Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's The Real Message In The Death Of Mainline Christianity?

Lot of overhead and expense for this small congregation.

The Diocese of Quebec is all but dead, its bishop told the Canadian House of Bishop at their autumn meeting in Niagara Falls, the Anglican Journal of Canada reports.

The Rt Rev Dennis Drainville said his diocese was “teetering on the verge of extinction,” according to an account given by the church’s official newspaper.

Of the diocese’s 82 congregations, 50 were childless and 35 congregations had an average age of 75. These graying congregations often had no more than 10 people in church on Sundays, he said.“The critical mass isn’t there, there’s no money anymore,” he said.

Falling attendance is not solely confined to the Anglican Church, however. Until the 1960s Catholic Church attendance stood at more than 90 per cent.

However, According to a 2008 Léger Marketing poll, the proportion of Quebec's nearly six million Catholics who attend mass weekly now stands at six per cent, the lowest of any Western society.

To combat the decline, Bishop Drainville, who told his colleagues it was very possible he would be the “last bishop of Quebec,” urged the House of Bishops to re-imagine how the church could engage society.

A church should provide “a compassionate, caring community, a transformational relationship with God, and life-changing liturgy,” the bishop said. Anglicans had all three, but seemed unable to “present this to society.”

In 1901 ‘mainline’ Protestants, predominantly Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists made up 56 per cent of the Canadian population. By 2001 this had fallen to 29 per cent.

However, within the Protestant totals a dramatic shift away from the mainline churches has taken place, Dr Bruce Guenther, associate professor of church history and Mennonite studies at Associated Canadian Theological Seminaries has noted.

Guenther found that total Protestant attendance had not declined in real numbers over the last quarter-century but there has been a massive shift within Protestantism.

The mainline churches attendance declined by 33 per cent between 1981 and 2001, while evangelical church attendance rose by 50 per cent and was now 25 per cent larger than the old ‘mainline’.

Between 1961 and 2001 the Anglican Church of Canada lost 53 per cent of its members, with numbers declining from 1.36 million to just 642,000.

The rate of decline has increased in recent years, according to an independent report given to the Canadian House of Bishops in 2006 by retired marketing expert Keith McKerracher.

After the report’s release, McKerracher said: “My point to the bishops was: Hey listen, guys, we’re declining much faster than any other church. We’re losing 12,836 Anglicans a year. That’s two per cent a year. If you draw a line on the graph, there’ll only be one person left in the Canadian Anglican church by 2061.” (For all practical purposes it looks like Catholicism will be about five years behind the Anglicans.)

In his comments to the House of Bishops last month, Bishop Drainville said Quebec would not be the only diocese to go under. “There will be many other dioceses that will fail.”


Sometimes it appears to me that the men who rule from the top are incredibly and willfully blind. There must be a reason that Evangelical churches are exploding while mainline old world churches are declining. Could one of those reasons be that Evangelical congregations tend to be entirely local, meaning they are unencumbered with hierarchies, massive church upkeep, and have far more freedom to develop their own spirituality? Could it be the Holy Spirit is trying to show that more is less and a smaller is better?

If I remember correctly it seems that Vatican II had a great deal to say about subsidiarity, and that it attempted to put forth the notion that responding on the least authoritative level was the best approach. Perhaps the bishops of Vatican II really did hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, the last two Popes must be hearing a different voice.

What' s happening in Quebec is happening all over the West. Massive mainline churches are shrinking in numbers and congregations are dropping to match their small Evangelical counterparts. Which, as Bishop Drainville points out, means the end of large old churches and expensive top heavy hierarchies. There just isn't enough money to go around. The clerical gravy train is grinding to a halt.

Bishop Drainville (hmm, what a fascinating last name given the topic) is right, that in theory the Anglican church has “a compassionate, caring community, a transformational relationship with God, and life-changing liturgy,”. He's also right that the packaging of that message is off kilter. Which is why ordaining women and openly gay clergy has not stemmed the tide. What he won't do is look at what makes the packaging so off kilter. Could it be that the packaging contradicts and undercuts the message?

Could it be that modern society no longer sees a credible Jesus in clerics dressed like medieval princes or princesses? Or believes that a God supposedly born in a barn and crucified a naked public sinner really needs to be worshipped in a massive cathedral--or even intended such a thing? Could it be that society has matured beyond the notions of a magical priesthood and understands the Eucharist as a freely given gift of Jesus and not a function of clerical magic? Could it be that Western Christians place freedom of choice and conscience ahead of dictates from monarchical power structures? Could it be that the reason for the exodus is not lack of faith, but the cognitive dissonance between religious structure and real life experience. That adults don't see the need to be treated as children by religious leadership. Could it be that in truth this massive exodus is not about the message, but the contradictions and restraints the official package places on the message?

Perhaps the best Christmas gift mainline Christian leaders could give Jesus is to take the wrapping and packaging in which they present Him, and throw it in the garbage with the rest of the Christmas wrapping. After all Jesus was born naked just as He died naked. Maybe all we really want and need is the unadorned message and life He came to share.


  1. Whoa! really powerful. Loved this line: Could it be that society has matured beyond the notions of a magical priesthood and understands the Eucharist as a freely given gift of Jesus and not a function of clerical magic? Bishop Drainville indeed!

  2. "Bishop Drainville (hmm, what a fascinating last name given the topic)" - I couldn't help but notice this right away! Can't help but laugh at the synchronisity of his name with the draining of congregants from the pews, as well the money pit of a drain these large cathedrals take to operate.

    Can't help but mention a little improvisational piece I did last year called Advent. The picture you have here is what I visioned, mostly empty pews in a very large Church. The Holy Spirit is speaking in this picture very clearly for those who have eyes to see. That this picture is of an Anglican Church does not seem to matter, as the Baptized are Baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and the RCC Church will see the same picture in its large massive Churches as you also point out Colleen.

