Losing Faith in America?
Many Christians are leaving the biggest denominations, but there is a silver lining!
It’s a trend that has been documented over the last few decades, and that trend is the shrinking number of Americans who identify with a mainline Protestant denomination.
In the 1970s, nearly a third of all Americans were affiliated with a mainline denomination, such as the United Methodist Church or the Episcopal Church, the latter now registering such low membership that it is little more than a sect. Today, just one in 10 Americans is connected to a mainline denomination. The Roman Catholic Church has likewise experienced a slower yet steady decrease in its number of adherents in the U.S.
So, is this evidence of younger generations simply losing faith in their parents’ faith? Certainly for some this is the case, but there’s other data suggesting there is much more to the story, and in many ways it’s positive news.
Since the 1970s, another trend has been documented going in the opposite direction of the mainline denominations. That trend is the growth in the number of nondenominational Protestant churches. In fact, since the 1990s, the number of nondenominational churches has been growing at a rate equal to or faster than the decrease of mainline churches. As of 2021, nondenominational congregations outnumber mainline churches.
What might explain these trends? There are likely multiple factors, but one consistent theme seems to run across both trends — a commitment to the core biblical message of the Gospel. In other words, biblical faithfulness leads to growing churches.
Christian churches are a visible expression of a community of believers who regularly gather together to worship Jesus. Most of the mainline denominations that exist in the U.S. originated in Europe. Both national identity and theological convictions were factors in the development of systematized sets of doctrinal beliefs and practices that marked the distinctions between these different Protestant denominations.
Thanks in part to European immigrants bringing with them their various culturally informed doctrinal beliefs and practices, combined with America being a bastion for the free expression and practice of one’s religion, a mass of various mainline denominations soon developed.
Fast-forward to today’s examination of the decline in mainline denominations, and it is tempting to assume that Christianity is dying in America. It’s not just the more left-leaning mainline denominations, either. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, recently noted that it had lost some 450,000 members last year alone. That represents the largest membership drop in a single year in over 100 years.
Is this more evidence that Americans are losing their faith?
Maybe the better question is this: In what are Americans losing their faith? Certainly, it would appear they are losing their faith in the largest denominations. That isn’t the same as Americans losing their Christian faith.
In the book of John, a Samaritan woman asked Jesus a question regarding the right place to worship. He replied: “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Determining the genuine condition or status of Christianity in America should not be primarily concluded based upon the trends of either declining mainline denomination or growing nondenominational congregations. The metric is whether or not these churches exhibit a congregation that is faithfully worshiping God “in spirit and truth.”
If people are leaving the mainline denominations because those denominations have increasingly compromised the Gospel and have effectively abandoned true faith in Christ, then their shrinking is a welcome sign. Likewise, if the nondenominational churches are growing because they are faithfully teaching and preaching the Gospel, then that is great news.
Finally, while it may be tempting to give into fear or put too much weight in the news of Christianity’s reported decline, as Christians our hope has never been in mankind and the powers of this world. Rather, Christians rest in the spiritual reality that Christ is King and we are His children, and nothing can separate us from His love. And Christians get the privilege of sharing this news of salvation from sin with any and all who will listen, no strings attached.
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