There has been a lot of statistic-tossing back and forth about the decline of the Mainline Churches in the US, in particular in comparison with such entities as the Southern Baptist Convention. That there has been decline is evident; but the efforts at showing causality seem to me to be hampered by a failure to recognized the differences in culture geographically. When you average things across the whole United States, you tend to miss some important factors.
This might reflect something of the phenomenon of entropy: there is a gradual winding down of things and increasing disorder, yet even while that happens there are “islands” of increasing ordered complexity. So too there may well be islands of growth amidst an over-all trend towards diminishment.
For example, churchgoing is a cultural reality that has been maintained in the South better than in the North. Since the South is a stronghold of the Southern Baptists (duh!) It might make more sense to compare them, and their growth (or decline, as I understand it) with that of dioceses, presbyteries and synods of the mainline churches in those same regions. I know when I was in Memphis two years back I saw a level of churchgoing in all sorts of churches that many in the North would envy. Averaging what is essentially a cultural/regional phenomenon over the whole country is not going to give an accurate picture.
As John Chilton noted in a conversation at the Episcopal Café, you could say the same thing about bowling. It might be helpful to take a look at all sorts of cultural realities and compare their decline and geographic distribution since the 1950s. Is it only the churches that have changed? What about bowling? How has that institution and social phenomenon thrived or declined, and is it tenpins, duckpins or candlepins? What is the most successful “sect” in the realm of Bowlingdom?
The rise and fall of the Drive-In Movie might also make for a good analysis, or even the Cinema itself. Does the rise of the Multiplex reflect the rise of the Megachurch, and for similar reasons? And what relevance does the death of the art house or the neighborhood movie theater have for the plight of small and dwindling churches? In a more mobile culture, perhaps the message to the church is to consolidate the many small neighborhood or village churches into larger and more well-supported few churches — with ample parking!
Context and culture and geography are not lightly to be neglected when seeking to understand social phenomena — of which churchgoing is but one. And distinguishing causality from coincidence is also helpful.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG