January 19, 2021

Religious Switching 2.0: 2007 versus 2014 (Preliminary)

Seven years ago I published the following graph from data that I have derived from the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study. It shows how people in America have changed over their lifetime from their childhood faith to their current faith. Click on the image to see it full size graph. In the full size image each pixel width represents one tenth of one percent of Americans.

Well, this week the 2014 numbers were released. I was hoping to have the new graph with commentary up today. However, this time I have a much more detailed breakdown of the “other” categories, and it will take me a little while to finish it. Along with the Unaffiliated (labeled None in the graph), the Catholics, Evangelicals, Mainline, and Historical Black Protestant traditions, we will have additional lines for the Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths. When it comes to the five largest groups, the changes from the way things looked in 2007 are so stunning that I thought I would give you a preview of my work done so far. Let me know your thoughts on what you are seeing in these changes (the legend is the same) and I will compile some of the better comments into the post for next Friday. By then I will have the completed graph along with my own commentary.



  1. Just as an off-the-cuff observation, I see…

    1) A trickle going out of the Nones, a flood going in –

    2) A massive game of musical chairs between the Protestant branches of Christianity –

    3) Catholicism is having a VERY rough time getting non-Catholics to sign up.

    Very interested to see your final graphic when it comes out.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Main impression I have is that the Nones are winning BIG. Massive bleeds from everyone else (except the black protestants, and that might be because of their small size to begin with). Evangelicals bleeding the biggest, into both Nones and Mainlines. Evangelicals losing the most, Nones gaining the most.

      I can hear the sermons on The Great Apostasy of The End Times already. (Could this be… THE RAPTURE?)

      • Anything but confronting their own problems…

        Cuz we’re right and true, and they just love their sin and want the world.

      • Denominations are suffering. But Evangelicals overall, not really:

        Per Ed Stetzer:

        “Yes, you read that correctly. Evangelical Christianity is growing in America. From 2007 to 2014 the number of evangelicals in America rose from 59.8 million to 62.2 million, according to Pew.
        While it should be noted that evangelicals’ share of the overall U.S. population dropped by 0.9% over the last seven years based on denominational affiliation, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as evangelical rose from 34 to 35% over the same period of time. Don’t miss that: More than one-third of Americans call themselves evangelical.
        And despite what many are saying, evangelicals are attending church more than ever. The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.”

        • Plaid Sonja says

          *The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.”*

          Those surveys have been found to be problematic though. The more-revealing measurements have been made by researchers just straight-up going to churches and counting butts on seats. Their figure: About *20%* of evangelicals attend church each week.

          • Plaid Sonja says

            Meant to add: Replying to a survey, “I go to church every week” has been found to be in the same category of responses as:

            –“I donate a lot of money to charity”
            –“I call my mother all the time”
            –“I would totally stop my car to help a stranded motorist”
            –“I love baseball and apple pie.”

            Or, another longstanding problem in social surveys: Teenage girls report about having about 15% as many sexual partners as teenage boys do. So either there are a few *VERY* sexually active young women out there or else we must take the boys’ responses with a bucket of salt.

    • I think it is more accurate to say that though the nones actually lost nearly half their original base, they gained it back 4-fold for a net of more than double their start. Their loses were actually the second heaviest after the mainlines, percentage wise, but their gains were the largest by far.

  2. Robert F says

    The relative stability of the American Catholic church numbers in the past has been the result of the influx of immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries; otherwise, the losses posted would have been at the same levels as mainline Protestants for decades. Mike, do you know why the percentage of Catholic losses is so similar to that of mainline Protestant churches in these numbers? Has there been some kind of religious demographic change in immigration from Catholic countries? Are more of the immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries now evangelical/Pentecostal?

  3. About half the nones left, which is a lot percentage-wise, even if not in absolute numbers.

    Evangelicalism seems to gain as many as it loses.

