What's Tony Thinking

Here Come the “Nons”


In recent years a lot of the reporting on patterns of religious affiliation in the U.S. has focused on “the Nones,” the growing number of people who check “none” for religious affiliation on the U.S. Census. But the other group that is growing, and is now the largest group of Protestant Christians in the U.S. are the “Nons.”

As in “non-denominational” church members. The non-denoms are churches that don’t identify with one or another of the denominations that once dominated Protestant Christianity in the U.S. According to a recent article in the magazine, Christianity Today, “the number of non-denominational churches has surged by about 9,000 congregations over the course of a decade, according to new decennial data released by the US Religion Census. Little noticed, they have been quietly remaking the religious landscape.

“There are now five times more nondenominational churches than there are Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations. There are six times more nondenominational churches than there are Episcopal. And there are 3.4 million more people in nondenominational churches than there are in Southern Baptist ones.

“If ‘nondenominational’ were a denomination, it would be the largest Protestant one, claiming more than 13 percent of churchgoers in America.”

So what explains the rise of the non-denoms? I would offer the following thoughts from my observation and experience:

A big factor is that the non-denoms are friendlier to leaders who are entrepreneurial. Lots of the ND’s are new church starts founded by an individual and his or her friends who share a dream or a passion. Generally speaking the established denominations are less hospitable to entrepreneurs, and more likely to ask people to adjust themselves to a denomination’s requirements. Denominations aren’t, for the most part, what anyone would call “nimble,” while at least at this stage the ND’s are more likely to be so.

But there are two sides to welcoming the entrepreneurs. Upside: more openness to innovation and change. Downside: because so many are built around one person, that church’s founder, they are more vulnerable to becoming cults of personality with the attendant problems. Think Mars Hill in Seattle, which imploded a decade ago, when founder Mark Driscoll was found to be abusing his power. Or think of the grand-daddy of the non-denoms, Willow Creek, outside of Chicago. Willow Creek is trying to refocus after charges of sexual impropriety lodged against its long-serving, founding pastor, Bill Hybels.

This is not to say such things don’t happen in denominationally affiliated churches. They do. But without denominational structures of accountability, and with a founder bias, the non-denoms are more vulnerable.

Another reason for the growth of the ND’s into the largest part of American Protestantism today is that ours are anti-institutional times. “I’m not into organized religion,” is a common refrain. While the ND’s really are institutions, they tend not to be so elaborate or given to inertia as the denominational churches. So you can be in a ND church and still be sort of anti-institutional, and “not like other churches.”

Most of the established denominations were transplants from Europe with one ethnic group or another. Think Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. A group of immigrants from Germany, England, Scotland or one of the Scandinavian countries brought their church along with their language, festivals, history and heroes. This pattern has repeated over time with successive waves of immigration. The church and denomination were often carriers of national, racial and ethnic culture as well as religious beliefs. Those cultural ties erode over time.

While some new denominations did emerge in the U.S. like the Assemblies of God or Christian Science, the ND’s of today reflect the loosening of cultural and ethnic ties in a more diverse and mobile America. Saying, “I’m a Presbyterian” or “a Lutheran” doesn’t have the cache that it had for many years. It may even be a negative (see above, on institutions). The ND’s aren’t for a particular cultural or ethnic group so much as they are for a more general, homogenized America. They fit into the ex-urbs, where many are located and where much of the current growth in the U.S. population is taking place.

Again, two sides. If the ND’s are a good fit for a more general, homogenized, ex-urban America they also cut people off from particular traditions and ways of life that have made America a rich array of distinct cultures. The festivals of Scandinavian Lutherans, complete with unpalatable fish, go by the wayside. The Congregationalists invocation of their Pilgrim heritage tends to be forgotten, even repudiated, as American history is re-examined and revised.

In my experience, there is a similarity in worship style in the ND’s which makes it possible for mobile and younger American to slide into a new congregation in a new city or suburb more easily than having to change denominations or adjust to the traditions of a long-established congregation. Like a chain-store, they are more accessible, more market-friendly. So the ascendency of the “nons” may reflect where the culture as a whole is headed. Is that good or bad? Like most change, some of both. I like the innovative side of the non-denoms, but regret the loss of rich and historic traditions.



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