Thomas Gallatin / March 4, 2020

Mainline Churches Decline While American Christianity Grows

American religion is alive and growing. But are people becoming more Christian?

With mainline denominational churches in America continuing to decline in size and number, is this a sign that the U.S. population is becoming more secular and less religious? According to recent data from Pew Research, the answer actually appears to be no. Even as mainline churches have declined, nondenominational churches have experienced significant growth. In 1998, the number of nondenominational churches in the U.S. was 54,000; by 2012 the number had increased by 42% to 84,000.

To what should we attribute both the decline in mainline churches and the growth in nondenominational churches? The answer to the first question appears to be in large part related to generational changes. As the expectations and demands of a younger generation of society changes, people’s expectations and demands for churches change as well. Older denominational models that fail to adapt and reach out invariably lose people.

As Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer observes, “Sometimes churches die, and sometimes they should. A new church, not a reboot of the old, should be started in its place.”

Writer Ericka Andersen argues, “The leaders taking Mr. Stetzer’s advice generally focus on creating churches that cater to specific needs. There is a church exclusively for employees of Disney World. Spanish-language services are more popular than ever. ‘House churches,’ composed of neighbors meeting for informal services — usually in living rooms — are on the rise as well. Popular Christian leaders like Francis Chan, a former megachurch pastor who now advocates house churches, offer free training for this model.”

However, within the changing American church landscape an obvious tension is raised; how much can the form and practice of a church change without the core faith message being compromised? One need look no further than former Democrat presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who declared that his openly homosexual lifestyle was completely compatible with his declared Christian faith. In fact, Buttigieg went so far as to declare that anyone holding to the historic and biblically consistent sexual ethic was at odds with being a “loving Christian.”

So, while it’s true that Christian denominationalism is on the decline and nondenominationalism is on the rise, this may only be viewed as either a positive or a negative development depending on whether this change is leading people to the worship of God in Spirit and Truth. Since humankind is inherently religious by nature, that the American religious and church landscape is changing should come as little surprise. The more important consideration is what these changes reveal about what Americans are seeking to worship. Are more Americans moving toward worshipping a god who comports with their own imaginations and desires or are they responding in genuine faith, seeking to worship God as He has revealed Himself through the Son according to the Scriptures?

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