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Analysts See Evangelical Growth, Catholic Strength in 1990s : Trends: The pattern of the last decade is likely to continue. No turnaround is expected in mainline denominations' slide.

December 23, 1989|RUSSELL CHANDLER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

What's ahead for American churches in the 1990s?

The evangelical churches will sustain their pattern of growth from the past decade and the old-line denominational slump will continue, church analysts say.

And if there's going to be any "Establishment" faith for the 1990s, it is likely to be Roman Catholicism, which has grown a solid 16% in the United States during the past 20 years.

"The Catholics," says Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, "are the calm, dignified, authoritative voices, insofar as there are any at all."

The umbrella group known as evangelicals includes fundamentalists, charismatics and Pentecostals. The rapidly growing Assemblies of God--the largest Pentecostal group in the United States--has quadrupled from just over half a million members in 1965 to more than 2 million now.

Meanwhile, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has climbed steadily during the period by more than 4 million to its present 14.8 million members.

On the other hand, church watchers expect no quick turnaround to the chronic slide in both numbers and social influence experienced by mainline denominations during the past 25 years.

"Liberal Protestantism is unlikely to regain the dominant cultural position it once enjoyed," researchers Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney note in a major study of American Establishment religion.

In 1965, when eight of the largest mainline Protestant denominations were close to the zenith of their growth, they had a combined membership of 30.8 million. In 1987, the most recent year that complete information for these churches is available, the total was 25.1 million, a decline of 18.5%.

Thus, the old-line denominations--such as Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ and Methodist--have shifted from the "mainline" to the "sideline." As McKinney put it: "They no longer own the stadium."

The current struggles of the National Council of Churches illustrate both the persistent problems of interchurch cooperation and the long-term decline of the Protestant denominations that have traditionally formed the council's bulwark.

The council, the nation's largest interfaith organization, loosely represents 32 Christian denominations with a combined membership of 42 million. But at a pivotal board meeting in Lexington, Ky., last May, it became evident that internal divisions, shrinking budgets and declining power could threaten the body's very existence in the 1990s.

Roof and McKinney also argue that members of mainline liberal churches tend to have fewer children. Thus, "the natural growth potential for the liberal denominations is fairly weak, while the opposite is true for conservative bodies."

The most recent survey of the nation's 500 fastest-growing Protestant churches lends support to that observation: Researcher John Vaughan of Southwest Baptist University found that 89% were evangelical, non-mainline congregations.

The "higher-octane religions" will be the growth leaders in the 1990s, according to Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington.

"As long as churches are relatively more evangelical or orthodox, ask a little more of members, prohibit a little more of members, they grow," said Stark, author of a book on the churching of America from 1776 to 1990.

The predominantly black Baptist and Pentecostal denominations such as the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., and the Church of God in Christ are expected to extend their growth during the 1990s, spurred by high birth rates, strong communal bonds and the black churches' tenacious commitment to civil rights concerns.

But the old-line denominations are not down for the count just yet.

According to Roof and McKinney, the liberal church is "an amazingly resilient institution (with) a residual capacity to provide a vocabulary of symbols, beliefs, moral values, and feeling responses for articulating a socially responsible individualism."

Roof and McKinney also maintain that the Catholic Church is "in the best position ever to assume a custodial role for American culture at large."

Catholicism is the wave of the future, these analysts say, because immigration is changing the cultural face of the church as millions of Latin American and Asian Pacific peoples migrate to the United States. Already, perhaps as many as a third of the nation's 55 million Roman Catholics are Latinos; that proportion is expected to top 50% before the end of the coming decade.

African-style liturgy and concerns of black Catholics are also on center stage. Last summer, Father George A. Stallings Jr., a black priest, formed a separatist African-American Catholic church in Washington that has since grown to three congregations.

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