    Does ‘None’ refer to agnostics and atheists only, or also include those who are still religious but don’t participate in a particular church/group? I’ve read articles about people who still believe in Christianity but no longer attend/are a member of a church, and are counted as nones

    • Nones are definitely a broader group –“Unaffiliated” might be a slightly better if less catchy term. So it includes, but is not limited too, atheists, agnostics, etc.

    • I wondered the same thing about the “nones”. Does that include the “dones”?

      • Rick Ro. says

        I’m pretty sure the Nones include the Dones.

        • To me they’re fundamentally different categories and tell a fundamentally different story.

        • Not so sure. The Dones would still identify as Christian but in a nebulous “other” category.

          • Does “none” mean none for NOW… or NONE: don’t ever bring up that religious stuff to me ever again, or both…. and including the agnostics/atheists. Just how broad is that category ??

          • Pushing through the details, about a third of the Nones fall into a category of “Nothing in particular” (not having a faith home) but also considering religion important to them. Slightly more than a third are “Nothing in particular” and don’t think religion is important. The last third splits, with slightly more than half of it agnostic and slightly less than half atheist.

          • Mike, where do fundamentalists fit in? Are they included with evangelicals? I think it would be helpful if Pew included them as a separate category.

            One suggestion—the red line from the nones to the evangelicals is hiding behind the yellow. It pops out at the bottom and is visible there, but it might be clearer if it were layered in front of the yellow.

            Excellent graphs, though. Thanks.

          • Hi Ted,

            Fundamentalists. I personally think that it is really hard these days to distinguish between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. I can remember my mother saying to me that “You go to a Fundamentalist church.” I said “Really???”. Upon further reflection she was probably right. But I would have never called myself a fundamentalist.

            As far as the graph goes. All my lines are separate object which will allow me to move the smaller lines on top of the larger lines for visibility purposes when I am nearing completion.

          • Hence the term “fundagelical.” Was it Eagle who coined that?

            One other comment I didn’t make: The “nones” in your graph are shown as the “red menace” (remember commies?) spreading their tentacles. Was that on purpose? 🙂

  4. Robert F says

    I think nones is an extremely ambiguous category. I think there were many more people in last few generations of Americans who continued to identify with one or another institutional religion despite the fact that in practice and belief they were in effect what we call nones. If that is correct, the most significant change would be that more people are identifying themselves as having no particular religious affiliation now than in the last few generations, but that wouldn’t necessarily reflect a huge change in practice and belief.

    • I think this is basically correct, Robert. The main story is Nominals becoming Nones, and is probably due as much to generally lower levels of institutional affiliations (lodges, bowling clubs, etc.) as to anything else. Belief and practice may not be that much different — except that “practice” sort of does typically include “getting your body to church on something of a regular basis.” (What does it say about our commonly held notions of religious practice that we so easily exclude group participation? Maybe that’s the deeper question. (???))

      I also wonder just how much any of this actually speaks to the perennial topic of politics. If Nominals are simply becoming Nones, I rather doubt they’ll vote much differently. On the other hand, what does seem glaringly true from the report’s numbers is that the myth of America as Christian Nation is taking a big hit. Conservative Evangelicals aren’t experiencing the massive decline in numbers, and presumably in political influence, that many of us expected, but their cry of “We are a Christian Nation” is increasingly less credible.

      Finally, I expect some militant atheist organization to trademark the phrase, “Get Thee to a None-ery!”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Conservative Evangelicals aren’t experiencing the massive decline in numbers, and presumably in political influence, that many of us expected, but their cry of “We are a Christian Nation” is increasingly less credible.

        Keep a sharp eye out for signs of desperation — the cries getting louder and more shrill, a reaction of passive fatalism (“Beam me up, Jeesus!”), and especially any signs of getting physical as they get more and more desperate.

  5. According to the report which I read it stated that the huge numbers going to the ‘none’ was a result of the aging of America. All the results are being driven by the under 35 age group. It may be due to the secularization of our society.

