Unbinding the Gospel: Martha Gay Reese

Reese explains that mainline denominations (many of whom I link to on the right) are much less significant now than in the 1960. In 1960, 26 of 179 million Americans were members of mainline churches. In 2000, 21 of 280 million Americans were. That is a reduction in membership of 20%, but more importantly, the membership represents only 7.4% of the population instead of 14.4%.

I think this is troubling because I believe that mainline denominations offer a place for thinking Christians. Certainly many congregations from mainline denominations do not do so. But in general, I believe these denominations do. So, I’m sad to see them shrinking for reasons other than the fact that I am a member of one such denomination.

Even a bigger deal for me, is how much less religious America is today. Reese looks at two measures of religiousness, raised with a religion & currently affiliated with a religion, for three groups: 80-90 yr olds, 40-50 yr olds, & 27-31 yr olds. 97% of 80-90 yr olds were raised with a religion back in the 1910’s and 96% still affiliate. For the 40-50 yr olds 96% were raised with religion but only 89% affiliate now. The young adults raised with religion is 87%, with 27% of them already saying they have no religious preference.

To me, this is strong evidence that the church must change or die. These numbers march right through the fundamentalists resurgence of the Christian Coalition, Moral Majority, etc.

2 replies on “Unbinding the Gospel: Martha Gay Reese”

You said, “the church must change or die.”

It is imperative that the institution of the church change — it has throughout history, reflecting the society in which it has been nested. The (Christian) church in America has changed over the past few decades to more closely reflect the dominant culture of our country. I think I hear in your comment, Jim, that you feel an urgency for the pendulum to swing the other direction regarding religion in America. That would mean increased vitality in the mainline denominations and over time a shrinking in their counterparts.

So tell me what you think — it’s a chicken and egg question — which changes first, society or the church? Is it possible for society to become a reflection of the church (that’s that kingdom of God thing Jesus used to talk about, isn’t it?)?

I think the church changes society in a different way than society changes the church. The church is supposed to lead people to a more fulfilling life that is in harmony with God (whatever that means). Society changes the church in presenting it with new challenges that the church must address.


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