Mainline Protestants (those in the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA], Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ [UCC], and The Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) have fared poorly in recent decades. While Christianity overall is not dying in America, Mainline Protestantism is getting closer. According to the GSS, 28% of Americans identified with a mainline church in 1972. By 2014, that number had dropped to 12.2%.
A recent report from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) corroborates this trend. The report looked at church statistics from 2002 to 2013. The denomination reported net membership losses each year. In 2002, the denomination shrank by 41,812 members. This number peaked in 2012 when they reported a net loss of 102,791.
Other Mainline denominations faced similar declines due to several factors, including aging membership, falling birthrates, a lack of theological clarity, and a shortage of new churches. Mainline Protestantism as a whole is hemorrhaging and is facing an existential crisis. If the current trajectory continues, some Mainline denominations could cease to exist in the next four to five decades.
Evangelicals have remained steady for the most part, according to the polls. The GSS found that evangelical affiliation and reported church attendance peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, then declined, then rebounded. In 1972, 17.1% of Americans self-identified as evangelical. In 2014, this percentage increased to 22.7. Similarly, the number of Americans regularly attending church increased from 7.9% to 12.5%.
Evangelicals are experiencing both a success story and a “glory days of old” story. The success is that more Americans identify as evangelicals, and that more people attend evangelical churches. But evangelicals remain uncertain about the future. There’s essentially a “The Sky Is Falling” fear that forecasts doom for the future. Christian Smith of Notre Dame refers to this trend as “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics.”
The fact is that more than one-third of Americans are evangelical by self-identification. Furthermore, evangelicals attend church now more than ever. The 2014 GSS reported that in the last two years of the study, a greater percentage of evangelicals were attending church than any other time in the last four decades. Fifty-five percent of evangelicals attend church nearly every week. According to the Pew data, about half of American Christians claim to be evangelical or born again. According to Greg Smith of Pew Research:
Evangelical Protestantism constitutes the largest single religious tradition in the United States. Currently, one-quarter of U.S. adults identify with evangelical Protestant denominations. The share of Americans who identify with evangelicalism has ticked downward slightly in recent years (from 26% in 2007 to 25% as of 2014), but the number of evangelicals in the U.S. grew over this period. Today, about 62 million U.S. adults identify with evangelical Protestant denominations, up from 60 million in 2007. Evangelicals, unlike Catholics or Mainline Protestants, have also benefited when people switch their religious identity. There are 1.2 adults who have converted to evangelicalism after having been raised in another faith (or no faith) for each person who has left evangelicalism for another religion (or no religion).
Still, there are challenges. Christian Smith of Notre Dame suspects evangelicals, especially white evangelicals, may decline in the future:
(Evangelicalism) grew long term in part because it had higher fertility by adopting birth control more slowly than mainliners and partly because it was attractive to many more Americans as a faith. It seems that many internal divisions that have always been in evangelicalism are growing stronger and more clear, less able to keep in the background. Also, internally, in its culture, evangelicalism seems to have become so acculturated that it has some growing identity crises, I think.
Internal division, an identity crisis, and lower birthrates may lead to a decline among evangelicals in the future. Also, just as mainline Protestants found their way into evangelical fellowships, many of them—and their children—may find their way back to other traditions, if even for a short time. Still, the evangelical movement has shown surprising resilience, say researchers Byron Johnson and Gordon Melton of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor:
Southern Baptists have declined, but overall Evangelicalism is showing the largest growth in American religion. This important and fascinating story has been almost completely overshadowed by the preoccupation of the supposed rise of the Nones.
Johnson and Melton argue that many of the Nones are attending non-denominational churches, another overlooked segment of the church.
Three More Vital Trends
In addition to vital trends associated with Protestants and evangelicals, there are three more vital trends that are necessary to make sense of America’s religious landscape.
1. The rise of non-denominational churches. The growth of nondenominational churches is often overlooked in analyses of U.S. religious data. These are congregations that are not affiliated with national church organizations like the United Methodist Church or Assemblies of God. The rapid growth of these churches demands attention. For example, the majority of the 100 largest churches in the U.S. are nondenominational. Soon, the largest evangelical ‘denomination’ will be nondenominational.
2. The stability of historic African-American churches. Historically, African-American churches and denominations have continued to report steady numbers overall. These include denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Baptist Convention, and the Church of God in Christ, which emerged during segregation. Historic African-American churches tend to hold similar beliefs to evangelical churches, but do not prefer to use the evangelical label.
Pew Research has found that about 7% of Americans identified with a historically African-American Church in 2009, and a similar number (6.5%) in 2014. The largest among these churches comes from charismatic and Pentecostal expressions, says Johnson and Melton from Baylor.
In terms of theology, members of historical African American churches more often resemble evangelicals than other traditions. Although, the two groups often disagree politically, as Smith points out,“When it comes to religious beliefs and practices, members of the historically black Protestant tradition appear to have much in common with those in the evangelical tradition. For example, 85% of adherents of the historically black Protestant tradition say religion is very important in their lives (as do percent of those who belong to evangelical denominations). Fully 85% of members of the historically black tradition believe the Bible is the word of God (as do 88% of evangelicals). Eight-in-ten members of the historically black Protestant tradition say they pray every day (as do 79% of evangelicals). Indeed, nearly three-quarters of members of historically black Protestant denominations say they think of themselves as ‘born-again or evangelical’ Christians.
3. Erosion of the “Christian middle.” We are not seeing the death of Christianity in America, but we are seeing remarkable changes. Culture is shifting and the religious landscape is evolving. But, instead of the funeral of a religion, at least in part we are witnessing the demise of casual and cultural Christianity. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.