  6. Looking strictly at the percent Christians were down 7.1 % Protestant down 4.8 Catholic down 3.1 The only reason Catholics appear larger is that they are not split into subgroups such as mainline, evangelical, and black protestant.

  7. For years I’ve been hearing folks on Imonk gleefully chant about “the coming evangelical collapse”.

    Now, the Pew research poll seems to show a slight growth in evangelical churches, but an outright collapse in mainline churches. According to Pew research, the evangelicals are growing while we are witnessing the apparent collapse of the mainline.

    So Imonks, how on earth did this happen? Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

    • Interesting question. I think Michael Spencer predicted an essential collapse of American Evangelicalism. I’m not sure how apocalyptic he expected that prediction to be, but I think we can safely say that he was wrong. For my part, I am not one to conflate numbers with success. In fact, I can’t actually think of a Christian scenario where that metric makes sense. On the other hand, fundamentalists have been using that as an excuse for their decline since the 1960s.

      Some of the advantages of the huge, non-affiliated, evangelical mega down the road is that it offers all kinds of actual programs and community, it is bland enough in its theology for anyone to feel welcome, and it is a nicer facility than most of us experience on a daily basis, without being a china-shop like many Catholic or high churches/cathedrals. It is the perfect venue for American spirituality, which hasn’t got a whole lot to do with historic Christianity. This is not a bad thing, but the mainlines etc. are hopelessly connected through creed and deed with historic Christianity. It just ins’t a good cultural fit. The benefit of evangelicalism is that it can easily morph into whatever the culture wants at the time. I personally see evangelicalism as on a growth track – but it already looks radically different from dad’s (or grand-dad’s) evangelicalism.

      • Good comment.

        I think you hit on a lot of the reasons that my family ended up in an evangelical church when I was growing up.

    • If so, then we are following a false prophet, eh?

      • Rick Ro. says

        My answer would be “No.” A prophet is only “false” if they’re leading you away from “truth” and not because their predictions aren’t coming true (or don’t appear to be, anyway).

        Whether the collapse happens, Michael was pointing to truth: Jesus. His purpose was to keep our spirituality shaped around Jesus, especially for those people who’d been harmed or damaged or fed-up with the evangelical church. In fact, the danger here might just be that while the evangelical church hasn’t collapsed, it’s not leading people into any sort of relationship with Jesus; maybe people “like” church-shaped and denomination-shaped spirituality as opposed to Jesus-shaped spirituality. (But I don’t…LOL.)

    • “gleefully”?

      • Robert F says

        A certain amount of schadenfreude is sometimes expressed here at the prospect of an evangelical collapse, as well as at its current failures.

    • OldProphet says

      Ditto EMM. Been preaching that since I started on this blog. I’m a lifetime Evangelical and have continually addressed the misguided notion that there is a coming collapse of Evangelicalism. The now 30 year plus collapse is in the mainline churches and denominations. I believe in 30 years from now many of them will disappear completely. Not a good thing, but a sober and sad thing to contemplate on. I don’t do the Liturgical thing, but I respect its value and importance in the Body of Christ. But I just don’t see it being of value or relevance to today’s high tech millenials But this recent study shows that and its nit a surprise at all. By the way, don’t be a hater, its just my opinion, nut this trend in church attendance has been obvious for a long time.

    • I deal in trend analysis and predictions of decline all the time. The thing to remember is that Mike Spencer wasn’t talking in years, but decades. When you look at the more granular data, you’ll see that the SBC is now losing ground at almost the same rate as mainline denominations. The only “growth area” in evangelicalism is in megachurches – and we all have our opinions as to how sustainable that is.

      Long story short, the jury is still out.

      • That is my thinking as well Eeyore.

      • Good observation, Eeyore. My job also deals primarily with trend analysis and projections, and I’m not sure this data tells me much. As well, it doesn’t take into account the relatively plastic nature of evangelicalism. Roger Olsen wrote about this recently; the fact that modern evangelicalism doesn’t look anything like what it did 50 or even 20 years ago.

