It’s worth thinking about just how many non-denominationals there are in comparison to other groups that are not the Southern Baptists and United Methodists. There are more non-denoms than: LDS + Muslims + ELCA + AoG + Jehovah’s Witnesses + Natl. Miss. Bapt. + LCMS + TEC + Natl. Bapt. Convention. Those are all major traditions in their own right but are just dwarfed in size by non-denominationals. And, again, most of those denominations are declining in membership rapidly now.
A few months ago, my wife and I were driving into St. Louis and were about ten miles away from downtown in a suburb on the Illinois side of the river. We drove by this large commercial building next to the interstate that had a fairly nondescript sign with a single word on it, “Ascend.”
She looked at me and said, “Is that a church?” I honestly had no idea. So, she Googled it. Guess what Ascend is? It’s a marijuana dispensary. Illinois just legalized marijuana for recreational sale a few years ago and there are lots of new stores opening up all over the state. That’s the world we live in right now, not entirely sure if that new big warehouse by the highway is selling recreational drugs or preaching Jesus.
That little anecdote is indicative of a much bigger trend happening in American Christianity. The First United Methodist Church is out, Elevation is in. There are very few new Southern Baptist Church buildings springing up across the United States, but there are at a ton of Journey/Lift/Resolution churches being planted every week across the country.
Obviously, the rise of the Nones is the biggest story in American religion right now, but the second most important shift in the landscape is the unmistakable rise of the Nons. The only religious family that has grown over the last decade is non-denominational Protestant Christianity. There’s little reason to believe that their ascendance will slow at any point in the near future.
If the future of American society is a shift away from institutions, there’s no bigger beneficiary of this trend in the religion space than non-denominational evangelicalism.
In 1972, less than 3% of all American adults indicated that they were non-denominational. That share has only risen from there. In the 1970s and 1980s, the growth rate was undoubtedly small. It took until 1996 for the share of Americans who were non-denominational to surge past five percent. But from that point forward that line has only gotten steeper.
They got to 7.5% of the population in 2004. They reached ten percent of the sample by 2012. The most recent data says that nearly thirteen percent of all adults in the United States are non-denominational Protestant Christians. There are more non-denominationals in the U.S. today than mainline Protestants.
Here’s a key part of that story, though. This is not a situation where “a high tide raises all boats.” Instead, it’s non-denominational Protestants are gaining new members hand over fist, while other denominations are losing folks by the tens of thousands.
You can see that even in the GSS data. In 1984, about 13% of Protestants were Southern Baptist, and another 12% were United Methodists. Those are easily the two largest Protestant denominations in the United States. Non-denominationals, were just about 5%.
In 2018, the picture is entirely different. Now, just 7.5% of Protestants are United Methodists and another 10% are Southern Baptists. While, the share who are non-denominationals has now risen to nearly 22%. Using this measure, it would appear that there are more non-denoms that United Methodists and Southern Baptists combined.
Other data sources aren’t so sure about that, though. The 2020 Religion Census took great pains to count the number of non-denominational folks in the United States. That’s no easy task given the diffused nature of this religious expression.
In total, the Religion Census managed to captured a total non-denominational population of just over 21 million. That makes them the second largest religious tradition in the United States, only trailing the Catholic Church at nearly 62 million. For comparison, the Census counted 8 million United Methodists and 17.6M Southern Baptists, which a lot more than show up on their member rolls.