The Rise of Evangelical Nones


Are Americans leaving evangelicalism or just shedding denominational lables? Ed Stetzer digs into the numbers.

The country’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, announced this week that their membership fell for the eighth straight year in 2014. But as I recently explained, American Christianity, particularly evangelicalism, is neither dead nor dying.

There are numerous evangelical denominations, though, and many are thriving. The Assemblies of God, the second-largest evangelical denomination in the United States, reported their 25th year of growth this week.

Still, there is a correct perception that many evangelical denominations are declining, even as the number of evangelicals overall is growing.

Here are three ways to square that statistical circle:

1. Nondenominational churches are growing

Many analyses of religious data in the U.S. miss the growing presence of nondenominational churches. That is, congregations that are not affiliated with national church organizations like the United Methodist Church or Southern Baptist Convention.

Why is this significant? Well, for example, most of the top 100 largest churches in the United States are now nondenominational.

According a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the share of Southern Baptists in the U.S. population fell by 1.4% in the past year seven years. However, the share of nondenominational evangelical Christians grew by 1.5%.

Baptists and nondenominational evangelicals are just a part of the whole, of course, but if current trends continue, the largest evangelical “denomination” will soon be nondenominational.

2. The first church of huh?

If you focus only on churches within evangelical denominations, you miss those congregations that, while evangelical in their doctrine, exist independently.

Ignoring nondenominational churches misses Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, which has more than 30,000 attendees, or the almost 25,000 Christians who attend Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago. They, and many churches like them, are well-known and denominationally unaffiliated.

Despite recent data from LifeWay Research, which found most Americans are open to denomination churches, many pastors feel they can be more effective by not promoting their denominational affiliation. They aren’t necessarily hiding it, but it’s not something that comes up frequently.

Many evangelicals are happy to talk about Jesus, but perhaps are reticent to talk about their denomination. Or they might not even know their church is affiliated with a larger group.

For example, tens of thousands of people attend campuses of the innovative, the congregation behind the popular YouVersion Bible app. Most members of LifeChurch are probably unaware of their affiliation with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination founded by Swedish immigrants — another growing evangelical denomination — for 22 years in a row.

If a Pew pollster asked someone who attends the multi-campus National Community Church that meets in movie theaters around Washington D.C. each week, would they know they are part of an Assemblies of God church?

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Ed Stetzer

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