churches are not sending money to denominational centers and to denominational programs the way they did two or three decades ago. Every national bureaucracy in mainline Protestantism has needed to downsize, and in some cases there have been drastic cuts of 20 to 40 percent. Local churches are making more decisions for themselves and relying less on denominational leadership. This is the beginning of a shift in power away from central denominations and toward local churches. The shift is also seen in the growing number of Protestant churches today that are nondenominational; they exist happily without any denominational connection, and some of them are thriving.
Why is this happening? One factor seems to be a skepticism about large national institutions of all kinds, a skepticism especially strong among young adults today. Social surveys prove that Americans have decreased their confidence in institutions since the 1950s--for example, in government, in big business, and in the mass media. Confidence in organized religion is down also ( Niemi, Mueller, and Smith 1989; Morin and Balz 1996). Centralized institutions will need to adapt.
The most reasonable prediction is that denominations will survive, but in a restructured form. Future denominations will be less centralized, less expensive, and more in the form of networks than of bureaucratic pyramids. Congregations will increasingly work together in voluntary networks of churches and clergy. The future vitality of mainline Protestantism will depend more than ever on the creativity and persuasiveness of local congregations. It will depend on the ability of local churches to relate to the deepest feelings of the new generation.
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-----. 1977. Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Updated Edition). New York: Harper and Row.
Morin Richard, and Dan Balz. 1996. "Americans Losing Trust in Each Other and Institutions." Washington Post, January 28, pp. A1, A6, A7.