Press the Panic Button, Protestants?

On Tuesday I posted six reasons why Mormons are beating Baptists in church growth and then just this morning ran across this chart based on Pew Forum data. Simply put, unless we Protestants can start to change these numbers, we’re going to fade away in the United States.  Yes, it will take time.  Yes, we’ll be a cultural influence for decades to come.  But fade we will.

Note that among the Christian churches, those that are more “institutional” or “religious” are doing much better than the nondenominational churches and those known for looser doctrine.  That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  Unless of course popular YouTubes and blogs don’t really have their fingers on the pulse of the human heart.

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  • Larry

    David, there’s far too much data missing from this chart to reach any conclusion other than that there’s far to much data missing to reach any conclusions. As for Barna (referenced in your last piece), his polling data is NOT considered reliable (not a few pixels have been spilled underscoring not only his flawed polling methodology, but also the agenda which may drive it).

    Are criticisms in order? Of course, you lose your credibility when you employ alarmist tactics.

  • Nan Pritchard

    I do think there is something to the above data David. Like yourself David, I believe a moral disservice in all adult research – including Pew – is that young people communities start looking to Jenny McCarthy or other recovering Christian adults as accurate reflection. Do not panic humble Christians – remember Dan & Mrs Quayles uncharitable remarks about who ‘dropped-out’. Probably forever etched in hardcore leftist business minds in Massachusetts and center right of that. Failed legislation and the long way ’round route isnt helpful to suffering Jesus!

  • Maxwell Thelen

    David: My issue with this data is that it is equally consistent with the hypothesis that there is mobility *among* protestant denominations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that protestants leave the protestant faith, just that they are likely to switch from one to another of the ten protestant flavors listed. (E.g., I was christened Methodist, raised Baptist, but have been a member of a reformed Presbyterian church for ten years now.)

  • Mary Eady

    David — I’m pining for the drill-down into stats. This makes me want it even more. There has been much discussion in our office about your last article. Interesting splits here in this graphic: “Reformed” and separated out from that, “Presbyterian” — but what flavor? This interests me. As does the inclusion of Anglicans with Episcopalians…who have HUGE ideological splits and have now in the States split from one another in a most rancorous way. I also find it interesting that Atheists have such a low retention rate…

    Anyway. Staying tuned.

  • Jared

    These are fascinating statistics and it may very well be time to hit the panic button. (For me, the time to hit the panic button was when mega-churches began literally franchising themselves…)

    However, these stats are not counter-intuitive. The more “institutional” or “religious” churches have a higher cost of participation, i.e. more weekly and annual services, more daily requirements such as praying and fasting, more institutional commitments such as initiations, confession, eucharist. People willing to do these things in the first place are much less likely to leave them for something else.

    As a marketer of classical music, I see a very similar phenomenon. Getting somebody to try classical music is often quite difficult – a classical music concert can be much more artistically challenging than a regular pop concert. You may want to read the program notes or brush-up on a composer before you go. Depending on the performance, my ticket prices may even be higher. We ask people to participate in ascetic practices like turning off their iPads. However, once I’ve “converted” somebody, they tend to stay. My growth rate is slow but steady and always a challenge to keep going, but my retention rate is quite high.

  • Tom

    I think this post shows a bit why David’s a Lawyer and not a statistician. Although I don’t think anyone really knows the source of the statement, “There are 3 kinds of lies, lies, damned lies, and statistics.”, this chart is trying to use “statistics” to say nothing. Here’s how I see the crux of the matter. I grew up Baptist, and since have been a member of Presbyterian and Methodist churches, and also for times have been part of Episcopal churches. My kids would probably say they grew up Methodist, as we belonged to a Methodist Church during their high school years. One then became a Presbyterian, but has married Baptist, so she will probably become a Baptist. The other was very involved in a Bible Church, then a Presbyterian Church, then a Baptist Church, and now Evangelical Free. The above graph cannot tell you anything about whether its good or bad that I’m not a Baptist now, and my kids are not Methodist. I of course thing we on the right track, and holding very close to the faith of my father, and their grandfather, which was Christian, not Baptist. A better question in my mind, are we seeking to be Mere Christians. There are lots of congregations that can help, and others that would hinder, regardless of the sign out front.
    For me to become a Roman Catholic would be a large change, but as one moves from place to place, to change a denomination away from one’s youth says nothing about whether the children were raised well in the faith of their parents.

  • Larry

    AN interesting read that examines the methodology of such polls …

  • David French

    Maxwell, while I agree that there is mobility among protestant denominations that is not reflected in the chart, the reality of the math is that there is a net loss of protestants.