    It is the picture of things to come for the RCC, despite the false hope of a miniscule amount of young trads to the contrary of some new recruits to their fundamentalist or traditional seminaries or convents they portend are booming with new life.

    The Roman Catholic Church since Constantine, has for the most part reflected the order or "peace and security" of the fallen Roman Empire. This includes over the course of the Catholic Church's leadership enforcing their religion or "god" on populations, to the annihilation of the teachings of Jesus. The hierarchy, like the leaders of the Roman Empire, mimicked their power structure of top down control over populations and with the law to rule by domination. The Inquisition and the burning of "heretics" is reminiscent of the Roman Empire's style of governing. Prior to Constantine the Roman Empire forced people to revere its Emperor as a god. The Catholic Church has done the same with the notions of infallibility of the Pope and the teachings of the Magisterium.

    Evangelicals tend to speak about Jesus Christ and the Gospels and not about dogma or canon law. This is what I believe people are attracted to. What these Evangelicals do with their interpretations is another matter and they seem doomed as well, for the most part.

    The symbolism for building large architectural buildings demonstrates worldly power. Herod build the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Rulers with money also built the Cathedrals. The power we seem to have all witnessed in history with all its abuses is the same power that existed when Jesus lived His short life here. Jesus knew they would kill him and he also knew that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. He also knew that Rome would fall. He foretells these events that are repeated over and over again in history.

    This is what we truly need Colleen: "Maybe all we really want and need is the unadorned message and life He came to share."

    That is the simple beauty of what we need ever so much and many are awakening to this truth.

  3. Colleen,

    Your concept of a non centralized Church is what makes sense. Perhaps some Priests, especially some of the women priests, will realize this and find a way to rejoice in truth as taught by the metaphorical Jesus and this will be a healing reformation in small community settings very little or no Episcopal overhead. Perhaps the Evangelicals are already showing the way. One thing for certain is that we are in the midst of a Reformation, one that perhaps we may find the most spirituality in the desert of small prayer groups rather than large Cathedrals.

    The last time I was in Rome, I heard a member of a Lutheran group touring the Vatican mention “and all this was built with Indulgences!” Perhaps the power of the lie is now working against mainline Catholicism!

  4. If Evangelism is the future of Christianity then what do we get? Galloping homophobia, creationism, prosperity gospel, nutcase apocalipticism, all other religions and forms of Christianity lead to hell, falling on the floor (non) miraculous healings, witch burnings, Christian fascism (Dominionism and Reconstructionism-Calvin's Geneva writ large) and obsession with demons-I'd almost prefer clerical magic.

  5. Dear Barbara,

    Your points are well taken, but I think it is the decentralized structure that we should look at. You are right that many of the new churches are led by people feeling that they can act as if they are their own pope. It is up to the People of God to see that these smaller structures are more authoritative and less authoritarian. i think that many who went into the Evangelical movement initially were looking for more black and white spiritual model that can be useful. dennis

  6. The final Constantinian characteristic of Christianity to go will most likely be basilica architecture. Contrary to popular opinion, pagan temples were not typically converted to churches (with some notable exceptions). Instead the political architectural idiom, the basilica, was adopted by Constantine (e.g. Trier, a beautiful town by the way!). The basilica form, even in preChristian times, has always been a building designed to display a great man (think of the bishops' chairs we have today).

    Modern buildings, like megachurches, have adopted the auditorium. This is still, in my opinion, too much of a personality focused architecture.

    What I would like is not a church that operates a soup kitchen, but a church that is a soup kitchen, in all seriousness. Maybe I'll start a soup kitchen some day and hang out a sign, St. So-and-So's Catholic Church.

  7. Barbara, Dennis is correct from my point of view. It's the decentralization in which Evangelicals might be showing the future. The Christology and theology is something else and nothing I would care to adapt. In fact I have dozens of posts arguing against that notion of Christology.

  8. As a pertinent example, let's take Manhattan, the urban core of the largest city: NYC.

    An island approx. 14 miles long & 2 miles wide at its widest point. With some 1.7 million inhabitants.

    Currently, there are 97 active Catholic parishes (where there were once 114). Let's round that off to 100 to make it easy.

    Someone came up with the bright idea that the benchmark of viability of a parish is if the total Sunday mass attendees would fill the church once. Since most urban churches were built to seat 1000 (or more...!), 1000 was determined to be the threshold of viability.

    Of the 100 odd parishes in Manhattan, at least 50% are 'not viable' by this standard of 1000 total weekend mass attendance. About 1/3 of the parishes have 300 or fewer total pewsitters.

    This is not new news; most of the parishes 'in trouble' have been this way for at least 25 years. Some since the 60s. Some are a steady state; some are in a very slow decline.

    Many of these remain open due to the wealth of their remaining parishioners and/or endowments. But that only buys time; and many of these are living on borrowed time.

    St. Patrick's Cathedral has at best 200 parishioners. The other 12,000 attendees are tourists:)

    So where did all the people go? Not to the mainline Protestant churches, whose numbers are even worse (with the notable exceptions of the few 'society' churches remaining). They did not go to the Evangelicals, as they have no megachurches in NYC.

    The bottom line is that most of the 1.7 million living in Manhattan sleep in on Sunday. They want nothing to do with organized religion....any organized religion.

    Not to burst your bubble - and your very intelligent observations in re Vatican II - but a substantial percentage of the Evangelical church the lovechild of Escriva. The connectivity between Opus Dei & the Evangelical world is very real. And proveable.

    The essence of Evangelicalism is rooted in cultism & fanaticism (the Leaven of Opus Dei)...not Jesus & the Gospel.