Much of what happened to Christian churches in America can be illustrated by the well-known bell-shaped curve. It provides part of the explanation to what is happening to mainline churches.
The top of the curve represents the mid-point in the distribution of any characteristic over a large population. People who have more of that characteristic are on the right side. People with less are on the left side. The bottom of each side flattens out, and people on the far right and left are called outliers. There are not very many of those. We are talking about perhaps five percent on each extreme.
Take athleticism for an example. Two thirds are roughly average, represented by the darker shade in the middle. The outliers on the right are high in athleticism (coordination, reflexes, speed). Those far out on the right side would do well in college sports. Professional athletes would be very far on the right, perhaps one thousandth of one percent.
The point I want to make is that churches need to pay more attention to the left side of curve, too. The outliers on the left would be the severely mentally challenged, who need special attention. Below the average (the darker shade) and above those who are very slow is a segment of the population (perhaps 13%) that lack the ability to make good decisions. I saw this in my first congregation in the poorest neighborhood in St. Louis. Over the course of two years, I witnessed many of those poor whites make decision that those on the right side would consider poor choices. Unfortunately, those far down on the left curve will most likely remain poor because of their lack of basic decision-making ability.
What does this have to do with mainline churches in America? With university-educated pastors, these churches draw from the right curve, especially from perhaps the top 30% of the population. These definitely approach church head-first. Remember, Martin Luther was a university professor and John Calvin was a sophisticated lawyer.
With freedom of choice in America, the remaining 70% would be comfortable approaching God heart-first and will be drawn to congregations that have strong emphases on hearts. They typically no longer find “the right fit” in mainline churches. Historically, heart-first congregations broke off from the head-first mainline churches to form their own congregations and denominations. The ideal is to appeal to the heart as well as to the head.
What are the options for mainline churches as they continue their decline? One is to continue to appeal to those on the far-right side of the curve. But their liberal approach to church life doesn’t draw well today because, I think, the promise of a better life simply hasn’t emerged. The liberal promises have not delivered a better quality of life.
The other option is for mission-minded congregations in mainline denominations is to go their own way in reaching out to the full range of the population. To do that they will have to figure out how to add heart to their present head emphases. This will involve much more informality with contemporary expressions.
Watch this trend emerge. Most traditional mainline churches are very likely to continue their decline.