The CHRINO: Christian in Name Only


Nearly seven out of ten (69%, Cultural Research Center) of American adults self-identify as a Christian. With an adult population (18 years and older) of 259 million people (, that means there are 179 million people in the U. S. who self-identify as a Christian.

179 million. That’s a lot of people.

But how many of those people are really Christians? How many genuinely believe that Christ is the only way of salvation? How many can affirm Jesus’ words in John 3:3, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (NLT)?

I am attempting to quantify how many of those who claim the label of Christians are not really Christians. How many of them are CHRINOs, Christian in name only?

It is a complex exercise. Ultimately, I cannot know the hearts of men and women. But is it fair to make an estimate? Is it fair to make assumptions that cannot be proved? Can we really provide the number of CHRINOs in America, even if it’s not precise?

I think the answer to all of those questions is “yes,” and I will indeed provide an informed guess at the number of CHRINOs in the United States.

Some Points to Consider

As I delve into my methodology, specific points and caveats are necessary. There is no such thing as a perfect approach to this task. Consider the following:

    • I use doctrinal filters in my assessment. The primary filter I use is the belief that Christ is the only way of salvation. In other words, if someone does not affirm that salvation is by Christ alone, I do not consider them a Christian. If they self-affirm they are a Christian while denying this essential doctrine, I categorize them as CHRINOs.
    • Even though I use a critical biblical doctrine as my filter, I realize my approach has weaknesses. For example, someone could cognitively affirm the doctrine but not have a personal relationship with Christ. Or someone could simply misunderstand the question and respond in the negative even though they are Christians at heart.
    • My purpose in completing this exercise is to inform church leaders and members. I am convinced that most American congregations have lost their urgency to evangelize. Likewise, I am convinced that many of our members are biblically uninformed. I hope and pray that this data could serve at least as an early wake-up call for churches and their leaders.
    • There has been substantive research on church attendance, beliefs among Christians, and surveys about Christian self-identification. I can use that research as foundational to this brief report.
Where Are the CHRINOs?

We begin with the data point of 69% self-identifying Christians noted earlier. How many of those 179 million American adults are really Christians? Or, inversely, how many of those adults are CHRINOs?

    • Are there CHRINOs in the church? The data points to a clear response of “yes.” For example, we have conducted the same survey in churches since 1996. The data is a treasure trove of information from a longitudinal perspective. The survey asks the fundamental question of salvation through Christ alone. This survey is typically completed by active church members, usually those who attend twice a month or more. Among these most active members, 19.5% could not strongly affirm that Christ is the only way of salvation (Church Answers Research, 2022 data).
    • We then estimate that the number of CHRINOs would be more significant for the occasional attendees and CEO (Christmas and Easter Only) attendees. Though we don’t have granular data for these attendees, we know that belief dissipates significantly with reduced church involvement. Thus, a conservative estimate of CHRINOs in this group is 50%.
    • Among self-identified evangelicals, only 55% affirm salvation by Christ alone. We thus take the inverse of this response and conclude that 45% of evangelicals are CHRINOs (Cultural Research Center, Arizona Christian University).
    • We can also look at church membership as another beginning point to estimate the number of CHRINOs. In 2021, 47% of Americans were church members, down from 70% in 2000 (Barna). We can then estimate that the number of self-identifying Christians who have no church affiliation is around 60 million. We can speculate that many (most?) of them are CHRINOs.
The Estimate of CHRINOs in America

My exercise in sharing the data above was likely tedious, but I wanted you to see I have at least some basis for my final estimate. I conservatively estimate that at least 40% of church members are CHRINOs. 

Among the general population of self-identifying Christians, I estimate that 60% are CHRINOs.

From a practical viewpoint, these numbers indicate that you likely can do much evangelism in your church. Four out of ten of your own church members are not Christians. They are CHRINOs.

Again, from a practical perspective, the estimates mean that a conversation with someone about the gospel should not end if they say, “I am a Christian.” Six out of ten self-identifying Christians are CHRINOs.

Both estimates are staggering. We have much work to do. Complacency is not an option.

Jesus said, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21, NLT).


Posted on March 4, 2024

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Andrew Doubleday says on

    Interested that you finished with the Matthew 7 reference, Thom. The most chilling part is what follows. For context: Mt 7:20 ‘Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’’ Mmmm, that may exclude some of our most significant church leaders….
    Apparently it’s about fruit – presumably the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control that are God’s criteria. Perhaps we can just leave it there, and if it needs to be judged on who’s ‘in’ or ‘out’ we can leave it up to the God of the universe to do what is right (Gen 18:25).

  • Robert Perry says on

    Given the bitterness of the invective in politics against “RINOs”, I would suggest that a less inflammatory term like “cultural Christians” might be more appropriate. There are a lot of great ways to win people for Christ, but drifting (even inadvertently) into name-calling isn’t one of them.

  • Steve Rogers says on

    Thom, I wonder if the complacency that currently exists in the church, may be an influence from the number of Christian in name only leaders we have in church. For years now I have used the illustrations of the devil placing a pillow over the heads of churches and saying ssshhh… be quiet, it’s all going to be okay. Anyway, this is a good piece that made me think and pray about the solutions. Thank you

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Nominalism is not a problem new to the church. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus asks his disciples, “So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 NLT)

    People can regularly go to church, make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and affirm the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation but outside of Sunday mornings live as if Jesus was not the most important influence in their lives. As John Wesley drew to the attention of those who came to hear him preach, salvation is just a first step. It is the beginning of a life-long process in which we become more like Jesus, experiencing a change in our attitudes and our ways of thinking, undergoing a change in character, living our lives according to Jesus teaching and example, truly evidencing that we have been born again.

    Another way of looking at the situation is that our churches are filled with immature Christians rather than nominal ones. They may have take the first step but they need to be guided along the path of discipleship.

    I have noticed that many of the contemporary worship songs used in our Sunday gatherings celebrate a real or imagined salvation experience but say nothing about how a new believer is to walk with Jesus after he or she has been saved. This is a missed opportunity. The songs that we sing during our Sunday gatherings, if they are chosen wisely can also be used to help shape new believers and longtime believers as disciples. We may need to preach more about discipleship from the pulpit and closely examine what is being taught in our Sunday school classes and other small groups. Are these groups helping to form church members and attendees as disciples or are they simply providing a diversion for the churchgoing, religious-minded?