Talking about the population decline of the mainline denominations is almost as popular as eating apple pie. Yet, one main source of decline is completely ignored, no I’m not talking about how mainline denominations are “too liberal”, their real problem is that they are too White. By now we all know that Millennials (my generation) are increasingly identifying as “spiritual but not religious”, “religiously unaffiliated” or have been bestowed with the moniker “the nones”. As flattering as that name is, broadly attributing it to all Millennials is inaccurate as writer Bob Smietana points out in his article “Are Millennials Really Leaving the Church? Yes — but Mostly White Millennials”. He argues, rather persuasively, that Christianity has plenty of Millennials, the majority of them just happened to be people of color.
That should really not come as a surprise to the informed American. In general, White people have been having less children, and people of color have maintained their rate of childbirth – except for the non-White Hispanic population that has been growing at an unprecedented rate. With this knowledge of general US population trends, it only makes sense that as White elderly Mainline Christians die and are not being replaced by new White Mainliners (more specifically babies) that White Mainline denominations are dying faster than historically Black & Hispanic denominations.
Examine these numbers taken from the Pew Research Group: The Silent generation in its “prime” was 84% White, Boomers were 77% White, Generation X was 68% White, Millennials are 61% White in their “prime”. With the steady decline of the White majority of the population Mainline Churches must reach out to the number of increasing minority youth/young adults.
Here’s some more numbers to examine:
The United Methodist Church’s U.S. membership was 90.5 % White, 6.03% Black, 1.26% Asian-American, 1.02% Hispanic, 0.68% multiracial, 0.29% Native American and 0.19% Pacific Islander. (Numbers from 2012 as reported to the GCFA)
The Episcopal Church: 89.1% White, 2.5% Black, 7.0% Multiracial, 1.4% Other
The Presbyterian Church (USA): 91.3% White, 2.7% Asian-American, 1.1% Black, 1.5% Hispanic, 0.2% Native American, 0.4% Other
The United Church of Christ: The only one’s to no use the word “White” but the more apt term European-American 93%, People of Color 7%
As a whole Mainline denominations are riddled with awful racist pasts, they are really unable to speak on these issues because they are so poor at leading by example. It really calls into question the very name “mainline” when so much of the US is made up of melanin rich people.
Let’s compare the “mainline” numbers to the racial make-up of a few other religious groups.
Muslims in the US: 38% White, 26% Black, 20% Asian-American, 16% Other/Mixed, 4%Hispanic
Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints): 86% White, 3% Black, 7% Hispanic (non-White), 5% Other
Despite, the recent awful past of the LDS, and the negative connotations surrounding Islam in the US – both religions still manage to be more racially diverse than any mainline denomination. There are many factors that could potentially be the cause of the amazing diversity within the Islamic faith and the rising diversity within the Mormon faith- but I think for mainline denominations, the one that matters most is this: repentance.
Repenting means turning away from what one was once doing wrong and refusing to do those wrong things again. The Mormon church repented for its racist theology and harmful speech aimed at people of color in the mid-1980/s, the UMC took until 2000 to apologize to the historically Black Methodists denominations that were formed after Blacks were expelled from White Methodist churches. Apologies are nice, but they mean nothing if they are not followed by the act of repentance. The LDS didn’t stop with apologies they moved into immediate work of reconciling with the groups they once ostracized – focusing their ministries in environments where the POC’s they once harmed had fled to. Perhaps, if mainline churches are interested in following Christ, they should first follow the lead of the LDS and begin the much need process of repentance from systematic racism and racial reconciliation. If not because it’s the right thing to do, than because it is the only way to guarantee itself a future.