      • Robert F says

        The SBC may now be losing ground at almost the same rate as the mainlines, but it has a heck of a long way to go to catch up with their losses. Remember, the mainlines have been losing at a significant rate for decades. And where are the lost SBCers going? Into the nones? Or the megas?

  8. i know it is off topic, but I’m curious about how you made the graph.

    • Old graph was done using good old Microsoft Paint. Current graph is being done using excel shapes, where 1% = 7.2 point width. New way is a LOT easier.

      • There just needs to be a Google Analytics for religion.

        Dashboard that, lol

      • Very interesting graph, and also very attractive. Take off the labels and enter it in the art show at the local county fair; it will probably win.

  9. I like the graph as a visualization. But if I want to really understand, I’d rather see a table of percentages with From/To as the columns/rows. A simpler supplement to the graph might be to add the % retained as a number in/at the header and the % self-originating as a number in/at the footer. It probably will have to be in once you add the many variants of what used to be other, but for the older chart could have been in the self-flow bars..

    I recall taking an earlier post with the prior version, going to the large image, and using a ruler on my screen to attempt to measure those core retained/self-originating percentages.

    It looks to me like Catholics are really hurting, with both very low adoption rates and low retention rates. I’m not sure if evangelical or mainline protestant is less stable (self-retaining), but both of them have meaningful adoption rates.

  10. I wonder whether Evangelical Christians should be subdivided into more traditional Evangelicals and more charismatic. Looking at the charts shows that

    Evangelical Baptists went from 10.8 to 9.2%
    Evangelical Lutheran (e.g., Missouri Synod) 1.8% to 1.5%
    Evangelical Presbyterian (e.g., PCA) .8% to .8%
    Evangelical Pentecostals 3.4% to 3.6%
    Evangelical nondenominational 3.4% to 4.9%
    with the biggest chunk in the last being charismatics 1.2% to 2.0%

    Note however that a lot of this is within the margin of error
    overall among Evangelicals 26.3 to 25.4%

    • Evangelical nondenominational 3.4% to 4.9%

      The data can’t possibly show this, but I know so many people who “go to” a particular evangelical nondenom church…once a year maybe? But they will always identify as going there.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “Evangelical Lutheran (e.g., Missouri Synod)”

      Huh? Pew classifies LCMS as Evangelical? That is so weird that I had to go look at the actual report, and it appears that this is indeed the case. This to me calls in question the entire report. How are they defining Evangelical and Mainline?

      • And the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) is mainline, isn’t it? Mike Mercer, does ELCA still consider itself evangelical?

        Whatever confusion there may be in the definitions, Mike Bell’s graph is cool.

        • Brianthedad says

          I’d say LCMS is more fundamental than evangelical. Most LCMS congregations have “evangelical” in the legal name of the congregation. My understanding (please correct me if I’m wrong) is that the “evangelisch” was added to many church names post-reformation to distinguish them from the Catholic Church. I think it would be a stretch to refer to most LCMS congregations as evangelical in their practices. Unless you count sitting in the pews, trying all the newest worship fads, and wondering where all the people are as evangelism.

          • The German “evangelisch” probably corresponds to the Spanish “evangelico.” In Latin America, as in Spain, there was no Protestant Reformation (Spain had just got its country back from the Muslims and wasn’t about to tolerate a new threat) and so brought a rather medieval Roman Catholicism to the New World. Very few Protestants in Latin America until about 1960 when missionary churches began to gain a foothold. The term “evangelico” applies to just about anything that isn’t Catholic—including fundamentalists, pentecostals, even Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  11. There’s an infinite number of stories that can be told (or not told) from this data.

    My parents, for example, would have been Mainliners as kids.

    If you’d caught them in their college years, they’d probably have maintained the mainline label, though I wonder if in today’s world “nominals” are more inclined to answer “none” then reference their childhood religion.

