Religious Denominations in the United States

There is no shortage of religious denominations in America. According to most estimates, there are upwards of 200 reasonably sized Christian denominations alone in America.

The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) website contains an impressive amount of information about the religious makeup of the United States. Despite the increasing influence of secularism in America, Christians still make up about 70-80% of the American population, with the exact number depending on how “Christian” is defined. Here’s a chart of how other religions stack up:

 

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Percent of American population that adheres to each religion

American Christianity can typically be divided into smaller groups based on common beliefs. Most broadly, Christians can be thought of as being either Catholic or Protestant. Based on fairly recent estimates, there are about twice as many Protestant Christians in America than there are Catholics. Using information from ARDA, I created a map of the United States that shows if there are more Catholic or Protestant Christians in each state:

1. Prot Cat Map

 

As you can see, the vast majority of states (42 of them) have more Protestant Christians than Catholics. Only 8 states, all situated on the upper East Coast, have more Catholics than Protestants.

The Protestant Christian category can be further subdivided into Mainline Protestants and Evangelical Protestants. The Mainline Protestant category would include, for example, certain Reformed churches like the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Episcopal Church. This category also includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many of these churches are more theologically liberal than their Evangelical Protestant counterparts.

The other category, Evangelical Protestant, is typically composed of various Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, and some Reformed churches. This category would also include the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Most churches in the Evangelical category are known for being theologically and socially conservative.

Broken down into percentage, about 60% of Protestants belong to Evangelical churches, while the other 40% belong to Mainline churches.

There are a few other religious groups that have a strong showing in America, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Judaism, and Islam. Using information from ARDA, I created another two maps that show the largest and second largest denominations in each state:

2. Largest Denomination.png

3. Second Largest.png

Only two non-Christian religious groups show up on these maps –

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons (although they are widely considered by many to be just another Christian group, their vast theological differences from historical Christianity are enough, in my mind, to consider them far outside of the Christian Church.) Looking between both of the above maps, it’s obvious that the Mormon Church has a great foothold in the Westernmost states, and, interestingly, Hawaii.
  2. Orthodox Judaism, which is the second largest religious denomination in New York

You might note that even in many states that have more Protestants than Catholics, the Catholic Church is still the largest single denomination. This is because Protestantism is so divided into different denominations and the number is split between them.

On the first map, it can be easily seen that the Southern Baptist Convention is the most prominent religious group in states around the “Bible Belt,” a region that is well-known for Evangelical Protestants with social conservatism.

On the second map, it’s also apparent that Lutheranism has a good showing within the Northeastern Midwest in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is very prominent in these states, and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is the second largest denomination in Nebraska, only behind the Catholic Church.

The United Methodist Church has an impressive number of adherents in the middle of the Eastern portion of America, and is actually the denomination with the most adherents in West Virginia.

In Maryland, Alaska, and New Jersey, non-denominational Christians were the second largest “group.” I put them on the map because I thought it was very interesting that there were that many Christians without a denomination. If non-denominational Christians aren’t considered for this map (due to the fact that they are, as per their name, not a denomination), then the second largest group in Alaska is the Mormon Church, the second largest in Maryland is the United Methodist Church, and the second largest in New Jersey is Islam.

Here’s an interesting factoid: During the process of gathering information for these maps, I visited all 50 states’ Wikipedia pages to look for summaries of their religious demographics. Out of all of the 50 states, Vermont’s page was the only one that did not contain a section on religious demographics. In fact, the words “religion” and “Christian” do not even appear at all on Vermont’s Wikipedia page.


 

Although many of the more mainstream groups within American Christianity have abandoned some of the most basic Christian Biblical principles, we still ought to be thankful that the vast majority of Americans at least identify themselves as Christians. It is our mission as followers of Christ to live out our vocations and contribute to the things that make this nation great.

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What the Church Needs to Convey to Young Christians

The facts about teenagers and young adults leaving the church are uncomfortable. To know that so many young people would seemingly throw away their faith as they transition into adulthood is tragic. Yet it still continues to happen. Most surveys and polls on the subject suggest that about 70% of high school aged youth stop attending church once they graduate. Only half of them ever return to the church.

There seem to be a number of reasons for this. Some teenagers, belonging to a religious family, want to “free” themselves of the influence of their parents after they move on to college. That influence would include their religious upbringing, so they abandon it. Others feel like they need to “grow up,” as if graduating high school signals the time to graduate from religion and move on to something better. Still others move on to attend liberal universities, where the core of their faith is attacked by professors and peers who may question and deride the authority of Scripture, the authenticity of their faith, and the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis.

