Most Mainline or Most Evangelical? Miscounts and Religious County Membership

In the race to produce relevant researched stories it’s important to know that error sometimes occurs that can radically alter what we know. A few months ago when I saw an announcement that the Association of Religion Data Archives had county-level information on religion, I of course wanted to know the spread for the area I live: McLennan County, TX. What I wanted to figure out was how evangelical was this city, as it seems that most everyone I run into seems to have faith of some sort.  Is this place the most evangelical in the US?

So when I saw this chart, I was really floored. The largest religious tradition in McLennan County was mainline Protestantism- really?

Screenshot from 07/17/12 at ARDA

So since my sociologist’s intuition signaled something might be amiss, I called the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and had a good conversation with Rich Houseal of the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, the folks who have given us the 2010 US Religion Census. These are the folks that help us to see the general spread of religious adherence through maps and extensive tables. They work very hard at getting the most accurate count of religious groups around the country. In order to do this they essentially reach out to actual religious leaders and ask them for help by volunteering any records they may have of the number of attenders on a typical week or service. Many leaders and organizations share their figures, and some don’t.

As it turns out I was mostly right that there was indeed a weird miscount of the mainline denominations in McLennan County. In the edited changes that are reported in this document nine counties had the wrong figures, and two were in Texas. McLennan County seems to have the largest range of denominations that fit the 236 religious bodies that reported numbers to ASARB. But the miscount affected one religious tradition, and sure enough, it was Mainline Protestantism, specifically the United Methodist Church. If the original report was 109,901 in the Mainline and the figure drops to 22,333, and the only figure that changes is the United Methodists, there was a miscount of 87,568 of Mainliners or United Methodists in this county. So all of a sudden it becomes clear that the Mainline is way smaller than their Evangelical counterparts, as you can see in this screenshot below.

Screenshot taken 8/3/12 from ARDA

However, the Evangelical Protestant number doesn’t change. Where did these 87,000 adherents go? They fall into a category called “unclaimed.” Unclaimed refers to adherents that did not belong to the 236 religious bodies that are recorded by ASARB in a given county.  This could mean for example that there are a lot of independent churches in Waco that have no major denomination and are reasonably small that they don’t bother keeping count nor are all that helpful to those that want to know. In the specific case of the largest historically African-American denominations, they have also not divulged their numbers. So “unclaimed’ could refer to this combination of groups that didn’t respond to ASARB.

So does this mean McLennan County is the most evangelical county? Can’t quite tell, but it’s certainly not the most Mainline.


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