While evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups have been growing, mainline Christianity has been shrinking. The term mainline usually refers those denominations with a long-standing history—including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. But more specifically, it usually refers to a handful of large Protestant denominations.

While the term mainline may imply a dominant presence or numerical majority in mainstream society, that is no longer an accurate assumption. The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) states that among Protestants, mainline churches have around 26 million members versus about 40 million members of evangelical churches.

the seven sisters

Scholar William Hutchison refers to the seven largest mainline Protestant groups as the Seven Sisters of American Protestantism in his 1989 book, Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960. They are:

  • The United Methodist Church
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • The Presbyterian Church, USA
  • The Episcopal Church, USA
  • The United Church of Christ
  • The American Baptist Churches, USA
  • The Disciples of Christ

modern and liberal

Mainline denominations have tried to come to terms with the impact of modernity, critical biblical scholarship, and the scientific method. They tend to be open to new ideas and societal changes without abandoning what they consider to be the historical basis of the Christian faith. This places them to the left of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches, which view them as far too liberal, both theologically and socially. In fact, the mainline Protestant denominations In the United States hold a wide range of theologies—conservative, moderate and liberal.

Some other historic denominations with similar names and ties to mainline groups are not considered mainline. For example, while the American Baptist Churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church USA are mainline, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America are too conservative to be considered mainline.


The hallmark of mainline churches is moderation. Their theologies tend to be moderate and influenced by higher criticism. This term refers to an approach to biblical scholarship in which critical scholars have used the tools of historical research and textual analysis to separate the Bible’s earliest historical elements from later, often mythological, additions and even intentional distortions.

Mainline churches are generally comfortable with the more inclusive language of contemporary translations of the Bible, as opposed to many conservative and fundamentalist groups that only recognize the authenticity of the King James Version published in 1611.

Although many mainline denominations believe that the Bible is God’s Word, they remain open to an evolving understanding and interpretation of it. There is a general consensus among mainline scholars that the Bible must be interpreted both through the lens of the cultures in which it was originally written, and examined using God-given reason. Many mainline churches interpret the Bible as having a “Word within the Word.” They view the teachings of Jesus as the definitive word of God, trumping any contrasting and contradictory words found elsewhere in the Bible. According to this viewpoint, using the analogy in the Gospel of John, Jesus, is the metaphorical “Word of God,” and as such has a much higher authority than the many other “words about God” written by the ancient writers of the Old and New Testaments. The United Church of Christ claims that “God is still speaking,” meaning that we shouldn’t lock ourselves into the sole authority of ancient pre-modern texts. We live in a different context and need to ask ourselves what God is saying in this time and place.

Mainline Christian groups are more accepting of other beliefs and faiths. They usually define a Christian as anyone who follows the teachings of and about Jesus Christ. Most mainline Christians will consider the positive contributions of non-Christian religions and give value or merit to their teaching.

These denominations have been increasingly open to the ordination of women. However, they have been far from uniform in their reaction to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, though they are less dogmatic on these issues than either the Catholic Church or the more conservative Protestant evangelical churches.

declining membership

As recently as the 1950s, the growth rate of mainline Protestant denominations equaled or exceeded that of the United States as a whole. The high-water mark in membership came around 1965, when members of the various mainline denominations constituted well over 50 percent of the American population. They maintained a little growth through 1975, when their decline set in.

Never before had any large religious body in this country lost members steadily for so many years. By 1990 these denominations had lost between one-fifth and one-third of the membership they claimed in 1965 and the proportion of Americans affiliated with them had reached a twentieth-century low.

These days, every survey produces different results, but all of them report a mainline Protestantism in rapid decline. Only three mainline denominations still have enough members to be included among the ten largest churches: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church, USA.

In the late 1970s, the principal source of membership decline was the tendency of many adolescents who had been confirmed in these denominations from the early 1960s on to drop out of church and not return. It was the children of the members themselves-and especially those born after World War II-who were leading the exodus. Some, of course, returned to church when they married and had children, but not enough to replenish the ranks.

In the meantime, of course, the average age of the membership was steadily increasing. mainline Protestant denominations have the oldest average age of any religious group in America, at almost fifty-two years. In addition, they have the lowest birthrate among American Christian groups which partially accounts for their membership decline. Unless there is a surge of new recruits, rising death rates will diminish the ranks of the mainline denominations even further in the years ahead.

conflicted membership

Although considered by conservatives to be liberal churches, there is still a strong conservative element active within most local mainline congregations. Half of mainline Protestants label themselves as liberal, but nearly one-third call themselves conservative.

Because of the large conservative contingent, many mainline pastors are afraid to express very liberal ideas from the pulpit. Four out of five speak up on hunger and poverty issues but only one-fourth are comfortable addressing issues like abortion and capital punishment.

Conservative mainline Protestants have often managed to control the actions of the mainline churches at both the local and national levels. Mainline denominations often find themselves held hostage by conservative members, congregations, and movements in their midst. Many mainline denominations have a conservative bloc, sometimes called a “confessing movement” or “renewal movement.”

The flashpoint today is the issue of homosexuality. Mainline churches are often divided over whether they should ordain openly gay men and women or elect practicing homosexuals to positions of leadership. In the spirit of unity, some mainline churches have opted to make homosexual Christians into second class citizens.

In the local parish, a vocal minority of conservative members can easily frighten a pastor who is worried about keeping his or her job. All too often, mainline clergy are afraid to express their true beliefs about biblical, social, and political issues, and feel they must guard their tongues and watch their backs.

the dishonest church

In The Dishonest Church, Jack Good says that there is “a wide gap between the faith of religious professionals and the faith of those who look to those professionals for leadership.” One reson for the gap is “the reluctance of many lay people to surrender belief systems that they sense, at a deep level of consciousness, are inadequate to the present day, but for which they see no substitutes.”