Denominational Change in American Protestantism since 1972

One of the more robust trends in American Christianity–at least its Protestant side–is the decreasing significance of denominations in Christian’s identity and affiliation. To show this, I used GSS data to divide Protestants into groups by denomination. This the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. In addition there is a “generic” category of Christians who don’t affiliate with any particular denomination (e.g., interdenominational) and an “other” category of denominations and identities not asked about in the GSS.

To show their relative change over time, I set the 1970s base level to “1″ for each of these groups. Here is how they have changed:

As you can see, the percentage of Protestants who are inter- or non-denominational has skyrocketed. Some of them go to non-denominational churches, and others go to denominational churches, but the denomination isn’t incorporated.

Among the denominations, the Baptists are holding their own, but the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians are dropped rapidly over time.

These changes have all sorts of implications. Among them churches are less and less able to assume that people will attend them simply because of their denominational affiliation (e.g., a Presbyterian family automatically attending the nearest Presbyterian church), and as such churches will have more need to compete for attendees by appealing to something beyond brand loyalty.

Are We Losing the Young? Evangelicals by Age Since 1972 (Part II)

In my last post, I looked at the relationship between age and Evangelical affiliation here in the US. In this post, I want to revisit the topic but use a stronger form of analysis–cohort analysis. Using data from the General Social Survey, I divided respondents up into five groups–those born in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I then calculated the percentage of each of these five cohorts who were Evangelical from 1972 to 2012. Here are the results:

So, the blue line with squares plots the path of people born in the 1940s. In the 1970s, when they were mostly in their 30s, about 18% of them affiliated with Evangelical Christian churches or denominations. That grew substantially in the 1980s and 1990s, but it has dropped slightly since so that now, when they are in their 60s, about 28% of them are Evangelicals.

Its interesting to look at the last two cohorts–those born in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike previous cohorts, both of them dropped in affiliation in their early 20s, but both trended upwards after that.

I wonder if this initial drop downwards contributes to the hyperbole regarding the young–that Evangelical Christianity is facing an imminent collapse. We see higher-than-usual rates of them leaving in their late teens and early twenties, and we project this trend into the future. That doesn’t seem to have happened to those born in the 1970s, and it’s too early to tell for those born in the 1980s.

While the hyperbole might be a great way to sell books and get people to listen to sermons, I don’t see it born out in the data.

Are We Losing the Young? Evangelicals by Age Since 1972

One of the loudest fear messages that we hear in American Evangelical Christianity is that we’re losing the young which means that the future of the church is in peril. Christian writers have claimed that 60% of church-going teens drop out after high school, that young people are fleeing the church and thus will crash it, and that we’re in the last Christian generation.

Are these claims of imminent disaster true? Well, there are various ways of looking at age and religion, and I’ll start with a rather simple analysis. Again using data from the General Social Survey, I divide Americans up into three age groups: Age 18-29, 30-49, and 50+. Then, I calculated how many people in each of these groups affiliate with Evangelical Christianity, and plotted it in the figure below.

As you can see, there are some similarities by age. Evangelicalism increased among all age groups from 1972 through the early 1990s, and it has decreased in all groups since then. The differences exist in rates of change, namely it’s dropped among young people faster than older people. It’s worth noting, however that the biggest drop of faith in young people happened in the 1990s, and that current levels are about the same as the early 1970s.

Should Evangelical Christians be worried about this? It’s a judgement call. From my perspective, given the dramatic rise of religious unaffiliation (the “nones”) among young people since the 1990s, there are far more young Evangelicals than I would have thought. Still, I can understand Evangelicals being concerned about future and the young.

However, the data so far don’t support the disaster narrative so prominently featured in popular Christian writing.

(Part 3 in a series on Evangelicals in America. Previous post in series)


How Many Americans are Evangelical Christians? Born-Again Christians?

(Part 2 in a series on Evangelical Christianity in America)

In my last post, I examined the wide range of definitions that are given to Evangelical Christianity. In this post, I will take one of those definitions and use it to illustrate the percentage of Americans who are Evangelical Christian. The definition that I’m using is whether a person affiliates with an Evangelical denomination. (Click here if you want the gory classification details). Also, I am analyzing data from the General Social Survey.

As shown in this figure, the percentage of Americans fitting this description rose in the 1970s and 1980s and has somewhat declined since then. Currently Evangelical Christianity in the US is at about its 40-year average, with 23%-24% of Americans affiliating with an Evangelical church or denomination.

Underscoring the point that there are different ways of defining one’s religious standing, I have also plotted the percentage of Americans who are Christian (Protestant or Catholic) who report having had a born-again experience. (I would have preferred to plot self-identification as “evangelical,” but the GSS hasn’t asked that in awhile). This is shown in the above figure, and as you can see, it’s held fairly steady over the past 20 years. Using these classification schemes, there are more born-again Christians than evangelical Christians. In fact, the percentage of Americans who are born-again Christians in 2012, 34%, is higher than at any previously measured time (though, only by a percentage point.)

Though the two terms are sometimes used as synonymous, not all evangelicals say they are born-again (perhaps those raised in the church?) and not all born-again Christians are evangelicals. This is shown below, where I plot the percentage of people with a born-again experience in the four main Christian traditions in the US.

No surprise, most evangelicals and members of historically Black protestant churches report having had a born-again experience, but so too do a portion of mainline Protestants and Catholics.

What does all this mean? How we define a religious category, of course, changes how we measure and understand it. In this case, Evangelical Christianity is holding steady, after some decline, at about its 40-year average. Born-again Christianity is going strong, slightly trending upward.