The rise of evangelical 'nones'

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

Story highlights

  • Ed Stetzer: Many analyses of religious data in the U.S. miss the growing presence of nondenominational churches
  • If you focus only on churches within evangelical denominations, you miss independent congregations, says Stetzer
  • Stetzer: Sky still isn't falling on American Christianity or evangelicalism; simply stunning growth in nondenominational evangelicalism

Ed Stetzer is executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research organization. The views expressed in this column belong to Stetzer.

Ed Stetzer is the president of LifeWay research, an evangelical research company.

(CNN)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 LifeChurch.tv, 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?
    3. Lies, darned lies and church statistics
    Here's a dirty little secret: Many evangelical churches report membership numbers that look very different from actual attendance or even involvement.
    Many Roman Catholics may be familiar with this phenomenon. I'm probably still on the roll of Our Lady of Victory in Floral Park, just outside of New York City, where I was baptized as a child.
    Many evangelicals have some similar attendance patterns, often listing far more people on the membership rolls than actually attend church on Sunday mornings.
    At the very least, many evangelicals have been generous about claiming someone as a member. Moving between denominations makes it probable some were members of more than one church at a time. Getting churches to drop people from membership, until recently, was more difficult than the proverbial act of Congress.
    There's some truth in the old joke: There are more Baptists than people in Texas.
    Many denominations report their own stats, based on the rolls that churches send them. But those rolls are often a mess. For example, Southern Baptists claim more than 15 million members, yet no SBC leader believes there are 15 million Southern Baptists -- the FBI could not find half the members. But the denomination cannot change the numbers submitted. As a result, the inflated numbers continue to be used.
    Some of the recent declines in denominations are corrections of past inflation and a continuing shedding of those nominal Christians who once claimed to belong to a church but haven't darkened a sanctuary door since 2000.
    Where does that leave us?
    Again, this does not mean everything is going great for American Christianity. But a better grasp of the numbers and factors involved help us gain a fuller picture.
    For full disclosure, I believe in denominations -- I wrote a cover story for Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication, explaining the benefits of denominations.
    Yet, polls -- even of pastors -- show us many are less enthusiastic about the future of denominations.
    So, if evangelicals are growing and many denominations are shrinking, then where are they going?
    Looking at the General Social Survey, using denomination of those whose religious preference is "Protestant," you can see where the growth is: it's nondenominational. In fact, over the last four decades, there has been a 400% increase in Protestants who identify as nondenominational.
    The sky still isn't falling on American Christianity or evangelicalism. Rather, there is a stunning growth in nondenominational evangelicalism that is reshaping the religious landscape today. More and more churchgoing Christians, when asked about denomination, are saying, "none."
    American Christianity is becoming more nondenominational and more evangelical at the same time. And those are stats you can believe in.