As we all know, many denominations of the Christian Church in America have been losing members over the last several decades. There’s been a lot of speculation about where those lost members go. Some have suggested that they are exiting for more conservative churches, some have suggested that they are in the ever-growing category of ‘nones’, and others have no real idea where they all went.
The Pew Research ‘Religious Landscape’ data gives us a lot of information about the state of things in the Church. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us much about how things came to be that way. While working on a completely unrelated project, I came across some data that may help. The datasets were compiled by, of all people, the Centers for Disease Control. They are part of a project called the ‘National Survey of Family Growth’.
At the bottom of this paper, I’ll include a lot of disclaimers on this data and how it’s used. But I’m going to put one disclaimer up front: This is not a representative sample of America. It’s a group of slightly more than 10,000 men and women, all aged 15 to 44. It’s a good sample of that population group, which of course is very important for those who worry about the future of the Church.
What’s interesting about this survey is that it asks participants what religion they observe now, and what religion they were raised in. From that, we can get a pretty good idea of what denominations people are leaving, and where they go from there.
METHODIST, LUTHERAN, PRESBYTER-IAN, EPISCOPAL
OTHER PROTESTANT DENOMINA-TION
PROTESTANT – NO SPECIFIC DENOMINA-TION
METHODIST, LUTHERAN, PRESBYTERIAN, EPISCOPAL
OTHER PROTEST-ANT DENOMINA-TION
PROTESTANT – NO SPECIFIC DENOMINA-TION
So, looking at the first row of the table, we can see that 824 respondents said they have no religious affiliation now, and were raised with none. 584 of the non-religious were raised as Catholics, and so forth.
What’s the news here?
First, fully 22% of the respondents are in the ‘none’ category. Only 10% of the respondents were raised as ‘none’, and some 200 of those folks have found religion. The rest have come from the Roman Catholic Church (substantially) and the Baptist and Mainline Protestant categories.
Second, the Baptists, Mainline Protestants, and Fundamentalists are all losing people across the board, to other denominations, to ‘nones’ and to a certain extent to non-denominational churches. The non-denominational churches seem to pick up members from all other categories, including Catholics and ‘nones’.
Third, the Mainline Protestants have the poorest retention rate, of only about 60%.Fundamentalists fare only a little better, Catholics retain 67%, and the Baptists hold on to 70% of their folks. The ‘Other Protestant’ and non-denominational groups have a net increase in membership, with the non-denominational churches picking up a measurable number of ‘nones’.
I won’t attempt to diagnose the problems here. It’s something the entire Christian Community should be concerned about. The number of people moving into the ‘none’ column is depressing, and is a problem for all Christians. The non-denominationals seem to be doing something right, but not in enough volume to make up the difference.
I’d be interested in any insights anyone else picks up from the table.
Notes on the data:
This data comes from the National Survey of Family Growth. That survey has little to do with religion, but asks a LOT of questions about people’s sexual experiences, marriages, childbearing, and so forth. (It’s amazing to me that they get answers to some of these questions.) The main website for the survey is
The data I used came from the 2011-2013 survey. There are other survey periods available, but no, I haven’t looked at them (yet).
There are some answers, such as ‘refused to answer’, that I didn’t enumerate. The only cases I used were the ones where respondents gave a definite answer to the religion questions. There are additional questions about religion that I haven’t looked at.
The “Fundamentalist” response is any one of the following: Assemblies of God, Church of Nazarene, The Church of God, The Church of God (Cleveland, TN), The Church of God in Christ, 7th Day Adventist, United Pentecostal Church, Pentecostal Assemblies, or Fundamental Protestant Bodies, Pentecostal
As noted above, the respondents are all in the 15-44 age group. There is a slight bias toward respondents under 30 years old.