CHICAGO (ABP)—The decline membership in of mainline churches over the last century had more to do with sex than theology, research by a trio of sociologists suggests.
The popular notion that conservative churches are growing because mainline churches are too liberal is being challenged by new research that offers a simpler cause for much of the mainline decline—the use of birth control.
Differences in fertility rates account for 70 percent of the decline of mainline Protestant church membership from 1900 to 1975 and the simultaneous rise in conservative church membership, the sociologists said.
“For most of the 20th century, conservative women had more children than mainline women did,” three sociologists—Michael Hout of the University of California-Berkley, Andrew Greeley of the University of Arizona, and Melissa Wilde of Indiana University—wrote in Christian Century.
“It took most of the 20th century for conservative women to adopt family-planning practices that have become dominant in American society,” the writers said. “Or to put the matter differently, the so-called decline of the mainline may ultimately be attributable to its earlier approval of contraception.”
While mainline churches could claim 60 percent of the total Protestant congregants in 1900, their share fell to 40 percent in 1960. Many religious observers and some sociologists attributed the drop—and simultaneous growth of conservative churches—to the lethargy of liberalism and the appeal of biblical certainty.
But simple demographics can account for almost three fourths of the mainline decline, the trio of sociologists said. [Source]
Well any study that has Fr. Andrew Greeley on it I would take with a grain of salt or more likely a salt block. Especially since this seems like a apologia for the decline of mainline Protestantism. There has been mention of the Roe Effect with regards to declining numbers of young voters who predominantly vote Democrat. The case also has been previously made by others that this was a predominant factor in the rise of Christianity over Paganism.
What I would be interested to know is statistically speaking how many people stay with the church of their parents? Maybe being a convert I see this role as minimal. With so much church shopping do the majority only seek denominations somewhat inline with their parents? To attribute three fourths of the decline to just this factor seems to say that three fourths of people just automatically follow the church of their parents. Obviously there is some sociological factor in church membership, but three fourths seems a bit extreme.
I also wonder if mainline Protestant Churches once again denounced abortion and contraception if they would then grow, or if by embracing these position if they also instead grow more conservative and return to traditional Christianity.
Update: The Waffling Anglican also posted on this.
I think you can make a pretty good case that it was the general acceptance of contraception by the mainline churchgoer that began the slide of what Philip Turner calls the “practical theology” of the church. Prior to that, revisionist thinking was largely limited to the seminaries and universities. Contraception opened the laity to the theology of expedience and acculturation; separation of belief from behavior led to the wide acceptance of Gnostic philosophies, where “those in the know” are viewed as leaders and “those who do” are marginalized.
The more I think about the article’s statement "The decline membership in of mainline churches over the last century had more to do with sex than theology" the more ridiculous the assertion is. Especially since the next sentence attributes the decline to birth control. The idea that contraception has nothing to do with theology is quite mistaken. The original acceptance of contraception was first an attack and subsequent watering down of contraception which was seen as immoral by all Christian Churches prior to the Anglican Church giving it a firm shove down the slippery slope at the 1930 Lambeth Conference.
The Catholic Church often reminds me the saying Athanasius Contra Mundum – Athanasius Against the World. St. Athanasius spoke out even when the majority of Catholics were teaching error and the Church now speaks out when the majority of Christian churches now teach error.