How the mainline factor still shapes civic and international landscape

While mainline denominations and many congregations continue to decline, new research suggests that the distinctive cultures, beliefs, and practices of these mainstream Christian bodies are still playing an important social function—in the U.S. and abroad—especially in the areas of civic life and international development. This mainline effect was seen in a study of volunteering and the rise of the non-affiliated from 1990 to 2018 that Dingeman Wiertz of University College-London presented at a session of the New York meeting of the American Sociological Association, which RW attended in August. In looking at state-level data on both secular and religious volunteering rates using the Current Population Survey from 2002 to 2015, the American Religious Identification Survey, and Pew surveys, the researcher did not find much decline in volunteering related to the growth of the non-affiliated or “nones” in the population. There was a 20 percent decline in the hours devoted to religious volunteering in areas with high rates of disaffiliation. But changes in such measures as church attendance only lowered the rate of religious volunteering and not secular volunteering.

Wiertz found more secular volunteering overall, but it mattered where these nones were coming from geographically and which groups they were disaffiliating from. In areas with a high rate of disaffiliation from mainline Protestant churches, there was also a significant decline in civic volunteering. He concluded that, “There are different civic landscapes in the country. If people are leaving the mainline Protestant churches, there is a significant decline in civic volunteering.” Another paper, this one presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion meeting held across the street from the ASA conference, found that areas of the U.S. with large numbers of mainline Protestants tend to be negatively associated with hate crimes. Shawn Ratcliff of the University of Nebraska looked at the incidence of hate crimes, as reflected in FBI and other law enforcement data, in relation to counties’ religious composition and found that in counties where mainline Protestant adherents were more dominant there were both less incidents of hate crimes and less crimes in general. Ratcliff argued that mainline Protestants are more likely to act as “stewards of society” discouraging such anti-social behavior.

In Africa, the Pentecostal movement has attracted the most attention for its high growth rates and large churches, but the mainline denominations brought to the continent by the first missionaries continue to represent important sources of community life and support for congregations and their members, writes Beth Ann Williams in the Journal of Religion in Africa (online in August). The researcher conducted interviews with rural and urban women in Nairobi and northern Tanzania, looking at the way mainline churches unite people across divisions of ethnicity, nation, and class. Williams found that while African women have felt a new sense of agency and emotional support in the Pentecostal and African Independent (indigenous) churches, the stability of the mainline congregations, especially the Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches, has preserved their appeal for many women. Unlike the Pentecostal and African Independent congregations, which often deny women full participation and leadership roles, the mainline churches have opened their doors to women leaders, even if in practice few have attained high leadership positions. The stability of the mainline churches has permitted these women to anticipate and access benefits from their church networks and gain strength though consistent religious practices.

These “mission churches” provide resources to poor women and girls beyond those of their hometowns and ethnic and kin relations, serving as sites of aid distribution, networking for loans (often provided by members pooling their resources), or as an emergency safety net. Even those who claimed that they did not receive such benefits valued the sense of community they felt in such churches. For upper-class African women, the mission churches provided connections with international partners who supplied resources beyond what a local congregation could provide. This could take place either through encounters between single actors or through congregational partnerships, such as “sister churches,” as well as through overseas sponsors and scholarships for educational opportunities. Churchwomen regularly attended regional conferences for training and developing new skills. Williams notes that the standardized lessons, lectionaries and other printed material, and even the church uniforms, provided by bodies such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania gave members a structure and a sense of unity that they valued in their lives. She writes that this sense of empowerment often took place regardless of whether “church leadership [had] ideological or political roles for religious programming[, as] members often grasp[ed] onto different facets of church life for their own ends, from leveraging prayer groups into rotating loan cooperatives to wearing their church uniforms to avoid harassment when traveling.”

(Journal of Religion in Africa,