Shrinking Mainline Churches Take a Page From Evangelical Playbook

Some mainline Protestant denominations are borrowing tactics from the megachurch movement.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Facing steep drop-offs in membership, a handful of mainline Protestant denominations are taking a page from the evangelical playbook, adopting the entrepreneurial church-building tactics and pricey rebranding campaigns (see video above) that are more typical of the megachurch movement.

Here's my most recent U.S. News Weekly column about this fascinating phenomenon, just posted on usnews.com:

What if church wasn't just a building, but thousands of doors?" asks a new website launched by the United Methodist Church. "Each of them opening up to a different concept or experience of church. . . . Would you come?" After watching its membership drop nearly 25 percent in recent decades, the United Methodist Church, which is still the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, thinks it knows the answer. So it's pouring $20 million into a new marketing campaign, including the website, television advertisements, even street teams in some cities, to rebrand the church from stale destination to "24-7 experience."

"The under-35 generation thinks church is a judgmental, hypocritical, insular place," says Jamie Dunham, chief planning officer for Bohan Advertising & Marketing, the firm that designed the United Methodist campaign. "So our question is: What if church can change the world with a journey?"

With their pews having thinned dramatically, other mainline Protestant denominations are posing similar questions in like-minded campaigns. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a major mainline denomination, has TV ads spotlighting the church's charitable work and encouraging Lutherans to take pride in and to share their faith with friends. And the Episcopal Church recently launched a website called "I am Episcopalian," where half a million church members have uploaded videos explaining their faith.

These are the kinds of entrepreneurial church-building strategies that are more typical of evangelical megachurches, which have focused on member experiences by offering contemporary music and weeknight small-group meetings. Mainline denominations, meanwhile, have clung to hymns and centuries-old worship styles. "In the competitive spiritual marketplace, mainline churches are trying to reinvent themselves," says Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.

Some mainline church officials admit to taking a page from the evangelical playbook. And no wonder. Since 1990, the number of Americans identifying themselves as members of mainline denominations, including Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, has slid from nearly 19 percent of the population to under 13 percent, a loss of 3.5 million people. Over the same period, the number identifying themselves as nondenominational Christians, the evangelical-style tradition of the megachurches, has exploded, from fewer than 200,000 to more than 8 million.

Read the rest here.