Pew Research, Ed Stetzer & Defining “Evangelical”

The internet was abuzz yesterday about Pew Research’s findings on Christianity in America. Evangelical Christians tweeted things like, “we’re winning” immediately followed by “we’re losing,” because the data can be seen both ways, depending both on how one defines evangelicalism and also on how one defines “winning.” So, every guru of missions stepped up to the plate yesterday to literally spell out for readers ‘How Christians are to understand the data from the newest Pew study on Christianity in America.’

If you were Ed Stetzer, then you wrote articles like, “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways From Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey” for LifeWay and Christianity Today. Dr. Stetzer reiterates in the article that “Christianity is not dying; nominal Christianity is,” and that, “not one serious researcher thinks Christianity in America is dying.” The article goes on, stating:

  1. “Convictional” evangelicals are holding steady—the “name only” Christians are fading.
  2. Those who self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical” make up 50% of American Christians that make up 70% of the U.S. Population.
  3. Mainline Protestantism is bleeding to death—retaining only 45% of those raised therein.

Throughout the article, evangelical is never defined. However, Dr. Stetzer does give a referent to “convictional.” Then, he tweeted the following message: [see a functional definition of evangelical here]

In classic Ed Stetzer style, the good doctor shows a bit of cheek. Wouldn’t you say?

Overlooking a Distinction

Pew reports their stats more straightforwardly than does Ed Stetzer. What is more, there is an important distinction between “born again” and “evangelical” which represents millions. Pew never makes this distinction, and neither does Ed Stetzer.

In his article, Ed Stezter writes, “In 2014, 50% of American Christians, who make up 70% of the U.S. population identify as evangelical.” Now, this is tricky wording to appear more impressive than it is. Yes, 70% of the U.S. population identify as Christian. Half of those (35% of the U.S. population) identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

But many Americans who self-report as “born again” are not actually evangelical Christians. We know this because we’ve seen study after study finding that many born agains believe that Allah is the same God as Jesus and other shocking findings. Clearly, the “born again” group is not equal to the evangelical group (though it overlaps with it). For the sake of focus, accuracy, and consistency, we’re only examining evangelicals in our research. ”

Excerpt From: John S. Dickerson. “Great Evangelical Recession.” iBooks.

Apparently, “born agains” can not be called “convictional.”

No Serious Researcher

According to “Great Evangelical Recession” (2013) by John S. Dickerson, the kind of disinformation that Ed Stetzer reports is something common to the Southern Baptist Convention and the NAE. Even more shocking, Ed Stetzer said–in no uncertain terms–evangelicalism was on a declining trend less than 4 years ago.

Christine Wicker, a mainstream journalist, is not an evangelical. As such, she brings a fresh objectivity to our national headcount. Wicker has spent years reporting on and measuring the size of the evangelical church. Her methods and motives differ from Smith’s, Olson’s, or Barna’s. Her conclusion, however, is identical.

Wicker started with in-house numbers from the Southern Baptists—the largest organized group of evangelicals—to demonstrate how inflated our count is. The Southern Baptists reported their membership at 16 million Americans, but by their own records they only had about 6.1 million attending their services on any given Sunday in 2007, she found.[26]

In the years since Wicker’s investigation, Southern Baptist leaders have publicly stated that the group is struggling. A 2011 report confirmed a continuing trend of decreasing attendance, membership, giving, and conversions among Southern Baptist churches. Ed Stetzer, president of the Southern Baptist research arm, LifeWay, put it this way: “This is not a blip. This is a trend. And the trend is one of decline.”[27]

The Southern Baptists may be the best microcosm of evangelicalism in the United States. Their values and methods are largely in line with the broad mainstream movement. Where the majority of evangelicalism is scattered and difficult to track, the Southern Baptists do an excellent job tracking the trends in their large chunk of the national evangelical church.

And here’s their recent trajectory. This largest group in evangelicalism, the group that produced Rick Warren and of which Saddleback remains a part, is not maintaining its size with population growth.

Wicker also examined the National Association of Evangelicals’ claim to represent “thirty million” evangelicals. After adding up the total number of attendees in each of the sixty-one represented denominations and estimating the attendance of the other NAE churches, Wicker could only account for 7.6 million evangelicals represented by the NAE.[28] When she confronted the NAE with these findings, they did not refute her conclusion and removed the claim of representing thirty million evangelicals from their website, according to her book.

Wicker concluded that, using evangelical’s own figures, about 7 percent of Americans are evangelicals. That’s exactly the same as Barna’s 2011 figure. It’s within spitting distance of Olson’s figure, and it’s the same as the esteemed academic Dr. Christian Smith’s.

Four specialized researchers. Four independent methods of thorough calculation. Four unique motivations. One conclusion: The actual number of evangelical Christians is far less than we’ve been told, accounting for 7 to 8.9 percent of the United States population, not 40 percent and certainly not 70 percent.”

–Excerpt From: John S. Dickerson. “Great Evangelical Recession.” (bold mine) iBooks.

As one can gather, Ed Stetzer is, by his own terms, no serious researcher. If he were serious, then he would remember his own words, which call the dynamic in American (Southern Baptist) Evangelical Christianity a trend of decline. Can trends be curbed in 4 years? The data doesn’t reflect it–not when one responsibly looks at proportionate population growth. Yet, LifeWay’s man began singing a different tune as early as October 2013. Moreover, Stetzer should concede the work of Wicker, Smith, Olson, and Barna’s from 2011 concluding that evangelicalism—strictly defined—accounts for no more than 7-9% of the American population. And the SBC and NAE disinformation?… Well, that’s just embarrassing.

How did 4 independent researchers conclude 7-9% evangelical population in America? –By correctly defining evangelical.

