Okay–most of the people who are talking about demographics in regard to mainline church decline are being overly simplistic. And I’m tired of it.
The way the debate is normally framed is this–
Conservative: The mainline churches are declining because they don’t preach the Gospel.
Liberal: The mainline churches aren’t declining because of theology–it’s because of low birth rates and non-mainline immigrants.
There is a small but non-zero amount of truth in both of these positions. What both sides are not taking into account is the current cultural life-cycle. If a family goes to church, a child raised in that family experiences one kind of church for several years. Confirmation happens in most mainline churches in middle school. Many parents make church attendence optional at that point. Teen years happen; rebellion happens, particularly rebellion against the parental world-view including–guess what–parents’ church. This can go many different ways, forms, and degrees. Sometimes it’s attending the parents’ church wearing prominent neo-pagan or satanic symbols. Sometimes it’s going to the “cool” youth group of the church down the street that just happens to not synch with parental theology (Baptist, Catholic, whatever works). Many, of course, just stop going all together. Then college happens. Most college-age folk I know rarely darken a church door in this period. Singelness happens. Ever see a single person come into church? Ever notice how they get treated? People will wonder why they’re there since they don’t have kids. Some parishioners with problematic social skills may come right out and ask…don’t laugh, it’s happened to both M and me before…
It’s not until married life and children that most young Americans really start thinking about church again IMHO. When they do, they’re looking for good stuff for the kids… (Now I know that this is a generalization. I kept going to church all through adolesence and college but then I’m not sure I’m the typical case either. And, I suspect the majority of my readers aren’t that way…But my brother is. Most of my friends in high school and college were.)
The result is, to my mind, that decline has much less to do with birth-rate issues than adolescent/college/young adult retention rates. Is it theology that attracts the young families? I don’t know–but I know that good children’s programs do. If I were trying to start/grow a church right now, I’d promote really good children’s ministries, then use them as a hook to get people in the door, then offer some programs concurrently to get their parents interested… Is this a bit cynical and manipulative? Maybe. But churches are in a competetive game. There are a lot of things competing, not just for people’s money but their most precious commodity–time.