America’s Invisible Churches

America’s Invisible Churches January 22, 2021

 We often encounter attempts to gauge the strength of faiths and denominations in the US, usually in the form of the maps and tables that appear in the news media from time to time. Those figures are based on careful studies by such reputable organizations as Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies who produce a U. S. Religious Census: Religious Congregations and Membership Survey, or RCMS (The 2010 Census was published in 2012, and another one is presently in the works). But some really important work just coming out does raise significant and even explosive questions about what those scholars, with all their competence and integrity, might be missing. At Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, my distinguished colleagues include J. Gordon Melton, a scholar with a comprehensive knowledge of the byways of American religion. In recent years, he has organized some painstaking studies that count churches and places of worship in particular localities, and comparing the results with the RCMS figures. The differences have been stunning.

I stress that my role in this research is solely that of a reporter and observer, not a participant. However, Melton has worked together with several researchers, who so far have produced a couple of academic papers (see below). I hugely look forward to the major book or survey that will present these findings with the attention they deserve. But right now, let me highlight some of the major findings.

Melton began his study in McLennan County, Texas, which has its seat at Waco – which, conveniently, is also the home of our own Baylor University. He spent a great deal of time trying to list every place of worship in the county, which meant visiting many out of the way locations and back roads, but also some remarkably central locations. To use a voguish word, he engaged in ground-truthing. In 2016, Melton and Todd Ferguson reported their findings in a paper called “America’s Invisible Religion.” They found that the standard counts of places of worship in that county were missing about 28 percent of the actual total. The RCMS reported 378 congregations in McLennan County: Melton and Ferguson found 527. Put another way, their survey increased the number of known congregations by forty percent.

At first glance, this may not seem remarkable. We might respond, rightly, that small churches come and go, and it is quite likely that a particular church meeting in a storefront or strip mall will last only a couple of years. Nor will its congregation exceed a couple of dozen. And given the locale, it is more likely than not that the church in question will classify itself generically as Baptist or evangelical. So if we are missing quite a few pop up storefront churches, how much does that really matter? But among those missing churches, the researchers also found some quite astonishing omissions, such as Antioch Community Church, a wildly successful megachurch that has a campus spanning several city blocks. Incidentally, it was long famous as the church home of Waco’s own superstars, Chip and Joanna Gaines. And Antioch does not even appear on the RCMS list?

If Antioch is an extreme case, then many of the other “missing” churches were substantial entities with sizable investments in bricks and mortar. Not to mention the spacious car parks that are the sine qua non of a booming modern congregation. However intuitive this might appear, congregational size alone did not determine whether a church earned admission to the RCMS. Some small churches did make the cut, some large ones did not.

Nor was it just a matter of individual missing congregations: “While checking denominational affiliations, we discovered several new denominations, with congregations in Waco, that had heretofore never been reported in the literature.” One of Melton’s many insights is how megachurches like Antioch spawn their own denominations, which come to be genuinely important and widespread.

A striking table shows that some denominations in McLennan County, such as Methodists and Catholics,  did an excellent job of counting and recording their churches. Ten Assemblies of God churches were reported, and ten duly appeared. But the gaps were striking, to say the least:

The RCMS reported three congregations of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. Melton and Ferguson found 31.

The RCMS noted zero independent and unaffiliated Baptist congregations. Melton and Ferguson reported fifty.

The RCMS found zero independent Pentecostal/Charismatic congregations. Melton and Ferguson found 27.

Melton and Ferguson increased the roster of “other independent Evangelical churches” from 4 to 72.

So was McLennan County unique? Melton then worked with colleagues to test those Texas results in two other very different regions, namely Whatcom County in Washington state, and the Greater Richmond area in Virginia. (Holly Folk was the collaborator in the Washington study, David Bromley in Virginia). And in both, broadly similar results emerged. In Whatcom County, about forty percent of actual congregations were not being counted. In the Richmond area, 1,031 congregations were actually found, compared to 766 reported in the RCMS – a 26 percent undercount. If you know the physical and social landscape of the communities in question, you really could not miss these places, yet they have somehow vanished into the Ecclesiastical Triangle (my phrase, not Melton’s).

Based on these findings, I would suggest that any such detailed study of the congregational landscape is going to find a similar undercount. Go ahead – please test and replicate these studies!

I do stress, these studies are absolutely not intended as any kind of attack on the RCMS, but rather they are suggestions by which methodologies can be improved, and the next survey assuredly will have taken those lessons on board. That is how social science advances, through testing and replication.

So who are we missing? Just who are these Invisibles? Some of the gaps are predictable, including the fairly spectacular undercount of African-American and Latino congregations. But by far the most significant gaps are found in small evangelical and Pentecostal churches of all ethnicities, many of which have merged (and are merging) into whole new groupings. “It is these hundreds of newer Christian denominations that constitute the Others—a largely invisible religious community hiding in plain sight in America. “

Let me just add here that these undercounts do not affect estimates of religious or Christian adherence in the US such as those regularly produced by the Pew Foundation, as these are based on survey evidence, independent of congregational counts. To say that we are missing thirty or forty percent of congregations certainly does not mean that the actual US Christian population is thirty or forty percent larger than claimed. Nor do these findings have anything to say about any alleged trends to secularization in US society. But the studies very much do affect what we might say about the American denominational landscape, and the distribution of religious traditions. Above all, they throw so much emphasis on the independent and autonomous congregations, of the kind that do not easily fall into familiar denominational categories.

The whole story raises countless questions. Not least, is the current situation new? Suppose for instance that I went back in time to 1930 or 1980, would I find a similar unacknowledged flourishing of these small independent congregations and traditions? Or is this very atomized picture new? Personally, I suspect the current picture just reflects an enduring American reality, but I would love to see that argument tested. Having said that, I am far from sure how reliably such a historic study could be done. We just can’t do the kind of ground-truthing for the situation in 1930 that Melton and colleagues were able to do in the 2010s. Maybe those past situations really are unknowable?

But I repeat, I can’t wait for Melton and colleagues to put together the book that this research cries out for. This is truly important stuff.


The papers in which these findings have so far been presented are:

Gordon Melton and Todd Ferguson, “America’s Invisible Religion: The McLennan County Church Survey.” A paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture held at Chapman University, Orange, California, March 18-19, 2016.

Gordon Melton, Holly Folk, David Bromley, Todd Ferguson, Josh Daniels, and Chelsea Wilkinson, “The Others: Hiding in Plain Sight. Finding and Counting America’s Invisible Churches.” A paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Las Vegas, Nevada, October 26-28, 2018.


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