The percentage of Christians in America is dropping

The percentage of Christians in America is dropping March 10, 2009

A new study of religion in America has found that over the last two decades, the percentage of Christians is dropping, fewer Christians identify with any denomination, and the one religious category that is growing is “no religion.” Excerpts from the story in the Washington Post:

The survey of more than 54,000 people conducted between February and November of last year showed that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990. . . .

The increase in people labeling themselves in more generic Christian terms corresponds strongly with the decline in people identifying themselves as Protestant, the survey found. People calling themselves mainline Protestants, including Methodists and Lutherans, have dropped to 13 percent of the population, down from 19 percent in 1990. The number of people who describe themselves as generically “Protestant” went from approximately 17 million in 1990 to 5 million.

Meanwhile, the number of people who use nondenominational terms has gone from 194,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million. . . .

The only group that grew in every U.S. state since the 2001 survey was people saying they had “no” religion; the survey says this group is now 15 percent of the population. Silk said this group is likely responsible for the shrinking percentage of Christians in the United States. . . .

The survey reflects a key question that demographers, sociologists and political scientists have been asking in recent years: Who makes up this growing group of evangelicals? Forty-four percent of America’s 77 million Christian adults say they are born again or evangelical. Meanwhile, 18 percent of Catholics also chose that label, as did 40 percent of mainline Christians.

“If people call themselves ‘evangelical,’ it doesn’t tell you as much as you think it tells you about what kind of church they go to,” Silk said. “It deepens the conundrum about who evangelicals are.”

I didn’t know those who attend “non-denominational” churches don’t even consider themselves Protestant! Is that right? Or might “non-denominational” just be the new term for “generically Protestant”?

It is evident that there is a big “conundrum” about the meaning of “evangelical.” So 40% of “mainline” Christians–which connotes the major liberal denominations–are also “evangelical”? Certainly we confessional Lutherans are more “evangelical”–in our insistence on the Gospel and the authority of Scripture, the usual criteria–than “mainline,” so the categories seem all confused.

I do acknowledge the widespread disillusionment of just about everybody about their denominations. Any suggestions for what to do about that? At the same time, I have noticed that even “non-denominational” Christians tend to follow a particular theological tradition (with some being Baptistic, others Pentecostal, others Reformed, others Arminian).

Maybe we need to study what the growing religion is doing. Are the “no religion” folks seeker sensitive? On the other hand, being seeker sensitive doesn’t seem to be working very well for American Christianity.


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