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Christianity’s Decline? What the Pew Research Doesn’t Actually Tell Us

May 18, 2015

The big news in American religion last week was the release of the new study on the nation’s changing religious landscape from Pew Research. As a student of religion perhaps the most remarkable thing to see these past several days is not to much the contents of the report itself (based on surveys that show the change in self-identified religious affiliation from 2007 to 2014) but the variety of interpretations to it.

Some headlines are ready to call Christianity’s time-of-death, while others observe that this is merely the latest data speaking to trends that began a generation ago (i.e. the decline of membership in the mainline denominations).  Others point gleefully to the fact that now evangelicalism is also declining (as a share of the total population), disrupting the narrative that the shifting landscape is entirely explainable by conservatives fleeing “liberal” denominations for the more conservative.  And evangelicals look at the same data and declare their own victory: they are declining less than everyone else, and in terms of total membership numbers are actually still growing (somewhere between zero and 5 million in seven years, accounting for the poll’s margin of error).

Quite a bit has been lost in the analysis, and it’s because we aren’t reading Pew critically enough.  Let me point out three observations as I see them.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape(1) First, the story told by the phone survey of more than 35,000 adults is not that Christianity is in rapid decline.  I think this is the most important and most overlooked aspect of this story. The survey asked respondents the specific Christian denomination with which they self-identify (in other words, it’s not based on any church’s membership records).  There is a sharp increasing in the “Nones,” those reporting no affiliation (from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent just seven years later).

This is, of course, not to say that these men and women do not regard themselves as Christians (though definitions of just what that means will vary, for some being more theological and for others more sociological).  It only says that they are not connected with any denomination or worshiping body, nor do they regard themselves as part of a specific religious tradition even if they don’t go to church.

There is no choice of “Christian – Other,” or “Christian – Unaffiliated,” then. The survey is not about religious belief or practice so much as it is about institutional affiliation. Men and women who have no such ties fall into the “Nones.”

From the report:

The unaffiliated are generally less religiously observant than people who identify with a religion. But not all religious “nones” are nonbelievers. In fact, many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people. Forthcoming reports will describe the Religious Landscape Study’s findings about the religious beliefs and practices of “nones” and other groups.

The total of all Christian bodies has fallen from 78.4 percent of the U.S. population to 70.6 percent in just seven years, and that’s startlingly rapid. But respondents were not asked if they identify as “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” … or “None.” This 70.6 percent is simply the aggregate total of all the individual denominations listed.

What the report indicates, in other words, is not a decline in Christianity but a deinstitutionalizing of Christians.  Many of these certainly would not self-identify as Christian at all – but that’s not what the survey asked.  Presumably, many of them would regard themselves as believers who have no institutional home.  My conclusion, then, is that more Christians than ever before are living an autonomous faith.

What are we to do with that fact, as churches?  That’s a separate (and very important) question.  But thinking through that problem begins with recognizing that many of the “Nones” are not nonbelievers, but disenfranchised.

~ ~

(2) The news isn’t good for the so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations (that’s us in the larger Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and American Baptist bodies), and that’s nothing new. These groups have been losing members for decades, helping to fuel the explosion of North American evangelicalism for a generation. Evangelicalism, as defined by Pew (more on that below), is still strong.

By and large, the “mainline” churches are the bodies that debated women in ministry in the 1970s and went the inclusive route, and they are the churches that have been debating gay ordination and marriage issues for over a decade — and again, are largely going the inclusive route. Some cynically theorize that this is an attempt to retain members — to make the mainline churches more inclusive, and thereby stem the loss of progressive Americans — and some conservatives will point to data from groups such as the Pew Forum as evidence that this strategy has backfired. These denominations continue to suffer membership loss because their actions have brought about a conservative egress, and in many cases whole denominational splits.

