The Changing Face Of Protestant Christianity

Jan 7th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

One element of the mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide biblically-centered perspectives on cultural issues.  Therefore, periodically I give emphasis to developments within Christianity.  Recent census data demonstrate the significant changes occurring within Protestant Christianity.  Daniel Sillman of Christianity Today provides a helpful summary of this data.

  • The number of Americans who don’t identify with a specific religious tradition has grown from just 5% during the Cold War to around 30% today. This is the “nons”—nondenominational Christians, people who shake off organizational affiliations, disassociate from tradition, and free themselves from established church brands.  The number of nondenominational churches has surged by about 9,000 congregations over the course of a decade, according to new decennial data released by the US Religion Census. They have been quietly remaking the religious landscape.  There are now five times more nondenominational churches than there are Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations. There are six times more nondenominational churches than there are Episcopal. And there are 3.4 million more people in nondenominational churches than there are in Southern Baptist ones.  If “nondenominational” were a denomination, it would be the largest Protestant one, claiming more than 13 percent of churchgoers in America.
  • “The two biggest stories in American religion are the nones and the nons,” said Ryan Burge, professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and an expert in religious demographic data. “We are in a transitional period for Protestant denominations.”  Nondenominational Christians don’t show up in the polls that sample and survey American religion, because people don’t think of “nondenominational” as an identity. They are more likely just to say “Christian,” or perhaps “Protestant.” If prompted, they might specify whether or not they think of themselves as evangelical or born again. But few if any say “nondenominational.”
  • In 2010, the US Religious Census identified 35,496 independent congregations without any formal denominational affiliation. The lead researcher, Scott Thumma, told Christianity Today there were almost certainly more than that, but it was the most precise count anyone had done to that point.  Using the same method in 2020, the US Religious Census team found 44,319 nondenominational congregations, with an estimated 21 million adherents. That makes nondenominational Christians the first or second largest group of Protestants in America, depending on how one counts. The Southern Baptists have about 7,000 more churches, but 3.4 million fewer people.  The next largest Protestant group, the United Methodists, can only claim about half the number of people as Southern Baptists, and the denomination has lost a number of congregations in an ongoing church split since the Religion Census tallied at total of 30,051 in 2020.
  • Thumma, one of a few experts and close observers who have noted the nondenominational growth over the past decade, said he thinks there are several factors driving what he describes as “individualism at the congregational level.”  It’s an expression of “organizational individualism that parallels personal individualism,” he said, and allows churches to slip out from under the burden of some cultural baggage.  “It is an evangelistic advantage,” Thumma said. “A potential attender at a nondenominational church doesn’t have cultural expectations of what they might find inside the way they do if the brand is Episcopalian or Assemblies of God or Southern Baptist. Rather, the visitor has to experience the worship firsthand.”
  • The growth of the “nons” has also been supported by an ecosystem of publishers and parachurch organizations that produce nondenominational religious content. Historically, denominations supplied churches with music, Sunday school curricula, and Bible study curricula. They also arranged mission and service trips. But that has changed, and congregations are more likely now to shop around.  Today even some denominational churches end up being “functionally nondenominational,” Thumma said, “defecting in place or quiet quitting … and crafting their own local brand.”
  • The Christian and Missionary Alliance lost about 200 congregations between 2010 and 2020. The Churches of Christ lost about 700; the Foursquare church, 400; Free Will Baptists, 350; the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), 180; the Wesleyan Church, 150; and the Vineyard, about 50.  The Anglican Church in North America, despite emerging as the most prominent of the many groups that separated from the Episcopal Church, declined from 913 churches to 873.  Other denominations grew, but also not by a lot. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God increased by about 500 congregations each. The Presbyterian Church in America added about 100; the Church of the Nazarene, 100; and the Evangelical Free Church, 250.  Some Black Protestant churches have seen modest growth too. The Church of God in Christ added more than 300 congregations between 2010 and 2020. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church grew by about 150, and the Full Gospel Baptists by about 100.
  • Because the census counts congregations, the data also shows regional differences more clearly that most religious polls. Roman Catholicism, for example, which has grown at least in part with immigration from Latin America, has shifted south and west. There are individual congregations in Nevada, Arizona, and California that claim 6,000 to 10,000 adherents, though those people likely don’t show up at every Sunday mass.  Florida and Texas have both seen growth in the number of religious people, which seems related to their increase in population. On the other side of the country, religious adherence is declining in the Upper Midwest.

