Every church has a mix of more-active and less-active members. There are many ways we try to describe this. We might talk about the “faithful” members vs. the “fringe” members; or “the people we see every week” vs. “the people we don’t see very often;” or the “more committed” vs. the “less committed.” Whatever words we put to it, it’s a reality.
The American Belief Study asked a carefully-designed, representative sample of 15,000 Americans about their religious faith, beliefs, and practices. Of the 9,504 participants who identified themselves as “Christian,” the study asked questions to sort out “Practicing Christians” vs. “Nominal Christians.” Two criteria were applied. If respondents said (1) they attended church (or a faith fellowship) at least once a month, and (2) their faith had “high” or “utmost” significance in their lives, they were counted as “Practicing.” If their responses did not meet one or both of those criteria, they were counted as “Nominal.”
In other words, for the purposes of this study, “Nominal Christians” are those who said they attend a fellowship less than once a month, or who said their faith was not that important to them, or both. They identify as Christians; faith is a part of their lives, just not a highly-important part of their lives.
Overall, the study found that 33.3% of self-identified Christians are Practicing and 66.7% are Nominal.
Two-thirds of Christians in America are Nominal. Only one-third are actively practicing their faith.
On the one hand, this is a ministry challenge. What is it about the American Christian community that allows so many to remain nominal in their faith? On the other hand, it’s a ministry opportunity. Here are millions of people—about 141 million Americans—who see themselves as Christians, and who could be encouraged to a deeper, more meaningful, and more active faith. Which is easier: to invite non-Christians to believe the gospel, or to invite Christians to grow deeper in the things of Christ?
The American Belief Study found clear differences between age cohorts on this question.
While nearly half of older Christians are Practicing and half Nominal, with younger Christians it’s closer to one-quarter Practicing and three-quarters Nominal. The series of four charts shows a steady progression between the four age cohorts. There are several possible explanations for this pattern. Maybe as Christians grow older, many of the Nominals become more active in their faith. Or maybe, over the course of life, Practicing Christians tend to stay true to their faith while many of the Nominals drop out and no longer consider themselves Christians—which would then change the ratio.
Other, related data leads to a more likely explanation: that these different age cohorts in American society, these different groups of people, tend to think differently about the place of faith in their lives. Older Christians tend to think of their faith as of greater importance in their lives, and tend to attend church more regularly. There are more younger Christians who need to be encouraged to deeper faith and greater commitment.
Another question in the study revealed that Practicing and Nominal Christians have very different opinions on matters of morality and society. Participants were given a list of 25 statements and were asked, “Please indicate your level of agreement or disagreement” on a five-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Figure 4.7 shows the ten statements where there was widest disagreement between Practicing and Nominal Christians. The bars show the percent who agreed with the statements.
The graph sets the statements in order by how wide the gap is between what Practicing and Nominal Christians believe, with the largest gap at the top and the smallest gap at the bottom, ending with a negative gap for the final question. For the second-to-last statement, “America has a moral responsibility to be a force for good in the world.” 69% of Nominal Christians marked ‘Somewhat agree’ or ‘Strongly agree,’ while 80% of Practicing Christians marked the statement that way. That 11-percentage-point difference is significant—but then consider the two statements at the top. They each show a 35-percentage-point difference, which is extremely wide. The final question, on same-sex marriage, shows a negative gap because more Nominals agreed with the statement than Practicing.
These statements are not about trivial or unimportant matters. But about topics where feelings run strong, in our society and in our churches. Most of them relate to beliefs about personal and family matters. As one example, 70% of Practicing Christians believe “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman only.” While only 35% of Nominal Christians believe that to be true. That’s a huge gap.
Nominal Christians may find it very difficult to join in fellowship with Practicing Christians that they sharply disagree with.
This is a great challenge, with no simple answers. Christians may stay on the fringe of their churches. Or may avoid attending, not because they don’t feel in harmony with Christ and his teachings, but because they don’t feel in harmony with the Practicing Christians. Moving from being Nominal to being Practicing may mean joining a ‘tribe’ they don’t feel they belong to.
- Of every three Christians in America, two are Nominal—not fully active in, or committed to, their faith.
- Forty-seven percent of Christians in the Silent generation are Practicing; only 28% of Millennial Christians are; GenX and Boomers are between those two.
- Practicing Christians and Nominal Christians don’t hold the same beliefs on important moral and social issues, and the gap is sometimes extreme.
Ideas for Your Church:
- Find ways to open lines of communication with Nominal Christians. Find ways to reach out to them that they welcome and feel comfortable with.
- For your members who don’t attend often, it’s not likely that a strategy of laying on guilt will prove fruitful. It’s more likely that a positive strategy, demonstrating how a closer relationship with Christ and his church leads to a life of love, joy, and peace, will lead to change.
- On the one hand, you have to stand firm with what you know to be true from the Bible and right doctrine. On the other hand, you can set an atmosphere of love and acceptance that allows believers with differing opinions to worship together in harmony.
- Learn about Millennials, how they think about faith, and what patterns of Christian life and fellowship they find most meaningful. Consider what there is about your church that might particularly attract or repel them.
About this study
This online study among 14,942 American adults was conducted by Campbell Rinker for ACST from October 2020 through February 2021. Results were balanced by US region, 19 ‘Mosaic’ demographic clusters from Experian, and weighted by age to align with known population characteristics. The study carries a maximum margin of error of ±1.97% at the 95% confidence level within any US Census region. A comparative 2017 study involved the same size audience.
About the Authors
Dirk Rinker is president and CEO of Campbell Rinker. A leading market researcher for nonprofits since the early 1990s. He has designed and implemented research projects for hundreds of prominent mission organizations, charities, universities, and museums in the U.S. and internationally – helping clients understand and act on the attitudes, motivations, and perceptions of their valuable constituencies.
Michael Jaffarian is a writer, researcher, and consultant to nonprofits. He and his wife were missionaries for 33 years, serving in Singapore, Virginia, Los Angeles, and England. Most of his ministry has been in global mission research. He has studied and written on growth trends among tens of thousands of Christian denominations globally.