Church CongregationIt should be said that on the ground the people advocating for these changes in polity and practice are not seeking to “liberalize” their churches but (I hope in most all cases) rather to be faithful to the gospel as they understand it. I, for one, am much more interested in my own church’s fidelity to Jesus Christ than in its ability to retain numbers, and I worry about evangelicalism’s common preoccupation with the latter — as if its fidelity to Christ was measured by a populist appeal.

(It’s also worth noting here what one television commenter suggested, though I don’t have data at hand to support the claim: evangelical Christians on average have more kids than their “progressive” counterparts in the mainline, suggesting that at least a portion of the difference in membership would be accounted for by average family size. Kids, however, were not among the respondents to this survey — so this theory would depend upon more evangelical kids staying with their faith into adulthood. It might take more than seven years to be able to measure that well. All in all, I’m not sure that is something the data bears out.)

~ ~

(3) Finally, (and I’ll be blunt here): “Evangelicalism” is not a thing. When Pew uses the term is doesn’t mean what theologians and every-day practicing Christians probably mean, and as a sociological category it is almost entirely worthless.

When we speak of “evangelical Christianity” we tend to think of things like an emphasis on Scripture, an emphasis on conversion (being “born again”) and piety, less formal institutional practices (including worship), etc. For the Pew survey, these characteristics are largely irrelevant (though researchers might say otherwise). Instead, “evangelical” is a pseudo-historical designation that differentiates bodies within the same broad tradition based on which one is older (the “mainline” being the one that had smaller groups break away from it).

This appendix lists all the denominations and bodies that are categorized as “evangelical” or as “mainline.” (Take a moment and look it over.) It’s not necessarily intuitive as to why a given body makes one list rather than the other, and it has nothing to do with anything like theological beliefs or religious practices. As I understand it, the “mainline” denominations are taken to be those who were historically first in this country, and (at least until recent years) the largest; the “evangelical” denominations are those who broke off from the larger denomination at some point. (The Pew Forum states that they classify these based on things such as the use of “born again” language, which is demographically squishy at best. Is there a Christian in the world who would read John 3 and not lay some measure of claim to that language?)

BaptistsSo the Presbyterian Church (USA) is “mainline,” and the Presbyterian Church in America is “evangelical.” The American Baptist Churches USA is mainline, but of course the Southern Baptist Convention is evangelical (and now vastly larger). The Disciples of Christ (a Restorationist group) is mainline; but the Church of Christ (also Restorationist) is evangelical.

How about the Society of Friends (Quakers)? They broke away from the Church of England before immigrating to the United States — so here, they are mainline. (Friends also have an evangelical break-off from a subsequent split.)

The distinctions are largely arbitrary — theological, practically, and even historically speaking. In many cases, the classification may come down to whether a church split happened on the east side of the Atlantic Ocean or the west.

Consider the differences between my own PC(USA) and the PCA: the mainline denomination ordains women, and tends to take a more progressive stance on social matters and on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Otherwise in their history, their governance, and their core convictions the two bodies are the same — and perhaps I can even venture to say that they have much more in common than not (we are all still “Presbyterians,” after all).

Are my PCA brothers and sisters any more “evangelical” by any coherent definition of that term? In both practice and belief, they have more in common with the mainline Presbyterian body than with, say, the Southern Baptists.

As we would expect, many respondents gave a vague self-identification (e.g. “I know I’m a Methodist, but I don’t know what denomination”) which required Pew to sort them based on other factors. This includes race, as well as whether a respondent self-identifies with the language of being “born again.”

In other words, if you don’t know whether you are a mainline Baptist or an evangelical Baptist, but you like the sound of being “born again,” you are marked down as evangelical. Overall, 38 percent of Protestants offered a vague denominational identity and had to be sorted in this way.

The Religious Landscape Study includes a question asking Christians: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” In response to this question, half of Christians (35% of all U.S. adults) say yes, they do consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians.

The results of this question demonstrate my point: only 83 percent of those that Pew would call “evangelical” based on their denominational preference said “Yes” — while a not insignificant 27 percent of “mainline” Protestants also said “Yes,” they describe themselves as “born again” or “evangelical.”

