Why the “Nones” Are Growing

USA Today has a story on recent Pew Forum survey that shows that 48% of Americans are “Protestant,” 22% Roman, and 20% are slotted under “none,” and 6% under “other” (the greater share of which one guesses is Islam, which is gaining a strong foothold in major American cities and even in smaller, more rural areas).

Reader of Nathan Hatch’s monumental work on 19th-century American religion, The Democratization of American Christianity, however, will not be much surprised to see that religious disaffiliation continues. See also James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) for an account of what happened to Christianity in America at the end of the 19th century. There is a connection between the story that Hatch tells and the story that Turner tells and what we’re seeing today.

Anyone who has planted a church in the last 25 years has probably read literature advising one not to advertise the church’s denominational affiliation. Why? Because Americans, since the early 19th century, have tended to distrust institutions, including denominations. They don’t want to think that their congregation is accountable to other churches “out there” and especially not to a hierarchy. Thus, Presbyterian and Reformed congregations have taken to calling themselves “community” churches in order to create a favorable impression upon independent-minded Americans.

How should confessional Reformed folk navigate such a world? Some have been tempted to give up the struggle and simply adopt the Revivalist model. Arguably the Emergent/-ing movements are an attempt to adapt but those movements have now become obviously institutionalized as mall-like churches now apply emergent looking names to themselves. Others are react by imitating Anglicanism or Catholicism . There is another way. I tried to sketch such an approach in the essay on “Sister” Aimee in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey. It’s now available as an inexpensive e-book. See also Recovering the Reformed Confession and D. G. Hart’s, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. I say call your church what it is and be proud of it. Obviously you chose the church because it is the most biblical of the choices. This reminds me of something Trueman recently said about creeds and confessions which tie directly to this clever and dishonest homogeneity of calling everything community or bible church.

    “Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions which are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique; and those who have private creeds and confessions which are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not subject to testing by scripture to see whether they are true or not.” – Carl Trueman

    That model of plain wrap church naming can only work if the church is so bland and boneless jellyfish-like and a-doctrinal, but nobody is. Everyone has a system of doctrine and just about every system of doctrine is a part of a denomination of association identified with it. It’s a luring bait and switch tactic to say otherwise.

  2. Was it Warfield who said that “there is no such thing as a Christian in the abstract”?

    I do have to say that it is quite amusing to hear folks in “nondenominational” churches–especially those that are planted by and still to some degree overseen by the the main church/group–explain how they are nondenominational but still part of a group of churches. Truth is, “nondenom” churches are often more sectarian, institutional, and authoritarian than those who just admit that they are in a denomination.

    I think the writers Scott cites are correct about the anti-institutional and anti-heirarchical democracy-and-autonomy-above-all attitude of most Americans, but it is also worth remembering that words take on new, dominant connotations as they continue to be used over long periods of time in a culture, and those connotations work powerfully on our minds in ways we are often not (fully at least) aware of.

    The power of connotation is how Frank Luntz was almost successful in helping Republicans defeat Obamacare when Obama had the presidency and control of both houses. He coined the phrase “government takeover of healthcare”and it was on Republican and Republican surrogate lips for months and months. Denominational names can and do, for various reasons, elicit emotions ranging from a vague uneasiness to fear of the unknown to anger and bring up all sorts of images and ideas. The word “baptist” for example, for me, still calls up, whether fairly or unfairly, some negative feelings and emotions and those kinds of associations can prevent someone from accepting an invitation to visit. I once mentioned the children’s catechism to another Christian and on that basis alone she more or less assumed I was RCC.

    So I suppose I am not completely against the impulse to soften the connotative blow that some denominational names deliver; however, the problem comes when the church or denomination that does this is then equally unforthcoming about precisely what they believe and what denomination they are indeed a part of, whether that name is on the church sign or not.

    Would not using the name on the church sign be akin to contextualization and audience awareness? I was reading recently a brief blog post from a UK pastor who was lamenting the complete lack of audience awareness displayed by another UK pastor when delievering a funeral sermon for a church member. The majority of the crowd at the funeral were unbelievers, and when the pastor addressed them, he said something along the lines of, “And what of you, nonbeliever, do you ever ask, Is there no balm in Gilead for me?” The line was lost on the lost. Not the best analogy since here we’re dealing with what is essentially a foreign language to most of the audience, but I think the point about contextualization and audience awareness is broadly the same. Now please don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying that I am in favor of “seeker-sensitive” churches and I’m not saying that I don’t trust in the power of the Spirit to regenerate and convert despite the failures of preachers, but I would have to say that some level of contextualization is biblical and can be helpful and profitable.

    Maybe I’m just expressing my latent American egalitarianism-at-all costs here without realizing it? I hope not. But who are you to tell me I can’t do that!! You are not the boss of me! (sarcasm and silliness intended)

  3. A large number of “community churches” are affiliated with Willow Creek. I haven’t seen any Presbyterian churches in central Indiana that call themselves “community” churches. But there are “real life” churches (AofG) and “Promise” churches (UMC) that don’t advertise their denominational affiliation.

    • “Willow Creek Association” is a very loose association, nothing like a denomination.

      Running the Willow Creek association church finder, within 100 miles of my zip I find a bunch of “community churches”, some Lutheran, a United Methodist, a CRC, some E. Free, and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

      The church we were part of for a long time was in, and then not in, the Willow Creek Association. I would never have known if I hadn’t gone and looked — it was never advertised or noted. (And, at the same time part of Saddleback’s Purpose Driven org for a while.)

Comments are closed.