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Role of Denominations Evolves as Independent Churches Multiply

The Association of Religion Data Archives helps congregations and denominations understand America’s religious marketplace.

Protestant Christianity hit a milestone this decade. After a 30-year stretch in which nondenominational believers never accounted for more than a tenth of U.S. Protestants, the percentage of Protestants who considered themselves independent nearly doubled, rising to 18.2 percent, according to a national survey.

The 2004 finding by the National Opinion Research Center marked a notable development. It was hardly the first time, though, that the place of denominations in America’s free-market religious system had shifted.

Since its earliest days, this country has known relentless competition among religious organizations, says Roger Finke, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, which is located there.

“One of the things that upset the colonial denominations – the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians – so much was when Methodists and Baptists entered in,” Finke says. In 75 years or less, the newcomers “were suddenly two and three times larger than the other groups, who once dominated the colonial scene.”

Helping today’s congregations and denominations understand and respond to the religious marketplace is one of the key roles of the ARDA, which provides free online access to some of the world’s leading religion research, as well as customizable tools for analyzing communities’ spiritual and earthly needs. Journalists and educators, as well as the public, also benefit from the Web site’s vast smorgasbord of data.

Finke, co-author of The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, says that despite a slight dip in the percentage of nondenominational Protestants from 2004 to 2006 (when 15.3 percent said they had no specific affiliation), the general upward trend is no aberration. Indeed, the 2006 survey found that among Protestants 30 and under, more than 19 percent considered themselves independent, which may point to what the future holds.

Rather than fear competition from independent churches, however, Finke suggests that denominations can thrive by finding the sweet spot between constancy and change.

“When religions do the best,” he says, “is when they return to the core teachings but they’re innovative in every other way.”

That’s something nondenominational megachurches, in particular, have mastered, says Finke. “They’ve been very innovative in terms of music, they’ve been very innovative in terms of the way they reach out to other people, innovative in the way they do small groups and social activities. But they try to be very clear about returning back to what they consider the core or central teachings.

“And that doesn’t mean that they’re all fundamentalist,” he adds. “It simply means that they try to identify what it means to be a Christian.”

Another contributing factor in the rise of nondenominationalism may be the tremendous growth of parachurch organizations, which range from the Christian Motorcyclists Association to Habitat for Humanity. Because of parachurch groups’ involvement in humanitarian and evangelistic projects, the connectional tie that denominations have always emphasized – the importance of like-minded believers supporting the global work of the church – resonates less than in the past.

And, perhaps ironically, parachurch organizations unite many independent congregations in ways not unlike denominations. Finke notes, for example, that nondenominational churches often rely on the same network of religious publishers, video providers and other services. “So even though they view themselves as being very independent from each other, they still have connections.”

All in all, it seems, competition and connectivity continue to play important roles in American religious life.



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