Online Extra: Getting Your Religious Terms Right

Can't tell the difference between the evangelicals and the seekers? Confused by the prosperity gospel? Here's a glossary to help you


Those who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. The vast majority of Americans are Christians. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports that 163 million Americans belong to some 200 major, national Christian churches (This tally does not include those who belong to the growing numbers of independent, non-denominational churches). By far the largest is the U.S. Catholic Church, with more than 66 million members. The evangelical Southern Baptist Convention is second, with more than 16 million members.

Mainline Protestants

Christians who belong to one of the well-established, nonevangelical Protestant denominations. The major mainline denominations include the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The major mainline denominations used to dominate U.S. religious life, but they've lost over half their market share since World War II. Mainline Protestants now make up about 16% of the U.S. population.


Experts haven't agreed on one definition. Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in California -- and arguably the nation's most influential evangelical pastor -- says evangelicals are united by three characteristics: "They believe that the Bible is literally God's Word, [they believe] that Jesus Christ is God...and [they believe] that we have a responsibility to pass this good news on to other people." But other experts impose stricter tests, while still others use the term more loosely to apply to anyone who claims to be a "born-again Christian."

Still, many top scholars would define evangelicals like Warren. Using that standard, the group would include most members of such "evangelical" denominations as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God. But it would also include members of the rapidly growing numbers of "evangelical" nondenominational churches.

In addition, a growing number of mainline Protestants and even Catholics also hold "evangelical beliefs." John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, figures that 26% of the nation's population are white evangelicals. And another 10% are Black Protestants, most of whom hold evangelical religious views.


A Protestant church that draws at least 2,000 people to its weekly services. The number of Protestant megachurches has risen from just 50 in 1980 to nearly 900 now. Though they represent a small fraction of the over 300,000 churches in the U.S., they are arguably the most important influence on contemporary American Christianity.

That's partly because their pastors are nationally known -- Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has sold over 23 million copies of his book, The Purpose Driven Life, the TV broadcast of Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen is seen by some 7 million people each week, and Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church, delivered the benediction at the January inauguration of President Bush. In addition, these churches tend to play a major role in creating music and other materials -- including Sunday school lessons -- used in many other churches.

Prosperity Gospel

The term coined to sum up the teachings of some evangelicals pastors -- such as Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, and the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar of World Changers International Church -- who preach that God wants his followers to be prosperous.

Their endorsement of material success is a striking contrast to the teachings of some more traditional Christians -- such as some Catholic priests who take a vow of poverty. In their defense, Osteen and Dollar say they are talking about more than just money. "I think we should have a mindset that God wants us to prosper in our relationships, our health [as well as] our finances," says Osteen.

Religious Right

The term used to refer to the Christian activists pushing a conservative political agenda, including opposition to abortion and homosexual marriage.While the religious right is dominated by evangelical activists, a number of the most prominent evangelical pastors are not active in this political movement. Rick Warren, for instance, the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, says: "I'm an evangelical, but I'm not a member of the religious right."

Still, conservative Christians have become an increasingly potent force in national politics. In the 2004 elections, 78% of white evangelical Protestants voted for President Bush, and "traditional" or conservative Christians -- including conservative Catholics -- accounted for over 40% of his total popular vote, according to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.


A term coined by evangelicals to refer to people who either have never gone to church, or who are not actively involved in any church. These people are a major target for many megachurches, who believe they have a mission to bring the unchurched to faith in Jesus Christ. Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, for instance, said he designed Willow Creek to reach a person he called "Unchurched Harry" -- "a composite man [who] is probably in his family room with his feet up on the foot stool reading the paper or watching TV with a can of beer in his hand."


Unchurched people who are nevertheless curious about the answers the Christian faith provides to the problems of life. Willow Creek and some other megachurches were specifically designed to attract such seekers by offering a friendly, nonthreatening environment that does not resemble the traditional church.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.