    They hopped around a bit early in their marriage – mostly mainline. We ended up in Evangelical churches because the sermons were “practical”, there was a lot of technology and seemed more “relevant”, we could go on Saturdays etc. Certainly the move from mainline to evangelical wasn’t driven by theology – it was probably more for us kids.

    Now they’re back in a mainline church for a whole host of reasons, more of them being theological in nature (they ended up at some reformed type “gatekeeper” evangelical churches that weren’t ok with all of the theology surrounding my mom being a “spiritual director”). Politically they’ve been very conservative the whole time.

    For them the chart would show no change, but that wouldn’t reflect their journey or how different their “mainline” faith was then from what it is now.

    That’s not to take away from what are clearly high level trends. Just an observation of how difficult it is to narrate those trends.

    • I wouldn’t say that the individual stories can be told from the data. But there are a lot of individual anecdotes that can dimly illuminate the data.

      My wife and her two brothers were raised Evangelical. One brother is now Greek Orthodox, one is Catholic, and my wife and I recently stepped into the wilderness from an Evangelical church, most likely to land in a different evangelical church, perhaps in the baptist family, perhaps in a liturgical family.

  12. Michael Z says

    It’s noteworthy that although about 23% of people identify as “nones,” atheists are only 3% of the population and agnostics are only 4%. So to some degree, this shift is not about people losing faith, but about people no longer wanting to be part of a faith community.

  13. Burro [Mule] says

    I wonder how much of the Catholic to Evangelical traffic is Hispanic. It’s pretty significant in my anecdote-sphere. Lots of Hispanics move to Evangelical churches, mostly Pentecostal.

    I would also be interested in what the difference would be if Charismatic/Pentecostal was separated from Evangelical

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And where I am (and in Latin America proper), Catholicos-turned-Evanjelico have a rep for being RABIDLY Anti-Catholic.

      • Burro [Mule] says

        And where I am (and in Latin America proper), Catholicos-turned-Evanjelico have a rep for being RABIDLY Anti-Catholic.

        They are. one word that gets bandied about a lot is idolatria because of the use of images. I think it has to do with William James’ division of religion into once-born religion and twice-born religion.

  14. Just for clarity’s sake, the second graph doesn’t reflect the changes from the endpoint of the first graph, correct? Is the top line of the second graph different from the top line of the first graph – that is, are we discussing a different sample, not the same sample followed for 7 more years?

    • Hi DebD, you are correct. The second graph if people today reflecting on their current faith versus their childhood faith. The first graph is people 7 years ago doing the same thing. One interesting note is that the sample today had a much higher percentage of people who said that there were raised evangelical compared to those who were answered the question 7 years ago.

  15. That’s a rather significant amount of evangelicals going mainstream, isn’t it? Almost 50/50 on the options. You gotta get it out, so you go either mainline or none.

    Nothing super surprising in the data, but it’s always helpful to have, thanks Mike!

  16. I think this part of Ed Stetzer’s article is especially interesting:

    “I (or my team) has had recent conversations with Christian Smith (Notre Dame), Rodney Stark (Baylor), Frank Newport (Gallup), and Robert Wuthnow (Princeton) and they see such an idea (dying Christianity) as just driven by another agenda…I am not saying that everything is great. I do believe that Christians are losing their home field advantage. I’ve written tens of thousands of words about the challenges and the problems of the church, particuarly evangelicals. However, any reasonable reading of the research does not show that Christianity (and/or evangelicalism) are dying. Mainline Protestantism is hemorrhaging—that’s the term that mainline reseachers use. Evangelical denominations are often struggling and some are declining (and the growth is in generally in non-denominational evangelicalism, not inside most denominations). Furthermore, most of the growth is among non-Anglos, and white evangelicals are a more negative story.”

    I think some here may also have “another agenda” in how they want to interpret the headlines.

  17. The evangelicals seem to be losing about as many as they are gaining, so the best I can really see is that they are holding steady. But holding steady to what is the question the survey doesn’t really answer. And it’s a crucial one.

