Data pointing to a dwindling percentage of Americans who identify with a specific Protestant denomination has spurred calls for churches marked by God’s “presence and power” and for reemphasis of biblical doctrine.
Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Steve Gaines said a strong denominational identity doesn’t seem to hinder the church he pastors or the SBC. Still, the manifest work of God in a church is far more important than its denominational identity, he told Baptist Press (BP).
“We are ‘Bellevue Baptist Church,’” Gaines said of the Memphis-area congregation he leads. “I don’t believe the word ‘Baptist’ hinders our ministry. I don’t believe being part of the SBC hurts us. I believe if what is happening in and through a specific local church is Christ-honoring and Spirit-anointed, people will come and get involved regardless of what the name of the church is or what denomination it is part of.”
According to the Gallup polling organization, just 30 percent of American adults identified with a specific Protestant denomination in 2016, down from 50 percent in 2000. Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Americans who regard themselves as Christians without claiming a specific denomination rose from 9 percent to 17 percent, a July 18 news release stated.
“I’m convinced that we should seek to have churches that are marked by the supernatural presence and power of God,” Gaines said in written comments. “If people sense the presence of Jesus at a church, they will come and be part of what God is doing. And they won’t care whether that church is part of a denomination or not.”
Gallup claimed the shrinking percentage of Americans who identify with a specific Protestant denomination stems from two realities:
– “There are fewer Protestants of any kind in the American population today.” Thus, “the pool of those who identify with a specific Protestant denomination is smaller.”
Protestants shrank from 57 percent of the population in 2000 to 47 percent in 2016, Gallup stated. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who do not claim a religious identity of any kind rose from 10 percent to 20 percent.
– Those who self-identify as Christians increasingly put themselves in the “non-denominational category.”
Of Americans who do claim a specific Protestant denominational identity, Baptists are the largest group with 10 percent of the population. Some 3 percent identified specifically as Southern Baptists in 2016, down from 8 percent in 2000.
Gaines said the lack of denominational loyalty seems to parallel a lack of loyalty to corporations and brands among Americans, with workers frequently transferring “from company to company” unlike they did in previous generations.
“Whether [the lack of organizational loyalty] is good or bad, I don’t know,” Gaines said. “But it is reality. That’s why many churches have chosen to remove the name of their denomination from the name of their church. Many churches in the SBC have removed the word ‘Baptist’ from their identity. Again, I can’t say whether that is right or wrong. That is between them and the Lord.”
Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware, told BP he is “not surprised” by Gallup’s findings.
“As we have [a] greater [number of] therapeutic pulpits and fewer pulpits preaching clear biblical doctrine, theological (thus denominational) identity gets muddy, cloudy and irrelevant,” Smith said in written comments. “I’ve always felt a responsibility to make sure … members [of churches I pastored] have understood why we are Baptist.”
Smith added, “Sadly, for many ‘Baptist’ is a sociological indicator, rather than an exegetical/ecclesiological one. … Historic Protestant identity and confessions will be more important heading forward because ‘evangelical’ is becoming more and more useless” as a theological descriptor amid a vast number of people who claim that identity without holding key theological beliefs traditionally associated with evangelicalism.
J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., told BP the rejection of denominations may be a rejection of stereotypes associated with those groups rather than a rejection of their doctrine.
“While many say they prefer a non-denominational church, I think their bigger concern is not wanting to be a part of a church that fits their stereotypes of certain denominations,” Greear said in written comments. “If a church is big on the gospel, the mission and loving each other, then denominational affiliation is less of an issue.
“In other words, I don’t think the answer is downplaying our denominational affiliations, but on ‘playing up’ gospel love. The greatest challenge is to clearly proclaim the gospel message to a society that has increasing numbers of people who have faith in nothing,” Greear said.
Smith urged Southern Baptists to emphasize Baptist distinctives, like believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership, in their discipleship processes.
“We have the Baptist Faith and Message,” Smith said. “The question is, do we care? Discipleship includes learning biblical truth. We need to do better in many cases.”
Churches “that have a membership process,” Smith said, generally have membership classes with “a doctrinal component” and teach theology well. He expressed concern about the health of churches that emphasize “lowest-common-denominator” Christianity and eschew points of doctrine that distinguish denominations from one another.
Such churches tend to “lack biblical and theological clarity and explicit identity,” Smith said.
Yet amid the increasingly non-denominational milieu, Smith said, “I feel pretty good about [the SBC’s] identity, as it is so driven by Great Commission passions” – especially surrounding the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board.
Gallup’s 2016 data was drawn from telephone interviews of 2,053 adults May 4-8 and Dec. 7-11. The margin of error in the survey was plus or minus 3 percent at the 95 percent confidence rate, according to the release.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)