The rise of the nons: Why nondenominational churches are winning over mainline churches

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 9:00 p.m. MST

When people leave mainline churches they go somewhere else. As Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas describes it, they are not leaving religion so much as they are looking for religion. About 44 percent of Americans say they have a religious affiliation that is different from the religion in which they were raised, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey."

"Everybody knows that the so-called 'mainline' is now the sideline. The United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Methodists and the Episcopalians have been shrinking at a rather prodigious rate. But that isn't because people left church, it is because people left THOSE churches," says Stark. "Groups like the Assemblies of God have doubled and redoubled in size in the same period of time."

The flight from mainline churches, Stark says, has been going on since the 1800s. It wasn't really noticed until the 1960s because overall population growth made it look like mainline churches were growing, while all along their percentage of the population was dropping.

Among the groups that have benefited from mainline church leakage are nondenominational churches — independent geographically-based Christian churches that do not espouse a particular denomination affiliation. These churches — some of which are so big that they are called megachurches — are most likely evangelical flavored (75 percent), but some are more akin to the mainline tradition (20 percent) and a few are more like the historically black Protestant tradition (5 percent).

Part of the reason Stark thinks denominations are declining is that they used to be, at least partly, connected to a person's ethnic identity. "My generation is much less concerned to be Lutheran than my parents — and especially my grandparents — were because they were Norwegians and Swedes and immigrants. And being Lutheran was part of the package."

Over time with marriage and intermixing, ethnicity became less important.

The Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, has seen the shift of identity. "We are seeing a breakup of regional identity," she says. "We are now a global community with global communication. … And so we are finding a melding of culture, a melding of regional identity and with that goes a melding of denominational identity."

Stark points out another example of how denominational identity has lost its importance: Some churches just appear to be nondenominational. Rick Warren, bestselling author of "The Purpose Driven Life" is Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. — which is a Southern Baptist church. "I bet half the people who go there don't know," Stark says, "because Warren doesn't make a big point out of it. I think in that sense denominationalism has receded."

As denominations are less linked to identity, it opens churches up to greater competition. Timothy Dalrymple, associate director of content at Patheos.com and an evangelical columnist, says "American Christianity is a vital open marketplace of religious ideas in churches. These non-denominational churches can try 100 things and find a model that works."

Often that model includes a well-defined conservative expression of Christianity that contrasts with mainline churches' more moderate theology. Dalrymple thinks this "dissipation" of mainline churches' theology is part of the reason why people are leaving. "They became less committed to traditional Christian teaching regarding the authority of scripture, regarding salvation in Christ alone, and so forth."

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