What can experts tell us about America’s growing “nondenominational” churches?

What can experts tell us about America’s growing “nondenominational” churches? June 12, 2015

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

In the recent Pew survey showing America’s religious changes, how were nondenominational churches categorized?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Rachael asked previously what America’s biggest Christian groups are, and now has another demographic item about the Pew Research Center’s important “Religious Landscape Study,” which continues to spur discussion. (Text: www.pewforum.org/files/2015/05/RLS-05-08-full-report.pdf. This blog scanned key findings May 16). Pew’s 2014 polling tells us how 35,071 U.S. adults identify themselves on religion, with important new fundings about these independent (a.k.a. “nondenominational” or “interdenominational”) local congregations without national affiliations. The huge sample size provides accurate breakdowns for groups, and Pew’s similar survey in 2007 shows trends over time.

The 2014 survey establishes independent congregations as a growing factor in American life and American religious life. By definition, they’re Protestant (neither Catholic nor Orthodox). U.S. Protestantism gets more complicated by the year and because they’re nearly impossible to track the independents are often neglected in religious analyses. Now, thanks to Pew, there’s solid current data. Since 2007 the independents have posted “the most significant growth” of any U.S. Protestant segment. Today, 6.2 percent of all adults (and 13 percent of Protestants) identify this way, a major increase from 4.5 percent of adults (and 9 percent of Protestants) in 2007.

We’re talking about something like 15 million adults. The independents manage considerable success in the nation’s fluid and competitive religious marketplace despite the increase of non-religious Americans. Some 5.3 percent of independent members are converts raised in other religious groups or no religion. Pew figures the independent category “gains roughly five adherents through religious switching for every adherent it loses.”

A lopsided 78 percent of those in independent congregations identify as “evangelical” (including “charismatic” and “fundamentalist” subcategories) and they make up 19 percent of U.S. evangelicals, up from 13 percent s of 2007. Meanwhile, 16 percent of independents are “mainline” Protestants and 6 percent belong to “historically black” churches. In explaining those categories, Pew says “American Protestantism is best understood not as a single religious tradition but rather as three distinct traditions” that “share similar beliefs, practices and histories,” as follows:

— “Evangelicals,” the largest category with an estimated 62 million adults, are now the clear majority (55 percent) of U.S. Protestants. Pew says these conservatives say personal belief in Jesus Christ is the one way to salvation, emphasize evangelism, and have distinct roots.

— “Mainline” Protestants, roughly 36 million, are in churches Pew describes as “less exclusionary” in beliefs with an emphasis on “social reform.” [The Religion Guy’s quick definition of “mainline” is mostly the predominantly white Protestant denominations in the National Council of Churches, including the American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — not defined as “evangelical” by Pew.]

— Then some 16 million Protestants are in the “historically black” church bodies uniquely shaped by a history of slavery and segregation.

A further complication is that self-identified “evangelicals” also make up 27 percent of members in “mainline” churches and 72 percent in black churches. The mainliners dropped by an estimated 5 million in membership since 2007 while the black Protestants held steady and evangelicals gained by some 2 million. However the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, just reported a one-year membership decrease of 1.5 percent.

Pew’s respondents were pressed to report membership in a specific congregation and denomination, then placed into these three categories with expert guidance. For example, Pew lists 165 varieties of evangelicals. Protestants who didn’t know their exact affiliation were categorized on the basis of race and whether they described themselves as “born-again or evangelical Christian.”

The independents are a growing force but within a shrinking faith. Protestantism dominated American culture from Jamestown and Plymouth till recent decades when its share of the U.S. population gradually declined alongside increases for non-Christian, unaffiliated, and anti-religious Americans. In Pew’s 2007 poll a bare 51.3 percent majority of Americans called themselves Protestant and that’s now down to 46.5 percent.

Some added notes. One can quibble. For instance, Pew coinsiders all Friends (Quakers) mainliners whereas some are evangelicals. But this is an unusually savvy and precise accounting. Pew correctly observes that the general religious labels in many polls tell us little. If someone is “Baptist,” does that mean Southern Baptist (evangelical), American Baptist (mainline with an evangelical element), or National Baptist (historically black)? Or if “Presbyterian,” is that the mainline, increasingly liberal and notably declining Presbyterian Church (USA)? Or the smaller, staunchly conservative, and expanding Presbyterian Church in America? Big difference.

Pew’s reporting so far emphasizes religious identifications. Watch for future releases about Americans’ religious beliefs and practices.

 

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