Amid all the recent hand-wringing about the decline of mainline denominations (and more than a little whistling past the graveyard), Ed Stetzer observes that it’s not just the mainline. The nation’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, just announced an eighth year of decline.

But during the past four decades, there has been 400% growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational.

Why? Sometimes, it might be that they belong to denominational churches and not realize it:

Despite recent data from LifeWay Research, which found most Americans are open to denomination churches, many pastors feel they can be more effective by not promoting their denominational affiliation. They aren’t necessarily hiding it, but it’s not something that comes up frequently.

I imagine that a lot of the growth comes from what pastors call “sheep stealing.” Normal people call it “voting with your feet.” It’s when people leave a denominational church for a nondenominational one. They prefer the music, or the programs, or the preaching, or ā€” sometimes ā€” they just don’t want all the drama and fighting over sexuality or how to interpret the Bible, so they move from one church to another.

But there’s almost certainly more to the story than personal preference. Nondenominational churches, by their nature, have thrown everything overboard that isn’t central to their mission. It’s easier to tell someone that you’re changing the decor or the music, if you’ve already jettisoned a hundred or maybe five hundred years of other traditions.

When the mission isn’t a worthy one, then churn for churn’s sake is regrettable. But when the mission is to make disciples of Christ, maybe that’s why you see 400% growth.

I recently attended a denominational meeting and in two days, I heard the word “unchurched” exactly one time, and “nones” (the word used in the Pew study to categorize people who said their religion was “none of the above”) maybe twice. But we talked for hours about polity and pending legislation and budget. I doubt that will lead to 400% growth.


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