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Nondenominationalism: the changing face of Christianity

Landmark Church: one of many area nondenominational congregations worshiping in churches vacated by mainline denominations.
Robert Henrich

If you’ve taken a close look at the face of American Christianity these days you may have noticed that its sharp denominational features have been fading.

Mainline decline

Several studies have charted a U.S. trend away from denominational Christianity over the past few decades. Trinity College’s American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), for example, shows that in 1990, 18.7% of the country’s adult population reported affiliation with a mainline Protestant denomination; in 2008 that figure had dropped to 12.9%. Walk into any of the stately old churches that grace the Binghamton area streets on a Sunday morning and you’re likely to be faced with a graphic example of that decline: a decidedly less-than-capacity, aging congregation, in some cases just a scattering of the faithful, lost in a cavernous worship space that echoes of times and crowds gone by.

The nondenom phenomenon

Many observers, such as Examiner’s Diane Narciso, and USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman, cite various indications of this downward spiral. They then go on to note the rapid growth in the number of people who report having no religious affiliation – the “nones,” labeling them the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. Their conclusion is that, as a country, we are moving away from religious belief.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Dean Russell Moore and others, however, point to a religious group whose exponential growth far outstrips that of the “nones.” During the period covered by the ARIS report, the “nones” population share increased by 83%. During the same period, the percentage of Americans who reported affiliation with a nondenominational Christian church rose 3,400%.

So it would appear inaccurate to find here a trend away from religious belief. And, while Narciso and Grossman both offer data from Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey in support their position, neither notes the report’s caveat that “it is simply not accurate to describe this entire [unaffiliated] group as nonreligious or ‘secular.’” Further, the Baylor study Grossman quotes extensively includes an entire section entitled “Unaffiliated But Not Unbelieving,” which is not mentioned in Grossman’s article. And the editors of “The Handbook of Denominations in the United States” arrive at a quite different conclusion, finding that we have in fact entered a “‘post-denominational era’ of American history” which, they report, some are calling a “third (or fourth) Great Awakening.” The trend toward nondenominationalism seems to be at the forefront of this awakening

Meet the nondenominational church

Why the phenomenal growth of nondenominationalism? Toward an answer to that question, Binghamton Examiner is visiting nondenominational congregations around the Southern Tier, interviewing pastoral staff, worshipping with the community and learning more about each congregation’s history and beliefs. Check back here in the coming months for a series of focus articles reporting the results of those visits.

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