One out of every four adults (26%) in the NYC Metro area identify as Protestant. Most of these Protestants are evangelicals who make up 15-21% of New York City metro area adult residents.
Figuring out the make-up of the Protestants is a little bit like sorting out red wines without labels. There are two basic types of Protestants: the liberally theological Protestants, often associated with the older historic denominations called “Mainline Protestant churches;” and the theological conservatives grouped together under the banner of “evangelical Protestants.” Mainline churches have been losing congregants for years. Although there are several interesting efforts, like the new church St. Lydia’s, to reverse the decline, our focus will be on the evangelicals as representing the main body of Protestants in the NYC metro area. In the future we will explore the new developments among liberal mainline Protestants.
The American Values Atlas gives our first step for figuring out who are the 26% who identify as Protestants by breaking them down by race. The largest proportion of Protestants are Black Protestants, making up 10% of the general population in the Metro NYC area:
* In most surveys about 40% of Hispanics identify as “White.”
The telephone survey in English and Spanish of 3,383 adults of 18 years of age or older covers the 20.1 million people in the U.S. Census’ definition of the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area. The census determines the boundary, which range from parts of northern New Jersey to parts of Connecticut, according a formula that indicates a high degree of economic integration with New York City proper. The survey may underestimate the number of Hispanic and Asian American Protestants, who are mostly evangelicals.
The exact number of evangelicals and its subspecies, Pentecostals and Charismatics, is hard to determine from the Atlas survey. The uncertainty is because in New York City the majority of evangelicals are African American, Hispanic and Asian American, and the Atlas doesn’t differentiate between Mainline and Evangelical Protestants among these racial and ethnic groups. Further, based on the results of other large surveys, we know that about one in five Mainline Protestants have evangelical religious beliefs and behaviors. Some Mainline evangelicals prefer to identify themselves as traditional or by a specific theology like “Reformed” or “Methodist.” Consequently, sociologists try to figure out the number of evangelicals by creating a scientific taxonomy based on a lot of study, but it is not perfect.
A well-used sociological understanding is that the distinctives of evangelical Christianity are a belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead for our sins, salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, the Bible is authoritative, and that evangelism is a central purpose of the Christian. Pentecostals and Charismatic Christians add that the importance of the spiritual gifts of healing, prophesy, and speaking in tongues.
These distinctive evangelical characteristics cut across denomination, race and ethnic divisions. So, we need to refine the Atlas categories a little to make them more useful. There is much more that could be done, of course.
By using the results of other large surveys to refine the Atlas numbers, we can give a rough estimate of 15-19%% for the number of evangelical Protestants in the NYC metropolitan area. Hispanics who cross-identify with the Catholic and Protestant churches would bring the number of evangelical Protestants to 18-21%.
Among Protestants in the NYC metropolitan area, the most common denominations identified are largely evangelical ones: Baptists (10%); Pentecostalism (5%); and non-denominationalists (3%).
Evangelicals make up about 20% of people living in New York City (Updated based on survey results released September 22, 2015)
On September 22, 2015 the American Values Atlas released a breakdown of their figures for New York City proper based on a telephone survey in English and Spanish of 1468 adults living in the city. Utilizing our analysis of the beliefs of each ethnic or racial Protestant group, we are able to give an estimate of the total proportion (20%) and number of evangelicals in New York City proper. Likely, up to an additional 3% of the city are Catholics who go back and forth between the Protestant and Catholic churches.
The Values Atlas survey seems to under-report the number of Hispanic evangelicals in the city.
Evangelicals are most numerous in Brooklyn
Because Blacks and Hispanics form the greatest part of the evangelicals in the New York City metropolitan area, it is not surprising that Brooklyn is the borough of evangelical churches. Over a third of the evangelical churches are located there, based on a Journey Data Center 2010 analysis of data from twenty community districts out of the fifty-nine in the city. The areas were selected to reflect the overall demography of the city.
The largest group of evangelicals are Black Protestants
The Black Protestants tend to be younger than White Protestants with over half having children under age 18 and poorer on the average though with a solid middle class.
41% of Black Protestant households earn less than $30,000 a year. However, 38% earn over $50,000 per year. A majority of New York City households in 2013 brought in $52,223 or more.
Somewhat of surprise, Black Protestants were evenly split between liberals, moderates and conservatives in political ideology.
The mystery of the evangelical numbers explored
Our approach to working mysteries is to go out into the streets and talk to people. What we found is a complex soup of evangelical beliefs, practices and local adaptations.
Many African-, Hispanic- and Asian-Americans who attend churches that have evangelical characteristics often identify themselves with their historic ethnic denominations or as “just Christian.” On Sunday a week ago, we visited a number of churches in an area around Fulton Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. There we asked for some help in our search for the “evangelicals.” We found many evangelicals and their characteristic styles of church according to most common definitions, but that name was not a strong part of the local language.
At Calvary Fellowship AME Church on Herkimer Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Pat Valdes observed about the standard sociological categories of evangelical, mainline, liberal, etc., “We are just an African American Methodist Episcopal Church. We learn that doctrine.” In fact the AME doctrine is pretty non-Pentecostal evangelical, though there is spectrum of theologies in the denomination. Valdes explained that her church is evangelical in the sense that “we love reaching out to people and praising God.”
At the nearby Good Tidings Gospel Chapel on Fulton Street an elder was a little more insistent on their evangelical doctrine without using the word “evangelical.” “We believe in the inerrancy of Scripture,” said Elder Victor Bernard. Asked for a label, he preferred to call his church “Bible- and Christ-centered.” At Christ Fellowship Baptist Church, often called “The Blue Church” for its large size and blue exterior, there was also an emphasis on the Bible. One leader observed, “I learned the Bible here.” The pastors summed up the church’s distinctives as “a worshipping church…catering toward evangelism…service-orientated.” One said with a simple emphasis, “I consider myself a Christian,” and, later, added, “a Baptist.”
At The Non-Denominational Assembly of God in Christ Worldwide Fellowship the pastors were quite articulate, but their emphasis was on their actions: “really committed to the Lord,” “worship God in the way He is supposed to be,” and “love people.” In every other way they enunciated evangelical beliefs without adopting the nomenclature.
Sometimes, African-American and Hispanic American Christians, who tend to be more politically liberal than American evangelicals as a whole, are reluctant to commit to a term without a lot of explanation that they are theologically conservative, not politically conservative.
The style, the theological beliefs, and the foci in life were typically evangelical. But we must keep in mind that ordinary (and, truly, some extra-ordinary) people in the pews and pastors in the pulpits are constantly creating local variations of the larger religious themes in the NYC metropolitan area. A survey like the American Values Atlas is useful but does miss a lot of the color, adaptations and innovations until they become widespread enough to attract “a name.”
In practice the best statistical discriminator for identifying evangelicals is their belief in the high authority of the Bible. Some evangelical church leaders and denominations say that the Bible is inerrant (without error); others give a nuanced answer calling the Bible “infallible” in its theological pronouncements. About 59% of the self-identified evangelicals say that the Bible is literally true word for word (inerrant). It is a pretty good assumption that where you find a group of Protestants in which 59% of them agree with this definition of the Bible that you have found an evangelical group. Most likely the other 41% are mostly evangelicals with a more nuanced definition of the Bible’s authority.
Also see our other features in the series on Metro NYC religions:
Upcoming: Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others.