Past editions of Issues in Perspective had focused on the growth of the “nones” in American civilization.  This Perspective has focused on the growth of the “nons.”  Both are profoundly re-shaping the face of Protestant Christianity in America.


In conclusion, I recently came across an article by Chris Nye with a healthy and helpful caution:  “Fifteen years ago, when I started in pastoral ministry, I was expected to refrain from commenting on political issues. Now, my congregation expects that I comment on every political issue. If pastors don’t make a public statement in reaction to the news, we’re not doing our jobs.  The pastor and the church sit in a strange place. Pastors often function as mediators of the Word for the lives of their congregants. But this has been twisted. In a time of political obsession, pastors and churches are no longer ‘mediators’ of a mystery but public relations representatives for the American church.  Many look to the church to provide and maintain a favorable public image of God or to take a hard stance in an increasingly polarized world. We likely chose our church because of shared values; so we want our pastors to tell us how we are feeling and to reflect our feelings back to us—to say what we cannot say. Many of our expectations come from a misunderstanding of what the church is and what the pastor’s role should be.”


The church is many things: a body, a bride, and a family, as well as a social organization, religious institution, and community hub. It is also a lot more. “But it might be important to consider what the church is emphatically not: a PR representative.   As a pastor, I respond to current events because I want my people to know I live in the same confusing and painful world as them. To love and disciple my people, I want to acknowledge our shared, bizarre reality. And yet, I also sense a drift from my calling as I am often expected to comment on every news item that comes into our feeds. Here are a few ways I have come to think about tackling headlines from the pulpit:

  1. “The church bears witness of Christ’s life and resurrection but is ultimately presented to Christ himself (Eph. 5:27). True churches that serve the purposes of Jesus do not maintain an image; they announce the good news of the resurrection of Christ. ‘Spin’ for a church would be sin.  The Resurrection shapes how we might think about any given event. There are new events that we will speak about, but there is nothing new the church can say that it has not already been saying for 2,000 years: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.”
  2. “Crafted political statements can actually remove us from our work. So long as we are creating a palatable statement for social media or Sunday’s sermon, we are not praying, worshiping, or organizing ourselves for meaningful action. But in today’s culture, the appearanceof morality is more important than moral actions, and speaking is more highly valued than praying.  While the church is not a media firm, it is a meaningful community that gathers to worship and sit under preaching. We gather to cry out to God—to seek his forgiveness as we live in a sinful country, to ask for his provision and wisdom when we are lacking them. And we organize efforts to bless our cities with a lasting effect toward justice, not just temporary resonance.”
  3. “The pastor differs from the celebrity in that he or she is a teacher of God’s Word, a steward of a mystery (1 Cor. 4:1–2). The pastor is there to pass down what has been told to him or her (2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 3:14). Pastors are not in churches primarily to ‘offer some thoughts’ on any given subject; they are there to announce a message that is not their own . . . We declare something we have heard (1 Cor. 15:1–4). We communicate an idea that did not originate in our brains or online but on the highways of Judea. That is, the primary mode of a pastor is ‘delivery’ or ‘witness’ (1 Cor. 11:23; Acts 1:6–8). The PR firm massages their message to make it palatable. The pastor takes the message and hands it over with as few blemishes as possible . . . There are, of course, many times to speak. Scripture is unabashed in its denunciation of all kinds of evil. The prophetic literature is ridden with full rebukes against sexual immorality, idolatry, and oppression of the poor . . . It is from this posture of communion with God and our congregation that we take seriously our call of discipleship. Our churches need instruction for how to respond faithfully. But this takes so much more work than a statement. This involves teaching, leading our people in collective prayer, and exhorting them toward righteousness and humility as a way to respond to the terrors of this world.”  I affirm the wisdom of Nye’s counsel.

See Daniel Sillman, “Nondenominational’ Is Now the Largest Segment of American Protestants” in (16 November 2022); Chris Nye, “Hot Takes Don’t Belong in Church” in (27 July 2022).

Comments Closed