By Mark A. Taylor
News outlets across the country reported the Pew Research Center’s findings that fewer Americans than ever are calling themselves Christians. Most secular reports led with the summary statistic, that only 70.6 percent of adults in the United States identified themselves as Christians in 2014, compared with 78.4 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, increased by about 19 million. The Pew study projects that 56 million American adults, almost 23 percent of the total adult population, say they have no religion.
Christian writers tried to find a positive spin in the report. For one thing, the number of Evangelicals has grown during this time. For another, as Southern Baptist researcher Ed Stetzer said in USA Today, the numbers do not show that Christianity is collapsing in America; “rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement.” In other words, says Stetzer, those we once would have called “nominal Christians” are now self-identifying as not Christians at all.
And Stetzer points out that most of the free fall within the Christian category is among Mainline Protestants and Catholics. “Among adults who claim no religious affiliation, 28 percent were raised Catholics, while 21 percent grew up Mainline.”
It’s fair to guess that much of the growth in Evangelical churches came from some of these disaffected members of Mainline and Catholic churches. Our resident statistician, Kent Fillinger, tore into the 200-page Pew report and uncovered some compelling findings. “The report showed that Evangelical Protestants were the only group that gained more members than they lost through religious switching,” he replied when I asked his impression of the report. (“Switching” is code for leaving one church or kind of church for another.) “In fact,” Fillinger continued, “the report showed that nondenominational Protestants gain five people through religious switching for every one person they lose.”
And among Evangelicals, those who call themselves nondenominational fared best of all. This group “grew from 13 percent in 2007 to 19 percent in 2014,” Fillinger found. Not only did the percentage of Evangelicals among Protestants grow, but the percentage of nondenominational Christians among Evangelicals also grew.
So it seems clear that nondenominationalism is attractive to a growing number of Christ followers in America. Many, frustrated with liberal theology or redefined moral standards among church leaders, are leaving for free churches who lift up the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Bible.
But what about the “nones”? How many unchurched adults are coming to Christ in these growing Evangelical churches? I fear not nearly enough. Ask your minister how many of your congregation’s new members name yours as their first-ever church. How many are finding God for the first time because of your outreach? (And, by contrast, how many chose your church just because they liked it better than another one they attended last year or in their childhood?)
“Given the significant increase in the number of people who identify themselves as ‘nones,’ I think it’s safe to say the Evangelical church as a whole is still losing the battle,” Fillinger wrote after digesting the Pew report.
Here at CHRISTIAN STANDARD we always seek and regularly find stories of churches that are not losing. But we need more, so many more, Christian leaders to marshal ministries that bring non-Christians to faith. More about that in this space next week.