Nov 15, 2010

From the Archives

Is There a “Reformed” Movement in American Churches?

Some observers and journalists have described a movement among Reformed churches, pointing to prominent Reformed pastors and new Reformed church associations as a significant trend. A new study from Barna Group explores whether the so-called “New Calvinism” has, as yet, affected the allegiances of pastors and whether Reformed churches are growing.

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Clergy Identity
For the past decade the Barna Group has been tracking the percentage of Protestant pastors who identify their church as “Calvinist or Reformed.” Currently, about three out of every 10 Protestant leaders say this phrase accurately describes their church (31%). This proportion is statistically unchanged from a decade ago (32%). In fact, an examination of a series of studies among active clergy during the past decade indicates that the proportion that embraces the Reformed label has remained flat over the last 10 years.

Pastors who embrace the term “Wesleyan or Arminian” currently account for 32% of the Protestant church landscape – the same as those who claim to be Reformed. The proportion of Wesleyan/Arminian pastors is down slightly from 37% in 2000. There has been less consistency related to this label during the past decade, with the tracking figures ranging from a low of 26% to a high of 37%.

The director of the study, David Kinnaman, clarified that respondents were not given definitions of these terms. As dictated by standard practice in survey research, identification with these terms was left up to each pastor’s interpretation.

Church Size
The Barna study also examined whether Calvinist churches have grown over the last decade. In 2000, Calvinist churches typically drew 80 adult attenders per week, which compares to a median of 90 attenders in the 2010 study, about 13% higher than 10 years ago. Wesleyan and Arminian churches have also reported growth during that period, increasing from a median of 85 adults to 100 currently, reflecting an 18% change over the last ten years.

Who is Reformed?
The Barna study explored some characteristics of the pastors aligned with the “Calvinist or Reformed” label as compared to the profile of pastors who identified themselves as “Wesleyan or Arminian.” In terms of the age of pastors, among the youngest generation of pastors (ages 27 to 45), 29% described themselves as Reformed, while 34% identified as Wesleyan. Pastors associated with the Boomer generation (ages 46 to 64) were evenly split between the two theological camps: 34% Reformed, 33% Arminian. Pastors who were 65 or older were the least likely to use either term: 26% and 27%, respectively.

Regionally, Reformed churches were most common in the Northeast, while least common in the Midwest. Wesleyan/Arminian congregations were equally likely to appear in each of the four regions.

Denominational background made a significant difference, but the dividing lines were not always straightforward: 47% of mainline churches were described by their pastor as Wesleyan/Arminian, while 29% of mainline congregations adopted the Reformed categorization. (Mainline churches include American Baptist Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, and United Church of Christ.) In contrast, non-mainline churches were more likely to self-describe as Reformed (35%), although 30% of the non-mainline pastors identified as Wesleyan/Arminian.

The study found that 31% of pastors who lead churches within traditionally charismatic or Pentecostal denominations were described as Reformed, while 27% identified as Wesleyan/Arminian. This is somewhat surprising given that these denominations – including Assembly of God, Vineyard, Foursquare, and Church of God-Cleveland – are generally viewed as stemming from Wesleyan or Holiness traditions.

Despite the common public view of Reformed churches being doctrinally conservative, a greater proportion of these leaders described themselves as “theologically liberal” than was true among Wesleyan/Arminian leaders (17% versus 13%).

Completion of seminary was statistically equivalent whether Arminian/Wesleyan (65%) or Reformed/Calvinist (62%).

Research Observations
Kinnaman, who serves as Barna Group president, concluded, “there is no discernable evidence from this research that there is a Reformed shift among U.S. congregation leaders over the last decade. Whatever momentum surrounds Reformed churches and the related leaders, events and associations has not gone much outside traditional boundaries or affected the allegiances of most of today’s church leaders. It is important to note that the influence of Reformed churches might also be measured through other metrics that are currently unavailable, such as the theological certainty of self-described adherents, their level of acceptance toward those who are not Calvinist, and the new methods Reformed leaders are using to market their views to their peers and to the public.

“Nevertheless, the research shows that many pastors do not necessarily conform to traditional doctrinal perspectives when it comes to how they think about or operate in their ministries. In other words, most of the nation’s 300,000 Protestant churches are in a state of theological flux, apparently open to identities and trends that do not necessarily fall within expected denominational or doctrinal boundaries. Given this profile, we expect that new theological, relational, as well as methodological networks that emerge will redefine the Protestant landscape over the next decade.”

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About the Research
This report is based upon four national samples of Protestant clergy and pastors selected from across the continental United States the most recent of which was conducted in September 2010. Each of the four studies included a minimum of 600 telephone interviews, conducted with random, representative samples of clergy. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with each aggregate sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate samples to known population percentages in relation to regional and denominational variables.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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