notes, roaming the front of the pews.
“I don’t want a rock ‘n’ roll service,” says Tammy Held, head of the church council, who loves the formal style, age-old hymns and prayer-laden liturgy and programs. “I really welcomed the 10-day prayer vigil we’re doing right now on stewardship in the church. It works for coming close to God, closer to the Bible and closer to each other.”
Erdos designed another reason for growth right into the glass-walled atrium that connects the sanctuary with a new education and office wing. The view is all trees and traffic, nature and passing humanity. “I want us to see each other and to see out all the time.
“What makes us different than the evangelical church down the road?” he asks during a recent sermon. “My goal is to equip you to go back into the world, to equip you for life, health and wholeness. You come here for support and prayer in this journey.”
Threats from left and right
Yorktown is within an hour of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s ultra-conservative, Republican-leaning media and ministry empire. But it’s a world away in philosophy.
Had Dan Cummins and his wife, Karen, found politics in the pulpit and pews of St. Mark — people telling them and their two teenage sons how to vote or what to think about Iraq, homosexuality, the environment or other hot issues — “We’d have never joined,” he says.
The Cummins family and 20 other people joined the church in late October after the adults completed one of the four-week classes, held several times a year, in Lutheran theology and the practices, ministries and missions at St. Mark.
It will take this kind of proactive energy to stem a 15-year-drop in membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said presiding bishop Rev. Mark Hanson in a state-of-the-church address to a McLean, Va., church last month.
He cited twin threats: the growing strength of the theological conservatives on the right and the lure of unchurched spirituality and secularism on the left.
About one in three U.S. Christians identify themselves in national surveys as conservative evangelical Protestants, whose loudest voices Hanson calls “fundamentalist.” Yet, Hanson said, “I hear voices everywhere saying that the fundamentalist image of Christianity is ‘not who I am.’ ”
And 10% to 14% of Americans, depending on the survey, say they have no religious identity.
“We got lazy. We waited for the culture to produce Christians for us. It’s not going to happen,” Hanson said. Of his own six children, ages 18 to 30, “I bet my bottom dollar only two are in worship today.”
Says Eileen Lindner, editor of the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, “There’s a wholesale decline in denominational clout, no matter what brand. Denominations have lost the power to enforce theological conformity or regulate the actions of local congregations, and they’ve ceded their service programs to relatively new organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International or Bread for the World.”
Sociologist Barry Kosmin, a lead researcher for the American Religious Identification Survey, done in 1990 and 2001, says, “The mainline is never going to be the dominant cultural group again.
“But neither is anyone else in this highly fragmented, segmented market.”
In 2001, 17.2 million people named a mainline denomination, down from 18.7 million in 1990. “It’s the same thing you have with television,” says Kosmin, co-author of Religion in a Free Market, which analyzed the 2001 research.
“You once had three or four networks. Now you have 500 channels.”
Still, the experts say hold off on playing taps for the mainline. “Numbers aren’t the only story,” Lindner says. “We still have to talk about what really counts — cultural hegemony.”
Faith and the Founding Fathers
The mainline churches are still landmarks on the landscape of the city squares. Their ideas were formative in the historic documents dating to the Declaration of Independence. And members are still bellwethers, opinion makers in politics, philanthropy, education and activism for social justice.
“Just because a denomination looks like it’s dying out doesn’t mean there actually is less mainlinereligion out there,” says Baylor University sociologist Paul Froese.
Baylor’s national survey, released in September, found 26.1% of Americans described themselves as mainline in general. When asked to name a denomination, 22.1% named a mainline brand.
“You are always going to have a third to a quarter of American churches who call themselves theologically liberal, that offer solid religious ethics and meet the needs of a population less absolute in their moral outlook and less likely to believe literally in the Bible,” Froese says.
Bass sees an analogy to the Dr. Seuss classic children’s book Horton Hears a Who!
Horton the elephant hears the voices of the “Who,” creatures so tiny no one can see them. Just as the Who face extinction, he persuades all the Who to shout at once, to be strong enough to be heard and thereby survive.
Mainline congregations, says Bass, “have a beautiful world where they are enacting service, doing justice, learning to pray and caring for one another. And no one seems to realize they are there.”