Mainline denominations have recently started to emphasize church planting, usually in ways that vary considerably from evangelical church plants that are likely to perpetuate their liberal identity, according to recent research.
A major study of 260 new congregations from six old-line denominations presented at the recent meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis, which RW attended, finds considerable diversity among such start-ups but relatively slow rates of growth. The study, conducted by Ecumenical Partners in Outreach, examined church plants from the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Church of Canada.
Lead researcher Marjorie Royle classified these new ministries into three main categories: 25 percent of the sample was alternative congregations, such as seeker-sensitive or “emerging,” ethnic-immigrant was 25 percent, and 17 percent of the sample was traditional churches; the rest of the congregations were in sub-groups, such as multi-ethnic and those using blended styles of worship that may draw on the alternative model.
Growth in all three categories is slow, with many taking 8-10 years to grow to a viable size, and 30 percent did not have increased attendance in the last two years. In 2012, the average attendance for all new congregations was 55, with an average of eight guests. Royle found that new congregations tend to attract younger members, especially those in the alternative camp, having double the percentage of young adults, as do established churches.
The ways in which these congregations were started tend to differ from evangelicals (both denominational and non-denominational) who are likely to be embedded in networks of like-minded congregations that will facilitate and assist church plants. Mainline church plants, while not centrally planned and also having entrepreneurial elements, with most being started by a pastor, have stronger input from regional church jurisdictions and officials.
To get a better understanding of how these new congregations identify with their denominations, RW’s editor conducted a separate study of 85 of these start-ups (also presented at the SSSR conference). The preliminary study is based on a textual analysis of these new churches’ websites as well as ethnographic research that involved a small number of observations of church services and interviews with pastors and members.
The congregations studied were from the UCC (28), the ELCA (30), and PCUSA (27), with most being in the traditional and alternative categories (the ethnic-immigrant congregations had few websites). The congregations, especially those in the alternative group, rarely used denominational names and, in fact, had somewhat unconventional names—from “Not So Churchy” to “Yo Momma’s Church,” and “Big Gay Church.” The greatest degree of denominational identification was found in the UCC start-ups, which was somewhat unexpected since the UCC is the most congregational and least hierarchical of mainline denominations.
The UCC new congregations even showed a measure of pride about their liberal orientation, particularly in more conservative regions of the U.S., with one Alabama start-up calling itself the most liberal church in the state. The strong identification of these congregations with the UCC may be related to promotional campaigns the denomination engaged in during the last decade stressing its liberal nature. Many of the congregations, especially from the UCC and the ELCA, also took notes from the emerging movement, which stresses postmodern worship, often drawing on ancient practices, and inclusiveness.
This was seen in the two ELCA start-ups that the editor observed where a loaf of bread was passed around the circle with each participant breaking off a piece and offering it to the next person. At the same time, leaders and participants openly acknowledged that not everyone present was a Christian, much less Lutheran or baptized.
The practice of inviting the non-baptized participants to communion is becoming increasingly common in mainline denominations, and causing conflict. In many of these alternative start-ups, there is not a clear concept of membership, with few requirements for active participation or even some leadership roles. While evangelical church planters (and some of the PCUSA start-ups) have drawn deeply from the seeker-sensitive megachurch model, the emerging model adapts itself more easily to the mainline themes of diversity, liturgical worship and social engagement—something the denominations seem to be capitalizing on.