EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 1 of 2 in a 2-part series on the 2020 Census of American Religion. Part two will be released at a later date.
Across the country, statistics now show there are more mainline Protestants than evangelical Protestants. But here in St. Joseph, churches are less focused on the overall numbers and more on the individuals themselves.
“My desire really is that all churches would grow,” Doug Walter, senior pastor at Ashland United Methodist Church, said. “That the faith would grow and that we would see these numbers reflect really a heart change more than just a numerical change.”
Being the pastor of a United Methodist church, Walter and his congregation would technically fall into the mainline Protestant category. While both mainline and evangelical Protestants are Christian religions, their beliefs differ slightly.
According to PBS, evangelicals see the Bible as inerrant, whereas mainline Protestants tend to see it as a book that needs interpretation as times change. Evangelicals believe Christians must accept salvation for themselves through Jesus Christ, while mainlines are focused less on a single moment but more on a spiritual journey.
Bob Miller is the lead pastor at Wellspring Community Church, which is non-denominational. Non-denominational churches typically fall under the umbrella of evangelicalism, even though they do not identify with a specific denomination. Like Walter, Miller also believes that the people are more important than the statistics.
“I think, in general, people come to church or start coming to church primarily because of relationships,” Miller said. “I think it just kind of depends on who’s inviting them and who’s made an impact on their life, more so than whether it’s denominational or not … It’s really more about relationships than it is about what the name on the outside says.”
The 2020 Census of American Religion, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, concluded that as of last year, mainline Protestants slightly outnumber evangelicals 16% to 14%, respectively. Christianity as a whole has seen a slight increase since 2018, partly due to the uptick in mainline Protestants.
However, the national statistics don’t quite correlate with what’s happening locally. The PRRI census shows that white evangelicals are the largest religious group in Buchanan County at 32%. Mainline Protestants make up 23% while Catholics make up 11%. In total, Buchanan County is 68% white Christian.
Nationally, evangelicals have seen a significant drop in affiliation as of late, shrinking almost 10% since 2006. However, Miller said he personally hasn’t seen much movement from non-denominational churches to mainline or Catholic.
“In a community where our population is not really changing much, everything’s pretty stagnant. I think, population-wise, our attendance has stayed extremely consistent,” Miller said.
White evangelicals nationwide have the oldest average population at 56 years old, but Miller said that his church is specifically focused on creating a place for young Christians to get involved.
“It’s the whole reason why we started our church,” Miller said. “So yeah, it’s a huge emphasis of what we do, for sure.”
Walter said when he looks at the national census, he doesn’t see any significant shifts in religion, but rather people being more honest about where they’re at spiritually.
“Our church has grown substantially over the last few years, and it’s hard to equate those things to a theological position, necessarily,” Walter said. “I think people come to churches because they feel at home, they resonate with a message. I would not equate the growth that we’ve seen in Ashland with necessarily any theological shift.”
Ashland United Methodist credits part of their growth to their ability to livestream worship services, and Walter said it has played a key role during the pandemic.
“We will always livestream,” Walter said. “We reach way more people than we were ever reaching before the pandemic.”
Other national statistics include a rise in unaffiliated individuals at 23%. The Catholic population has stayed relatively steady in recent years, within the 15 to 20% range. There also has been stability among Christians of color, with 26% of Americans being Christians of color, which has only increased by 1% since 2016.
Walter said that he doesn’t think people are attracted to theology, but rather the church itself. He believes people come to a church because they feel connected and believe in the church’s mission.
“I think any church that’s doing what Jesus asked them to do is going to do well,” Walter said.
Miller agrees. He said that when people walk through the doors into Wellspring, they aren’t asking what denomination the church is, but rather if there’s a God that loves them and a community of people who will accept them.
“Whether it’s a non-denomination church or a mainline Protestant denomination or Catholic, that, to me, is not the biggest issue,” Miller said. “The biggest issue is, is your congregation meeting people where they are, showing them the love of Christ, and pointing them towards truth and doing it with grace?”
The full statistics of the 2020 Census of American Religion can be found at https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american