By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
When I began to look at the religious shifting going on in Protestant Christianity, the biggest takeaway that I found was that nondenominational churches saw a lot of defection. In fact, a quarter of all nondenominational churchgoers in 2010 were no longer nondenominational by 2014. On the other hand, they also saw a great deal of growth. According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study nondenominational Christianity was the only major Protestant denomination that trended in a positive direction from 2010-2016. In looking at religious switching there was a great deal of migration between nondenominational and Southern Baptist churches. On the surface, it appears that the line between nondenominational churches and their Southern Baptist colleagues are starting to blur. Prominent Southern Baptist leaders have been asked if their church was moving away from a denominational stance. For example, Rick Warren had to recently dispel rumors that his Saddleback Church wasn’t still part of the Southern Baptist Convention even though he had made statements that alluded to it moving toward a nondenominational approach. So, what are nondenominational Christians? Do they look like Southern Baptists or do they trend toward a more mainline profilelike the United Methodists?
A good place to start is a racial breakdown of each of the three religious denominations. Note that the chart below only includes racial groups that are at least 3% of a denomination’s population. The first thing that is evident from the graph is that there are a lot more racial groups in the nondenominational graph. In fact, five groups make up at least 3% of the nondenominational population. However, despite this greater overall diversity both nondenominational and Southern Baptist churches contain a very similar number of white adherents. The difference comes in the fact that nondenominational churches have lower percentages of African-Americans, but more Asians, Hispanics, and mixed-race individuals. However, comparing either of the first two groups to United Methodists indicates that the mainline tradition has very little racial diversity.
This racial disparity might be due to another demographic reason: the age distribution of each tradition, since whites are typically older. The largest difference is the population bulge that exists in the age range between 25-35 for nondenominationals, that finding is not apparent in the other two groups. The percentage of adherents under the age of forty in each denomination is telling: 17.8% for United Methodists, 26.2% for Southern Baptists, 31.8% for nondenominationals. A raft of evidence indicates that younger Americans are more racially diverse and that is the story that this data tells: nondenominational churches are filling up with younger people from a variety of racial backgrounds.
The data indicate that nondenominational Christians are younger and more racially diverse but do differences exist when looking at religious variables? For example, do nondenominational churches seeless faithful attendees than Southern Baptists? The graph below displays the distribution of self-described church attendance by each of the three denominations/groups. Here it is clear that nondenominational church attendance does not look like that of the United Methodist, it’s much more similar to Southern Baptists. For instance, 48.5% of nondenominational respondents say that they attend church at least once a week, compared to 48.9% of Southern Baptists. Across each attendance category nondenominationals never deviate more than 2% from their SBC counterparts. It’s clear that both groups have a lot of high-frequency attenders.
Are there differences in theological orientation? The General Social Survey asks respondents about their view of the Bible and offers three choices: the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, the Bible is the inspired word of God but should not be taken literally, and the Bible is an ancient book of fables recorded by men. It’s interesting to note that nondenominational Christians stand about halfway between evangelical and mainline Christianity on matters of the Bible. While 44% of nondenominationals think that the Bible is literally true, 16% more of Southern Baptists espouse literalism, while about 16% less of United Methodists are theologically conservative. This is an area which casts some doubts on the idea that nondenominationals are just Southern Baptists with a different label. Clearly, they have a more moderate theology than a typical SB evangelical.
It seems plausible that some individuals have left Southern Baptist churches to become nondenominational not for any type of theological reason, but because they disagreed with some of the political positions espoused by famous Southern Baptist leaders. This could manifest itself in a difference in party identification between the groups. The mean party identification for each of the three traditions provides no support for this hypothesis, however. In fact, there is no statistical difference in the average partisanship of SBC and nondenominational church goers. What may be even more interesting is to note that United Methodists are only slightly more liberal than the other two religious denominations. Party identification is somewhat of a crude measure of political views as it conflates both social and economic issues into a singular measure. This can often mask serious differences.
Once we take a closer look at social issues, though, some true political differences emerge. On both abortion and gay marriage, mainliners are much more liberal than their counterparts. Three in five United Methodists favor abortion as a matter of choice and giving gays and lesbians the right to marry. Southern Baptists and nondenominational Christians are less supportive. However, there are small differences between the two denominations. For instance, nondenominational Christians are slightly more conservative on abortion but are actually more liberal on same-sex marriage than their SBC contemporaries. It’s fair to assume that a good deal of this variation may be due to the fact that nondenominationals are younger, on average, and support for same-sex marriage is strong among the younger generations.
To return to the previous question: Are nondenominational Christians just Southern Baptists by another name? The answer is a tentative “yes”, with some caveats. Nondenominational churches are typically younger and more racially diverse than Southern Baptist churches. On religious matters, both groups attend church at the same rate, yet nondenominationals are more likely to hold a moderate theological position on the Bible than SBC churchgoers. Finally, when it comes to politics it seems that Southern Baptists and nondenominational Christians are very similar. Nondenominational parishioners are slightly more supportive of same-sex marriage and slightly less supportive of abortion rights, but these differences are small. Taken together it makes sense that there is so much movement between Southern Baptists and nondenominational churches as the differences are in many cases small or nonexistent.
Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.