Thursday, February 28, 2008

Shifting Religious Affiliations in America

On a day when we learned of the death of one of the first and best true Christian rockers, Larry Norman (at 60-- rest in his arms), comes the full Pew study of shifting allegiances in religious America. Here is the link to the story---

Among the notable trends are the following:

1) More than a quarter of all Americans have left the faith of their childhood for either another religion, or no religion at all. If you count shifts between one Protestant Church and another over 44% of all Americans have changed faiths just in the last ten years or so. What this reflects is the erosion of brand name/denomination loyalties.

2) The Roman Catholic Church has shown the sharpest decline in membership in terms of people leaving that church, BUT this decline has been masked by the large influx of Hispanic population into America over the last fifteen years, the vast majority of whom are Catholic in affiliation, at least nominally.

3) Only 16% of all Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all (up from 5-8% in the 80s), and while this number is up over previous surveys, it shows just how very religious a country America is compared to European countries. The claims that America has a precipitous rise in the number of atheists is false. In fact, most of those who claimed they were unaffiliated, simply meant they were not aligned with 'any religion in particular', but most did not reject religion either.

4) One of the major conclusions of the study is that religion is the single most important factor shaping peoples beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes in this country.

5) If you want to see the original survey which was done in 2007, it is here---

6) The decline of Protestantism is especially notable. In the 1970 Protestants accounted for two thirds of all Americans, now it is close to 50%.

7) Evangelical Protestants now account for the majority of Protestants, but only slightly. What this reflects is the defection of mainline Protestants to more Evangelical Protestant denominations and individual churches.

8) Catholics now as before make up about 25% of all Christians in America.

9) the majority of all immigrants from any country are Christians of some sort.

10) Moslems and Mormons have the largest families of any of the religious groups in America.



JMS said...

I've felt for the past 10 years or so that Denominations are becoming increasingly irrelevant to each new generation of Christians. Some look at this as a horrible failure on the part of denominations to keep their members. I'm inclined to see it as slowly answering Jesus' prayer in John 17. What do you think?

James-Michael Smith
Charlotte, NC
GCTS class of '06

Ben Witherington said...

I personally think some of it has to do with the failure of mainline churches to do a very good job of presenting their heritage in a positive way, and of preaching the Word, for that matter. I also think it has to do with the growing suspicion about large institutions in our culture that are old and traditional. When you live in a culture where it is assumed the latest is the greatest and the new is the true, old has a hard time selling.

Monfort said...

I think part of the problem is an ignorance of church history. Growing up in a pretty insular denomination, my view of church history went like this:

1)Jesus and the Apostles,

2)Constantine messed everything up,

3) The Reformation, which fixed some things, but not all, and finally,

4) The beginnings of our denomination, which finished the work of the reformation.

When I was able to move beyond what I had been taught, I felt that "the half had not been told me" about the Church. My denominationalism seemed small and petty to me. It also didn't help that I started to question some doctrines.

The reasons may be different for people from more mainline traditions, but that's my story.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Kudos for your excellent post!

And thank God for Larry Norman who has move from a small circle of friends to the communion of saints!

Michael Gilley said...

I did some ministry in college-aged adults before coming to seminary and I can say that in the tradition I came from (Baptist) there is about an 80% turnover rate from those who were raised in the church when they go to college. This means they either stop going to church altogether or they go somewhere else. Most of them expressed to me the same feelings I had but in a different attitude, which was: they felt like institutionalized religion was not what Jesus wanted. The difference was, they felt like leaving was the best answer and practicing Christianity either by themselves or with a small group of friends on their own terms. I would agree that postmodernistic thought of skepticism and consumerism has played a huge role in this. It also doesn't help that teachings in the church have for the longest time turned individualistic so people have begun to practice individualism. Surely this is multi-demensional.

Rev. Spike said...

Monfort: You must have grown up Baptist :) (I'm a Baptist pastor and I hear that version of church history on occasion; though it is preferable to the "Trail of Blood")

I have to say that the study surprised me. In particular, the Fundamentalist outcry over the last three decades would have you believe that Voltaire was a prophet. Not so, not so. This is good news. However, I agree with Ben that mainline churches have to get their act together, and soon, if they hope to survive. This is much in line with the Presidential address at the SBC in San Antonio. He related the SBC influence on America to the Magineau Line (a huge defensive effort) in France. Perhaps that same illustration could apply to protestants in general.

Josh said...

Hey Ben,

What effect do you think this trend will have on mainline denominations and the way they relate to evangelicals? I am a United Methodist and I have heard that there are plans to plant over 300 churches in the next few years. As a younger evangelical in the ordination process, I am wondering if I won't find myself being treated better than I would maybe 20 years ago.

And what about the large buraeucracies that plague mainlines and largely do nothing (but hinder)? I really hope that the ruling elite would lose some of their power and the common pew person that ministers everyday would be heard and respected. Maybe these signs are good for some of us.

Ben Witherington said...

Josh I can tell you right now that the UM church is much more user friendly today for Evangelicals, and is more populated by them than 10,20,or 30 years ago. One of the groups which have most come our way is Evangelical women who are called of God, but who will not be allowed to serve in various sorts of other churches. The fundamentalist take over of the SBC has not helped their cause, but the UM Church has been the benefiary.

When I went up for ordination 30 plus years ago, my ordination was delayed for a year because I went to an Evangelical seminary previous UMs from my conference had never gone to. I was also told when I got out of my doctoral work by more than one Um dean that I would not be hired by their seminary simply because I was an Evangelical Methodist. My point is this--- this would never happen today almost anywhere. The church has changed, and Evangelicals have helped make the change.

I do not see 'bureaucracy' as a major issue in our church. Much of it is doing good work. For example, almost every single dollar we send to UMCOR, over 90% in fact for Darfur relief goes directly to that relief. Other independent relief agencies can't come close to matching that percentage. Why not? Because we the church support the structures of the agency so they don't have to take a cut to send the funds along to the worthy cause.


Ben W.

Josh said...

Thanks Ben,

I attend a Southern Baptist School (I came here for the biblical languages dept.; I get to study under Dr. Mark Dubis, another Gordon-Conwell student I might add) and my Christian studies classes are full of godly young women (and in reality, show much more maturity than their male counterparts). I am left wondering what future they have in the SBC. Believe me, if they express interest in pastoral ministry, I will be glad to point them to the UMC.

Ben, thanks for giving me a good overview of the ministries in the UMC. I really did not know that they were so efficient (then again, we are Methodist). It really blesses my heart to hear that my church is doing so much for the poor and persecuted.

I just want to give a shout of appreciation to Asbury college. I am a Union student and as I went through the student building today I saw a huge banner that was signed by the Asbury students showing their solidarity with other students of a Christian university. It really has been awesome to see how loving and generous God's people have been after the terrible destruction brought about by the tornadoes. Our all-wise God can transform anything into something good!