    The proponents of evangelicalism are already claiming that it’s the true faithful who are staying and being added, while those who leave were never more than nominal Christians in the first place (in some cases, the rhetoric is outright dismissive). I’m pretty sure the reality is considerably more nuanced and complicated than that particular spin.

    As for the decline in mainline, it’s nothing new, and as for the other changes, people move around, particularly Americans. Not a lot of surprises here, in other words.

    • Dana Ames says

      I would tend to agree with John.

      I think the move to non-denom is a reflection of the general cultural dissatisfaction/disassociation with institutions. The move to Charismatic could have to do with immigration from countries south of us, as well as being a function of the continued stagnant wage growth; when (mostly uneducated, in my experience) people feel that kind of squeeze, the Charismatic/Pentecostal churches offer a place that generally welcomes ones we would call “marginalized”, and also provides a setting in which they can temporarily set aside the troubles of daily life.

      I think the Evangelical Progressives have, for the most part, moved out to Mainline or None. I think the ones that are staying or coming in to the Ev. demo are people who have a high need for certainty.

      In the Orthodox Church, my observation is that we are losing as many “cradles” as before, but the “converts” are making up the gap, for now, so about the same in my anectdotosphere. (Thanks for that word, Mule – useful.)


  18. Special request, Mike:

    Where does my tribe fall? The LCMS is too conservative to be lumped in with the mainlines, and too traditional to be lumped in with Evangelicals. We’re almost about as close to Catholics as either of those. Where is this data going to place us?

    • LCMS is inside Evangelical, part of the Lutheran Family (Evangelical Trad.) which is estimated at 1.5%. That breaks down as LCMS 1.1%, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod <0.3%, Other Lutheran (Evangelical Trad.) 0.3%.

      You can find this sort of answer for most denominations yourself by following Mike's link to the study, then clicking on the link inside the study for the interactive database tool.

      • Thanks for following that up for me.

        Part of my question, though, is also about where the LCMS should be categorized. Many chart/survey type things classify us as either mainline or Evangelical, few have the discernment to leave us hanging in the cross section of those two and Catholicism. It does stand to reason, though, that the de facto practices of many LCMS congregations are overtly Evangelical and largely minimize any influence of “mainline” tendencies.

        Most of us in the LCMS will not agree over this, but I personally find myself to be much more Catholic than Evangelical or Mainline. But the solas are lines we can not cross, and thus we’re stranded between the liberal theology we reject and the circus of Evangelical culture which we all too often embrace, unfortunately.

        I suppose I’m just saying that the classification is probably fair, what we deserve, but not where we should be. No offense to Evangelicals, we’re just different, “of a different spirit,” if you will. Most of them who actually interact with doctrine on a serious level find our teachings rather offensive anyways.

        • You aren’t big enough or so far outside the boundaries (e.g., Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses) to have your own top level category (I suspect the Presbyterian Church in America has the same complaint). BTW Missouri Synod went from 1.4% of the population to 1.1% according to the survey. ELCA from 2.0% to 1.4% and all other Lutherans from 1.3% to 1.1%.

  19. The charts are clever;, all the data is mind boggling, the analysis is confusing.
    All the while I hear God saying “Jesus they don’t get me at all”

  20. Robert F says

    There may be a coming evangelical collapse, but there will almost certainly be a mass funeral for the mainlines first.

  21. Robert F says

    My wife and I are mainline Christians. She’s a former evangelical (C&MA), and I’m a former Roman Catholic. If our mainline denomination, and all other mainline denominations, were to cease to exist tomorrow, we could not go over to the Roman Catholic Church as full communicants, since our’s is my wife’s second marriage. Otoh, my impression is that there are a good number of evangelical churches that allow divorced and re-married people to be members in good standing and full communicants; this is a big advantage in attracting members for those churches. Our only other option would be to join the unchurched nones, which we might well choose to do, given the situation.

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