When numerical clout purportedly matters, religious institutions are happy to cite the largest number possible. For instance, when denominational lobbyists meet with Members of Congress, they do so on behalf of “15 million Southern Baptists” or “eight million United Methodists,” knowing that only a fraction of those attend church regularly.
The National Council of Churches touts its “37 member communions, including 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations.” Similarly, the National Association of Evangelicals “represents more than 45,000 local churches from 40 different denominations and serves a constituency of millions.”
Yet every church bureaucrat acknowledges that membership statistics are inflated and, in any case, do not correlate to individual spiritual vitality, congregational health, or denominational effectiveness.
Churches may even spin numerical decline as a good thing. Shedding nominals, leaders say, helps the church distinguish true believers from the insufficiently devout. Since church culture is no longer dominant, elites are keen to emphasize the counter-cultural nature of religious life and commitment—an emphasis that regards millions of nominal adherents as harmful to the image of the church as subversive or even freakish.
The Reverend Dr. Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, says that the 75 percent of Americans who self-identify as Christian are divided into three roughly equal groups. “Cultural Christians” are Christians by heritage only. They do not practice a vibrant faith. “Congregational Christians” have some connection to a church and may even occasionally attend, but like Cultural Christians, they are not very faithful. Only the “Convictional Christians” truly count as worshippers, for they orient their lives around faith in Jesus Christ. “The Church is not dying,” Stetzer contends. “It is just being more clearly defined.”
My many friendships with liberal and conservative clergy confirm the notion that American Christianity has begun to embrace its smaller-yet-more-committed identity as an improvement over its postwar prominence, which leaders recall as culturally dominant if often lukewarm.
In fairness to this view, I concede Stetzer’s point that people are not necessarily practicing Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. I sympathize with pastors who have seen their congregations shrink for two generations while lapsed Christians declined repeated invitations to come back to church. The gospels make it clear that Jesus did not seek nominal followers.
Still, I’d like to defend nominal Christians—a group that, by Stetzer’s counting, may include as many as 150 million Americans.
It is offensive—laughable even—to assume that frequency of church attendance is our best measure of people’s knowledge and love of God. Everyone has delightful, even "Christlike" friends who never attend church. Likewise, we all know nasty, insufferable people who attend every Sunday.