Denominational Change in American Protestantism since 1972

Denominational Change in American Protestantism since 1972 May 9, 2013

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.

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  • georgeyancey

    Has anyone really done a good job researching non-denominational Protestants. I know that they have been growing for years and probably at the expense of mainline denominations. I wonder if there is any really good work out there looking at this phenomenon.

    • As pollsters say, the words “southern” and “Baptist” elicit “high negatives”. This despite the fact that MLK Jr identified himself as .. you guessed it.. a southern Baptist. But then again so did and do most whites in the south. Richard Land and others in that Denom now want to be called “Great Commission Baptists” to remove the negative links that denomination has in popular opinion. I always remind folks that the Baptist church in the USA began not in Dixie but way up in Providence Rhode Island.

  • What variables did you use to ID? I thought the GSS was more general than that.

    • Brad Wright

      RELIG and DENOM. So, for Protestants, it asks respondents which denomination they are in, and it gives an abbreviated list of possibilities (which is why the “other” category is so big).


      • Thanks. Poking around on the SDA Berkeley site it is tough to find the DENOM. That list is interesting. You could almost calling “pre-schisms”. I was trying to construct a [PCUSA, TEC, ELCA & UM] proto-denom as they are all in pulpit sharing with each other. It is not perfect, but when you lump those groups together, put the baptists as you’ve got them, Lump the rest of the “know” lutherans, you’ve got an interesting picture of three more or less straight lines (Baptist, Lutheran and Other) and one falling and one rising (the construct-denom & none).

  • Brad Wright

    Good example, Mike. Whereas 40 years ago, more people attending Baptist churches would identify themselves as Baptist.

    • The SBC has become a tad too politicized for many. The odd thing is although the church is a strong advocate for heterosexual marriage and a strong opponent of abortion it is far less vocal than others are. That puts them in company with the Catholics and the Latter Day Saints. The Mormons are a much smaller group yet they have been front and center in the battles for Prop 8 and in their call to keep homosexuals out of scouting.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this. I was surprised to see the decline of the Methodists.

  • Many young men I suspect purposely attend non-denominationally affiliated seminaries. Unless a church is on the “wrong side” [ie not yours] in the battles over abortion or homosexuality, you’ll find many men willing to take on whatever denominational tag their new bosses require. The evangelical Free Church, for example, had lotsa former Baptists in attendance.

  • The denominations don’t exert any type of centralized control as Catholicism does. There are Baptist churches with day deacons or women pastors. The denom label is simply no accurate predictor of what awaits you once you go in.

  • Stagester

    Its truly interesting that you don’t segregate those denominations such as mainline from those who are not. For example the rise of the OPC from the decline of the PCUSA. Or the rise of the African Episcopate from the American and English. It is astounding the fall of the “liberal” denoms vs. he rise of the orthodox.