Specifically, Pew reports that nondenominational churches gain roughly five new members for every one it loses to religious switching. Likely most of these are folks leaving the liberalizing mainline swamps for more solid ground rather than leaving the faith or joining the ranks of believers who don’t go to church. What is clear is that the nones are not coming from the more conservative Protestant churches, and this traffic is not leading toward increased secularization. The Indiana/Harvard research is strongly supported by Pew’s findings. We will see just exactly where the nones are coming from.
With that, I would like to bring in another important research institute to add to a more precise picture of church switching and the nones: the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). Its principle investigator is Professor Barry A. Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Kosmin, a sociologist, holds the honor of being able to say to his grandkids, “Did I ever tell you kids about the time I coined the term nones? It was all the rage in sociology of religion for a decade or so!” Yep, he’s that guy.
While his data shows that the numbers of nones has indeed grown significantly in the last decade, there is another fact he discovered that has not been reported at all, much less really recognized. It concerns the number of Americans who self-reported as nondenominational Christians in contrast to those who newly identified themselves as nones. Dr. Kosmin pointed out an important sub-point to me with some dismay that no one else had picked up on it. He explained, “The rise of nondenominational Christianity is probably one of the strongest [religious growth] trends in the last two decades” in the United States. He added that the percentage gain is “many times larger” compared to those we have come to know as the nones.
Read that again. Growth of nondenominational churches has been many times larger than the nones. Have you ever heard that reported? So it’s not the rise of the nones that is the major story of faith growth trends in America, but the long, consistent rise of nondenominational Christianity. And nearly all nondenominational churches are of a more conservative, evangelical flavor, even though they do not identify with a particular denominational tradition. In fact, in many ways, these churches mark the development of a whole new loose denomination of independent churches. You will see them all around your city if you know what to look for.
So this is why a yes and no answer to our main question of church decline is the correct one. Christianity is shrinking, and it is growing. It’s just depends on which branch we’re talking about. The liberalizing church has been and still is hemorrhaging members as if its carotid arteries have been severed. And they figuratively have, of course, as the church’s main supply of life blood is its theology of who Christ actually is, what He has saved us from, and how He did it. If Jesus is not God and sin is not real, then the cross—the center of the Christian story—means nothing. Those leaving these liberal churches in staggering numbers know this all too well. It’s why they are going elsewhere.
At the same time, the most vibrant forms of evangelicalism have either remained steady or seen substantial growth. Specifically, it’s the evangelical churches identifying as nondenominational that have been growing faster than any others including the nones and the atheists. And as we shall see in chapter 7, young adults are very much involved in the growth of these churches as well.
Pew reports that evangelicals now constitute a clear majority (55 percent) of all US Protestants, and in agreement with ARIS, the share of evangelicals who moved to identifying with a nondenominational church increased from 13 to 19 percent. The Pew report explains, “The family that shows the more significant growth is the nondenominational family.”16 This important addition to the story makes the whole discussion a horse of a very different color than the one that has been shown to most of us. It’s very much a good news story and one that needs more telling. It’s the “nons” and not the “nones” that are mushrooming.
Glenn T. Stanton, The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World (New York City, NY: Worthy Books, 2019).