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In a dramatic shift, the American church is more evangelical than ever

(Ed Stetzer)

In 2013, South Carolina evangelical megachurch NewSpring Church baptized more than 6,500 people while worship attendance grew by nearly 10,000 more than the year before. The same year the entire Episcopal Church in the United States produced only around 12,000 adult confirmations with an attendance drop of more than 27,400 from the previous year.

The stark figures of one church compared to an entire denomination suggest noteworthy trends and scope of the changing church in America.

While there is often an inordinate focus on those who leave Christianity and predict its demise, what do the actual numbers say? The latest study from Pew Research Center, released this week, and the General Social Survey, released just a month ago, reveals what I have termed the “evangelicalization” of American Christianity.

The church in the United States is becoming more evangelical.

Who is an evangelical?

Unfortunately, there is no official definition of the word evangelical, but this much is true: Evangelicals are not a subset of the Republican party; evangelicals are a subset of Protestant Christians. It is a religious description, not a political movement.

Historian David Bebbington suggests a respected paradigm for those who identify as an evangelical: a transformed life through following Jesus, faith demonstrated through missionary and social reform efforts, a regard for the Bible as ultimate authority, and a central focus on the sacrificial death of Jesus.

In their latest study, Pew identified evangelicals two ways. In most of their data, they consider affiliations of denominations that have been historically evangelical. Using this measure, evangelicals declined as an overall percentage of the population from 26 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2014. In terms of raw numbers, however, more Americans are evangelical today than seven years ago — 59.8 to 62.2 million.

[Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion]

No one should read a slight uptick in numbers and conclude evangelicalism is thriving. There is plenty of room for improvement. Yet, as Christianity declines and evangelicalism perseveres, we are seeing a Christianity with a distinctly evangelical face.

In other words, as the number of self-identified Christians shrinks and evangelicals have remained relatively steady, American Christianity looks more evangelical year after year.

When Pew considers how respondents self-identify, a higher percentage described themselves as evangelical or born again now than seven years ago — up from 34 percent to 35. When asked, one-third of all Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born again.

The numbers are even more telling when we isolate those who are Christians. Now, half of American Christians call themselves evangelical or born again. And those self-identification numbers are up across the board from 2007, even among non-evangelical faith traditions. Along with every other Christian subgroup, more Catholics and mainline Protestants now personally define their faith in evangelical terms.

One cannot help but note the ironies: A religious movement whose roots go deep into the Protestant Reformation now claims 22 percent of modern U.S. Catholics. And an even larger share of mainline Protestants (27 percent) now identifies with a  movement that was virtually defined in the United States by its rejection of leftward theological shifts in denominations like the Episcopalians and United Church of Christ.

We have gone from a time when nobody knew what former President Jimmy Carter was talking about when he mentioned being “born again,” to where half of all Christians use that phrase or the word evangelical to describe themselves.

So if evangelicalism increasingly holds more sway over American Christianity, including those from outside of its tradition, who is losing influence?

Quite clearly, it’s mostly mainline Protestantism, which continues its precipitous decline.

Evangelicalism vs. mainline Protestantism

The just-released 2014 General Social Survey numbers confirm the growing shift of influence from mainline Protestants to evangelicals. In 1972, the regular church attenders, those who attend nearly once a week or more, in each group made up close to the same percentage of the American population — 8.6 percent for mainline Protestants and 7.9 percent for evangelicals.

In the four decades since then, evangelicals have climbed to 12.5 percent, while mainliners have fallen to 3.6 percent — a similar total percent of Protestants (15-16 percent in total) but different kinds of Protestants — the evangelical kind rather than the mainline kind.

In other words, one in eight adults in America are regularly attending an evangelical church, but fewer than one in 25 Americans show up to a mainline church nearly every week.

And, according to Pew’s survey, both Catholics and mainline Protestants lost more adherents than they gained. For every new mainline Protestant, 1.7 walked out of the church. Evangelicals, on the other hand, gained 1.2 new members for every one person who left.

The religious landscape of America will continue shifting with the rise of the unaffiliated and the overall decline of Christian identification. But part of the current picture coming into focus is a U.S. church that looks much more like NewSpring, an evangelical megachurch, than a historic mainline Protestant church.
For some, the trend will present a great horror, but the future of American Christianity and its evangelicalization is happening before our eyes.

Ed Stetzer, PhD, is executive director of LifeWay Research.

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