However, I believe the issue has roots spreading much deeper. While we can’t deny that the world and its powers relentlessly attack the faith of young Christians, perhaps a big part of the issue is that they aren’t being properly equipped to stand up against these attacks. While American culture may be growing more hostile to the Christian faith and its virtues, the reality is that hostile challengers of the Christian faith have been targeting young Christians since the church began. Perhaps the church environment in which children are being raised doesn’t properly convey the necessity of staying in the church for life. I believe that this issue of the youth leaving the church is linked to the question: What does the church offer that the world doesn’t?

A Firm Foundation

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:3 that “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

The Christians Paul is writing to in this letter were just a few years removed from the actual resurrection event, had come into contact with God’s appointed apostles, and had seen miracles performed by Paul, yet Paul still felt that they could fall away from the faith. Persecution, doubts, and the sinful influences of the world have always been working contrary to the faith of Christians.

Contrary to the Calvinistic “once saved, always saved” doctrine, Lutherans acknowledge that it is possible for a person to have saving faith in God, but then later fall away from the faith. God’s Word is exceedingly clear on this issue (see this collection of verses and also 1 Timothy 1:19).

When it comes to assurance of our salvation, it is necessary to acknowledge that God is ultimately in control. Trusting in Him to guide and direct our lives is very important for our reassurance. Proverbs 16:9 tells us:

The heart of man plans his way,
    but the Lord establishes his steps.”

Martin Luther summed this up poignantly by saying, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

The Influences of Culture

While the Lutheran church may not be as heavily affected and influenced by pop culture and modern trends as other Christian groups (such as non-denominational churches), all Christian groups need to be on the guard against culture’s negative influences. As soon as churches let the culture dilute our doctrine and our message, it makes it easier for the falsehoods of the world to break down the foundations of our children’s faith. There are far too many instances of our culture influencing the church, and not the other way around. (If you want some entertaining yet depressing examples of this, check out Chris Rosebrough’s Fighting for the Faith.)

This isn’t to say that the church cannot adapt to become more efficient in our modern age. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating things like contemporary instruments into worship, so long as the music itself is still doctrinally sound (which often ends up not being the case). There’s nothing wrong with using modern technology and media to further the message of the church, so long as we don’t turn the church into an experiment in logistics or let church become nothing more than a social club.

Here’s the real crux of the issue: when church just becomes another outfit or iteration of American culture, why would we not expect our kids to leave when they discover they can access the culture in better ways – ones that don’t involve all of that old, stuffy religion stuff? 

You see, the church is actually church when it offers something the culture and the world does not. The world doesn’t offer forgiveness of sins, the sacraments, the pure Word of God, or real fellowship with other believers in Christ. And as soon as those things become diluted or absent from the church, what makes our churches different from any other social institution?

Here’s what parents and the church as a whole need to communicate to our youth: Here, in the church, you will find something that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Here, you will find the very words of God Himself, spoken and given to you. Here, you will find forgiveness of sins in baptism and the Lord’s Supper and absolution. Here, you will find the Bread of Life that cannot be found anywhere outside of the church.

May we never lose sight of the fact that church is something different, something sacred. Let us always train and equip our children to withstand the attacks of the world and its sinful institutions. Let us always communicate what is essential: the church is most definitely worth staying in for life.

 

The End of Moral Absolutes?

I recently stumbled upon a poll by the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling group that conducts surveys about the thoughts, attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of America. Over 1000 individuals of different faiths were surveyed and asked various questions regarding the state of morality in America and the nature of moral truth.

Frankly, the results are fairly disheartening to read, but they aren’t all that surprising. Let’s take a look at some of the most important findings here.

Question: Are you concerned about the nation’s moral condition?

Demographic Percent “Yes”
 Overall  80%
 Elders  89%
 Baby Boomers  87%
 Gen-Xers  75%
 Millennials  74%
 Practicing Christians  90%
 No Faith  67%
 Faith other than Christianity  72%

An overwhelming majority (80%) of the American population as a whole is concerned about America’s moral condition. As one might expect, the amount of moral concern decreases as the age of the group decreases. While 89% of elderly people show concern, only 74% of Millennials show the same. Practicing Christians are the most concerned about the nation’s morality at 90%, as they should be. The widespread acceptance of things like abortion and sexual deviancy have further polarized our nation’s moral views.