  • David French

    Great comment, Jared. Also, I’d say that Orthodox, Catholic, and Mormon believers have more distinct cultures that are self-sustaining (and connected to your points above).

  • Larry

    Each of those groups also maintains records in a fashion distinct from most Protestant churches (My first pastorate, in Boston, MA, was centered among a half dozen Roman Catholic Churches … I was always amazed that while these parishes reported significant membership, attendance – save holidays- was always extraordinarily low).

    Even so, Catholics and historic mainline churches have been in decline for sometime (a decline which not a few attribute to not merely entropy but a distinct leftward political drift which replaced the gospel with a political narrative) … as a whole. However, among those churches (this is especially evidenced among Methodist congregations) who radically rethink their approach to the manner in which they “do church” those trends have been reversed. In some cases, dramatically.

    The fastest growing sector of the church continues to be among non-denominational congregations. Their growth trends continue to be positive. The AOG continues to demonstrate growth though drilling down through the numbers reveals that the majority of that growth is occurring via Hispanic congregations).

    There are trends within trends and an arc which is not really revealed in the numbers you cited David. I’ve worked with numerous churches, encouraging a formal event which marks transition for youth into adult worship … an event which signals both welcome and full membership into the adult community … as strategy for not merely marking the transition but to assist in assimilation.

    It’s the limbo that is so unhelpful, particularly when the culture has delayed entry into adulthood into the late twenties or early thirties.

    The Association of Religion Data Archives maintains accurate records, region by region, which offers some valuable data ( ).

    Here’s an article as well which addresses these trends with some anecdotal evidence … .

    Bottom line, again, the data you’ve cited offers little context and a very fuzzy picture. It’s great if you wish to simply mount the stump and shout decline … but desperately lacking if you’re interested in a real idea of what’s unfolding out there.

  • Jesus Morales

    Mr. French, I have to agree with others who point out that this graph is of limited use. First, it’s only dealing with percentages, so that leaves the question of actual numbers. If I’m retaining only 50% of my members but I have 5X as many members as the next guy, I’m still a net positive. At least for the short term. This also wouldn’t count people who convert in their adulthood (such as my wife).

    Still, it’s a disturbing graph to me. I’m sure all of us have our reasons for thinking why this is happening. Personally to me, a lot of it seems to have to do with teaching. We don’t do a good job of passing on doctrinal truths, and especially (in my opinion) of defending them. I’m a big apologetics guy, it has certainly helped keep me in the faith. It just seems that far too many Christians have no answers for the questions the world presents to young people, instead just spitting out platitudes and “just have faith” stock answers. Truth is, there’s lots of reasons to believe in God in general and Christianity specifically, and all someone has to do is check the internet or take a trip to their local bookstore.

  • Gregory Smith, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

    The data being discussed here come from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. For a more detailed discussion of the Religious Landscape Survey’s findings on religious switching, including a discussion of the net impact of religious switching that takes into account both the degree to which religious groups are able to retain members and the degree to which they are able to attract new members, see: Complete details about the Religious Landscape Survey, including information on survey methodology and question wording, are available here:

  • Chris Robin

    Brad Wright’s book, “Christians are Hated-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve been Told…” is a good book that addresses many of your criticisms (it’s not as bad as you think). On the other hand, I think you’re touching on some issues raised by Thomas Bergler in his book, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.”

    But there are encouraging movements like the Young, Restless, and Reformed folks though that could derail itself too with guys like Driscoll at the forefront. Hard to say…

  • ck weaver

    The Pew poll is skewed because it should have only included Hindu, Islam, Jewish, Buddhist, atheists, and Christian. The poll wrongly assumes that Christian denominations are different religions. I understand that many denominations each think thiers is the only one that has it all right, misguided as that may be, and that some of the others aren’t even Christian. Despite protesting to the contrary if you believe there was a Jesus the Christ and try to act Christ-like, by definition you are Christian. Changing from the denomination you grew up in to another denomination has nothing to do with whether you are still a Christian. Some people,usually atheists, and institutions, usually communist leaning, are trying very hard to prove Christianity is having a slow but well deserved death. Had Pew known enough about the Hindus to recognize their hundred or so factions and the several Jewish factions, the poll results would have been grossly different. Doesn’t it just wrangle your nerves when an institution which tries to pass itself off as being intellectually superior, isn’t? Welcome to the dumming of America; let’s keep lowering the bar till no one has to exert any effort to get over it.

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