The definition of evangelicalism has always been fuzzy, and so it’s no surprise that Pew had to come up with some creative methodology — one that does not fit roughly 20 percent of Protestants in this country — in order to make their macro-level categories work.

The categorization of survey respondents into “mainline” or “evangelical” bodies is therefore somewhat haphazard, and historically (and practically) dubious. What this means is that the Pew report is useful for some things — tracking affiliation with specific denominations, for example — but it does not show the larger trends that mainliners, evangelicals, and atheists think it does. It’s useful for seeing the population shift from this version of Methodism to that, or away from institutionalized Christianity altogether. It’s helpful for seeing geographical and ethnic distribution. But it simply does not reveal anything useful about the decline or strength of “mainline” and “evangelical” Christianity.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Davis permalink
    May 19, 2015 4:58 pm

    Good work, Darren. It’s very helpful to know the methodological limitations here. I agree with you on almost everything here, but I do have one quibble:

    Are my PCA brothers and sisters any more “evangelical” by any coherent definition of that term? In both practice and belief, they have more in common with the mainline Presbyterian body than with, say, the Southern Baptists.

    It just so happens that I know both the PCA and the PCUSA very well. I won’t bore you with a hundred anecdotes proving this, but suffice it to say that I have been intimately familiar with both for many years — which has much to do with being in such an historically Presbyterian place like Charlotte. I have very close friends in both denominations. I’ve attended a PCA-dominated seminary and a PCUSA seminary. And it just so happens that I know the SBC very well too, from my upbringing as a Baptist and (once again) by the fact that I was raised and live in the South — my parents are SBC faithful.

    This may indeed be a geographic difference, but I do not know anybody who would characterize the practices and beliefs of the PCA as closer to the PCUSA than the SBC. Not at all. And this is in fact where “evangelical,” as imperfect and malleable and porous a term as it is, is in fact helpful — which is why we have never been able to get rid of it or find a more useful alternative designation. When it comes to the Bible, the PCA and SBC are both inerrantist, with rather little wiggle room. Both are staunch advocates for the exclusivity of Christ for salvation (often a very strict exclusivism). Both are evangelical in their preaching emphases: penal substitution, crucicentrism (Beddington’s term), personal conversion in terms of repentance and salvation from damnation. Both abhor universalism. Both are pro-life. Both are not even debating gay marriage, because it is not even remotely an option. In general, both are suspicious of evolution, or at the very least they harbor prominent opponents of evolution. Even when it comes to “born again” experience, the PCA is still closer to the SBC, even if they (per their Calvinism) are more cautious and self-critical in this regard. And members of both the PCA and SBC are far more likely to be reading from the same publishers, going to the same conferences, listening to a lot of the same preachers, watching a lot of the same webcasts, and so on. And they both dislike the mainline.

    In fact, the “Presbyterian” common denominator between the PCA and PCUSA amounts to rather little, and this is increasingly the case. Looking at the surface, I would say that there is a stoic-like personality in both denominations, because they share the same Scots and Scots-Irish Calvinist heritage. Other than that (and polity, of course), I see the PCA as having far more commonality with the SBC than with the PCUSA.

  2. May 20, 2015 1:29 am

    Thanks, Kevin — I’ll certainly take the correction on that score. When I suggest similarities between the PCA and the PCUSA of course I have in mind things like polity and the Reformed theological distinctives (election, law and gospel, Christology, sacraments, worship, et al).

    When I teach both PCUSA and PCA ministerial candidates, it seems to me that despite an awful lot of differences we also historically have a great deal in common.

  3. May 20, 2015 9:06 am

    There is indeed a common Reformed vocabulary that makes mediating between the two fairly easy, even with their different conceptions (say, Barth on election versus the Westminster Standards).

  4. Blair Bertrand permalink
    May 23, 2015 3:04 pm

    Good work Darren. Naive readings of this kind of research are only made worse by the methodological difficulties of empirical research.

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