Boy, have things changed! The Congregationalists were absorbed into the United Church of Christ and have become the most liberal of the denominations (sort of liturgical Unitarians). The Reformed Church in America (the second oldest continuously existing American denomination) is a blip on the radar except for the shadow of its once most famous preacher (Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral). The Episcopalians are bleeding the red ink of members like the government is bleeding the red ink of budget deficits and are in danger of being severed from the Anglican Communion entirely (if African Anglicans have their way). The Methodists have more congregations than anybody but they are largely empty and its method is no longer identifiable. The stodgy old Presbyterians seem to have given up the doom and gloom of double predestination to join the ranks of the God doubters and social justice Christians. The United Brethren got to hang the word "united" before Methodist when they were sucked up into that denomination. The American Baptists herald their diversity while the Southern version heralds its uniformity but they are like a minnow in the Baptist pond. And the Lutherans... well, the ELCA has hitched its wagon to the Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformed, and UCC while warming up to the social activism of the Episcopalians and they have bled tons of folks since their creation in 1988. Missouri has remained fairly stable -- bleeding a few less people (after removing those who split off in the mid 1970s) but they are a denomination uncertain of their identity and in conflict over how it will all turn out. Their focus is largely internal.
The Roman Catholic Church is still America's largest but some new kids have moved into town. On one hand you have the Pentecostals who were confined to Appalachia but now are on Main Street -- well, make that a large suburban campus of buildings that dwarfs the size of the Mainlines. On the other hand, you have the American phenomenon of the mega church non-denominational variety that is now the virtual second largest denomination on American soil. What was not even in existence when I was a kid, has become the almost defining version of American Christianity (Saddleback, Willow Creek, Lakewood, etc.).
The term "evangelical" is not any more uniformly defined than mainline was fifty years ago but it is clearly the style and flavor of Christianity that dominates the landscape. Presidential contenders
Move over, mainlines -- or more accurately, get out of the way... American religious identity is still vibrant but its shape is changing, its content is significantly different than before, and its spirituality embraces a host of religious expressions and is somewhat detached from notions of church and God.
So what shall we do as Missouri Synod Lutherans? It appears to me, theology aside, that we have a good position in the marketplace of American Christianity. Take away all theological discussions and look only at the people and places. What you see is no one who is Word and Sacrament -- whose Word is efficacious and trustworthy and whose Sacraments bestow what they promise... What you see is no one who glories in the liturgical and dogmatic heritage of the early Church and Reformation but within the context of a community who still believe its words and follow its practices... What you see is no one whose song tells the wonderful old story but without the nostalgia, sentiment, and melancholy and with the confidence that this is the only story that counts (of Jesus and His cross).
You might think that we are being pushed to the sidelines by the convoy of evangelicals and their look alikes but I say to stay the course, keep on the road, and honk the horn... we have something to say, something to offer, and something to give... What say you??