The Definition of Evangelicalism

For the definition of evangelicalism, no better discourse can be given than John S. Dickerson’s, (Appx. C, Great Evangelical Recession, 2013).

“Appendix C
Defining “Evangelical”

Evangelicalism is a broad and motley movement. Our most respected observers have yet to reach consensus on exactly who evangelicals are and where we are headed. This book is primarily a practical tool, not an academic one. As such, we have to settle on some practical definition. We will consider three important definitions of “evangelical” for this work.

First, British theologian and professor Dr. Alister McGrath writes, “Evangelical is thus the term chosen by evangelicals to refer to themselves, as representing most adequately the central concern of the movement for the safeguarding and articulation of the evangel—the good news of God which has been made known and made possible in Jesus Christ.”[222]

This theological definition is of interest because our study is not concerned with those who are evangelical only in culture, while not personally being able to articulate the gospel. That’s a strict definition by a sociologist’s measure, but I would argue that it is not a strict definition by Christ’s measure—or by the measure of the New Testament.

Like McGrath, I narrow my definition of evangelical to those who are familiar enough with the Evangel to articulate it to some degree.

The next definition we will consider is the Bebbington quadrilateral, an increasingly common benchmark for academics and sociologists.[223] David Bebbington points to four values, convictions, or attitudes. When an individual holds all four of these, he or she is definitively evangelical, Bebbington says. The quadrilateral includes

1. Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g., all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
2. Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
3. Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
4. Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.[224]

Bebbington’s definition is, in some ways, more restrictive than McGrath’s and in other ways less. It only requires a focus on the cross and conversion, rather than an ability to articulate it. However, it also requires activism and biblicism, which McGrath’s definition does not. Biblicism and some degree of activism are clearly values of mainstream evangelicalism, so I include them in my definition.

The third definition to consider is Francis Schaeffer’s.[225] He wrote in The Great Evangelical Disaster that to be evangelical is to be “Bible-believing without shutting one’s self off from the full spectrum of life, and in trying to bring Christianity into effective contact with the current needs of society, government and culture. It had a connotation of leading people to Christ as Savior, but then trying to be salt and light in the culture.”

Schaeffer emphasizes the “full-spectrum” of living in the culture. Here, Schaeffer points out the practical distinctive of American evangelicals. We have a heritage of intentionally interacting with the culture in a positive way, rather than isolating and reacting or submitting and capitulating to it. This “engaged orthodoxy”[226] stands noticeably apart from the spiritual bunker mentality that defined American fundamentalism. It also stands apart from the spongy plurality that defines theologically liberal Protestants. Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Carl F. H. Henry intentionally cut a path between both extremes when they birthed neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s and ’50s. Thus, United States evangelicalism toes this practical footing between two extreme responses to a changing society.

With those definitions considered, we should note that the “movement” of evangelicalism is exactly that—a thrust or direction of millions who disagree about everything except Christ as Savior and the Bible as God’s Word. Evangelicalism is not static.

I sometimes picture United States evangelicalism as a massive iceberg floating in the Atlantic. Gigantic icebergs fizzle and pop as their edges melt. Sometimes stretching for miles or city blocks, such bergs can split or flip without warning. Some sections—maybe the size of an apartment building—may be covered in soil and rocks, from the land where the berg slid off into the ocean. Other parts of the iceberg are bone-white. Still other areas stream with the crystal blue of freshwater ice melt. At any time, car-sized chunks may fall off of the berg, without warning.

United States evangelicalism—a singular floating and shrinking berg—has countless unique features and contradictory edges. I am setting out in this project to measure the trajectory of the berg itself, the course of the entire beast. I am not setting out to measure every detail. As such, many developments on the edges of the larger organism—important as they are—cannot be included in this book.

Our work here is not to predict the future, but to identify the existing and undeniable trajectory of the movement. In essence, this book concludes that these trends are the present trajectory of the entire movement. Thus, barring a radical change of course, they are the direction of our near future.

Inherent in any work of this nature is the risk of oversimplification. To identify the most influential trends in a movement of millions is daunting, let alone to do so in a movement as diverse, disorganized, and intangible as United States evangelicalism.

People who have spent their lives studying the breadth and impact of evangelicalism still disagree about the movement’s actual size, boundaries, and recent direction. As Christian Smith notes, “Many observers, including both academic sociologists . . . and respected evangelical leaders . . . view evangelicalism as either floundering in its mission or actually disintegrating under the pressures of the modern world around it. Others . . . take a more benign view, predicting bright prospects.[227]

–Excerpt From: John S. Dickerson. “Great Evangelical Recession.” (bold mine) iBooks.


If I had to choose based on mere statistics, I would have to side with the Christian who tweeted, “we’re losing.” I don’t like the fact that evangelicalism is (in reality) less than a 10th of the American population. I don’t enjoy the fact that groups like the NAE, men like Ed Stetzer and denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention falsely report their numbers for whatever reasons they choose. Yet, I do see the need for guileless and genuine transparency, which alone will afford the American Evangelical a true perspective on his or her part in our society.

Lastly, I heartily recommend to you, “Great Evangelical Recession” by John S. Dickerson, because it is serious research; and Mr. Dickerson provides biblical & excellent missiological solutions for the perilous state of the evangelical population. We know that Christ will build HIS church, and sometimes that means correction.




Evangelicals’ claims of conservative supremacy are overstated — and misread America’s religious landscape (RNS)

3 thoughts on “Pew Research, Ed Stetzer & Defining “Evangelical”

  1. Pingback: Thinking Religion: Who Is an Evangelical? | Thinking.FM

  2. Pingback: Survey: White Christians are now a minority of US population – Lamb's Harbinger

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