While a majority of adults with no faith (67%) said they were concerned about the moral state of America, I can only assume that some of these respondents said so because they believe America is too conservative in its moral convictions. There are many atheists who believe the moral constraints of our culture that result from being a majority Christian nation are problematic and need to be thrown off. Many of them view traditional Christian moral values as hindering to America’s “social progress” (whatever that means.)

Statement: Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.03.17 AM
From barna.org

An overwhelming majority of Millennials (74%) agree with this statement to some degree. 31% of them strongly agree with this statement. Younger generations are increasingly given the impression by our culture that the only truth in this world is what you feel works for you. Obviously, this is a dangerous message to convey to a culture that increasingly needs to hear the absolute truths of God’s Word.

67% of adults with no faith agree with this statement to some degree. I’m puzzled by the other 33% who do not agree with the statement. While it’s possible for an atheist or agnostic to behave in a moral fashion, the belief that there is any kind of absolute moral standard is completely inconsistent with their atheistic worldview.

While it’s good that only a minority of Christians agree to some degree with this statement (41%), that minority is nonetheless alarmingly large. Take a look once again at the statement they were asked to react to: “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.” I would agree that every individual has unique experiences and has a life that functions differently from other individuals. However, that’s not what this question is asking. To sincerely believe that “what works best for an individual is the only truth one can know” is to completely deny the foundations of the Christian faith. While some of the Christian respondents may not have recognized the implication of their response, or even misinterpreted the question, I still feel spiritual concern for the 41% who answered in the affirmative. God’s Word is ultimately the only truth we can know and trust, and anyone who believes differently is not familiar with the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Statement: The Bible provides us with absolute moral truths which are the same for all people in all situations, without exception.

Question 2.png
From barna.org

According to the survey description at barna.org, a majority of all American adults (59%) agreed with this statement. 83% of Christians agree with the statement to some degree. There are some interesting things about this. First, I would love to have a conversation with someone from the 17% who disagree with this statement. It would do them some good to open up their Bible sometime. While not every statement or commandment in the Bible applies to all people at all times (take, for instance, the Old Testament ceremonial laws), the Bible nonetheless communicates many absolute moral truths that are meant to apply to all people indiscriminately.

The other anomaly here is the disparity between the responses to this question and the previous one. 83% of Christians believe that the Bible has absolute moral truths for all people at all times, but 41% of Christians think that the only truth we can know is relative to the individual. Those numbers simply don’t add up. Either some of the respondents did not understand the questions, or they are simply inconsistent in their beliefs.

The other percentages in the graphic above aren’t too much of a surprise. What is fairly interesting, however, is the fact that 27% of adults with no religious faith still believe that the Bible has moral truths that apply to all people at all times.

Question: Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.35.30 AM

This question is the one that gets to the crux of the issue. Only 35% of American adults believe that moral truth is absolute. 44% believe that moral truth is relative, and 21% haven’t given it much thought. The fact that only 59% of Christians believe that moral truth is absolute is extremely disappointing and disheartening. These results all but confirm what many of us have sensed for a while now: America is rejecting moral absolutes that previous generations recognized.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but there’s even more frustration to be felt with these next results:Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.43.01 AM

 

These results are pretty self-explanatory. Sadly, more Christians seem interested in living a life of pleasure and personal fulfillment than anything else. To the 76% of Christians who think we need to just “look within” to find ourselves: you need to read Colossians 2:9-10 –

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.
We don’t “find ourselves” by looking inward. We find our true identity and fulfillment by looking to Christ who redeemed us and brought us to fullness. The same goes to the 72% who think fulfillment comes from pursuing the things you desire most.
The most disturbing thing here is the percent of Christians (67%) who believe the highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible. I hope and pray that most of these people simply misunderstood the question. Where can you even start in responding to that kind of sentiment? Are these Christians so completely unfamiliar with what the Bible says about these questions? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting and striving for a happy and peaceful life, but I don’t recall any passages that address the importance of just doing whatever “feels best” and makes us happy. In fact, Scripture overwhelmingly says just the opposite –
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:2
Scripture makes it clear that we are not to be conformed to the hedonistic and self-seeking philosophies of this world. We are to be transformed by renewing our minds in Christ, which means that our ultimate purpose is found in him.
While the results of this survey are certainly disappointing and even frustrating, they give us all the more reason to reach out to those around us and share with them what God has to say on these issues. Apparently, even many Christians need to be reminded of many of the basic things the Bible has to say about morality. As Paul says in Colossians 3:16 –
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Encourage, instruct, and admonish one another in love. And whatever you do, don’t be the 67%.