By Aaron Earls
Evangelicals definitely have problems to address, but they aren’t the Christian group in danger of extinction in the United States—that’s mainline Protestants.
Many have spoken as if evangelicals are disappearing from the American religious landscape. According to analysis of the data from the General Social Survey, however, the share of Americans who attend an evangelical Protestant church has been consistent for the past 20 years.
In 1996, 25 percent of Americans attended an evangelical Protestant church. By 2016, the number had only fallen one percentage point to 24 percent.
Since 1972, evangelical church attenders have grown from 18 percent of the population. After reaching 30 percent in 1993, the share has hovered around 25 percent, ranging from 27 to 23 percent.
Meanwhile, attendance at mainline Protestant churches has suffered a precipitous decline.
In the mid 1970s, close to 30 percent of Americans attended a mainline Protestant church. After decades of membership loss, only 10 percent said they attended in 2016.
Since 1990, there has not been a single year of growth for mainline Protestant church attendance.
Corresponding to the mainline drop has been the rapid growth among the religiously unaffiliated Americans, also known as the nones.
While mainline church attendance has been declining since 1990, those who identify as nones have increased every year since 1991.
According to GSS, 5 percent of Americans were nones in 1972. That number stayed relatively stable for the next 20 years. But starting in the early 90s, the religiously unaffiliated began to experience explosive growth.
In 2004, the trajectories of mainline Protestants and nones crossed—both at 14 percent that year. By 2016, 22 percent of Americans were religiously unaffiliated, only 2 percentage points behind evangelical Protestants.
Nevertheless, headlines proclaiming the imminent collapse of evangelicalism are overblown, but they are persistent for at least two reasons, according to pastor and author Trevin Wax.
“For people who harbor disdain for historic Christianity, the reports play right into the eschatology of the Enlightenment and the eschatology of the sexual revolution,” he writes.
Those with secular worldviews promote these gloomy forecasts for evangelicalism because they “envision a future where the demise of historic Christianity is good news because it means progress has triumphed and the Christian obstacles have fallen away.”
Secondly, Wax maintains, Christians help perpetuate a “the sky is falling” notion. “Nothing gets Christians riled up like thinking they are on the precipice of disaster,” he writes.
“Pastors and church leaders feel the need to wake people up from spiritual complacency. Bad statistics can sound the alarm.”
- Can the Word Evangelical be Saved?
- Evangelicals Might Not Be Who You Think
- Evangelicals More Active in Their Faith
- America’s Changing Landscape: 9 Takeaways for Evangelicals
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.