For the first time since Gallup began tracking church membership in 1937, Americans’ membership in houses of worship has dropped to below 50% of the population, the polling organization announced recently.
In 2020, just 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. That’s a decline from 50% in 2018, and a precipitous fall from as recently as 1999, when 70% of us were members.
Membership has declined across all religious, demographic, political and geographic categories: men and women; young and old; Black, white and Hispanic; Republicans, Democrats and Independents; well-educated and less-educated; Protestant and Catholic; conservatives, moderates and liberals; people from the Midwest, South, East and West.
Additionally, the number of people who say religion is very important to them has fallen to 48%, reported Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post. That’s another unprecedented low.
This ongoing decline in the role and influence of American houses of worship has become all but unstoppable.
What’s causing the waning of religious allegiance?
I’m no sociologist. But having been a minister for 40 years and a religion writer for roughly 30 years, I do have some theories.
It’s not just one thing, I believe. It’s the perfect storm of things. Here are multiple factors I see, and this isn’t an exhaustive list:
▪ The rise of the internet has made it easy to pick and choose beliefs from around the planet, and to chat informally, even anonymously, with those who see the cosmos — or faith, or God — as you do. The internet exposes us to an endless variety of traditionalists, skeptics and alternative faiths. Connecting live, in-person with the Baptist or Episcopal congregation down the street can, by comparison, feel frustrating and limiting and boring. It requires commitment. It’s messy. For many folks, the internet has become their house of worship. They create their own boutique faith.
▪ As one author pointed out to Bailey in the Post, we’re living in a period in which younger Americans, especially, are distrustful of all types of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. That distrust carries over to religious institutions. Young adults are the least religious of all Americans.
▪ Skepticism and even atheism have become more acceptable, and in some circles de rigueur. The number of atheists is growing and well-documented, and a small subsection of atheists have turned evangelistic themselves in advancing their cause, publicly attacking religion at every opportunity. The unsayable has become sayable. This growing, organized pushback has created embarrassment and disillusionment among some who used to be churchgoers, but weren’t well-versed in their faith to begin with.
▪ Roman Catholic child-abuse scandals have shaken people’s trust in organized religion. Here’s a hint of that: since the late 1990s — roughly about the time the sex-abuse scandals became widely known — Catholic membership has declined at twice the rate of Protestant membership, 18% versus 9%, respectively.
▪ A seemingly endless succession of big-time Protestant leaders behaving badly has had a similar, if statistically less dramatic, effect on that branch of Christianity.
▪ The alliance of white evangelical Christianity with right-wing politics has appalled some people, who say the congregation or denomination they grew up is now merely a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. They are turned off by a church that they see as less concerned about the gospel of Jesus Christ than the pronouncements of Donald Trump or Sean Hannity.
▪ On the opposite pole of the ideological scale, some liberal churches have gotten so caught up in social do-goodism and wokeism they’ve become indistinguishable from secular charities and community action groups. They’re not distinctively Christian enough (or Jewish enough, or whatever enough) to engage people’s faith.
▪ Sundays are no longer sacred. We play golf. We take hikes. Youth sports leagues suck away parents and kids from church services. Once, youth teams didn’t practice or play on Sundays. Many formerly churchgoing parents find their kids’ soccer or baseball success more important than their spiritual development.
▪ A lot of churchgoers were never that serious about their faith to begin with. Even among active church members, probably no more than 10% to 20% really shape their lives around their religion, rather than the other way around. When all the other contributing factors listed above start tugging at these less-dedicated folks, it’s easy for them to simply drift away.
To me, the future doesn’t look promising for organized religion of any variety. We’re riding a downward trend, and it’s hard to see it reversing.
In addition, the pandemic has given everyone new paradigms for worship, and lots of practice staying home from services.
It’s not clear to what extent last year’s voluntary and state-mandated church shutdowns affected Gallup’s 2020 numbers. But I suspect the pandemic will, in the end, prove to have been detrimental long-term. Significant numbers of those who’ve had to sit out for the past year may never return.
In the future, Christianity — historically the country’s largest faith by far — will have to adjust to becoming an ever-smaller slice of the spiritual pie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The earliest Christians were barely more than an obscure splinter group, but they were serious, and they persevered, and they changed the world.
(Paul Prather is pastor of Pentecostal Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Kentucky. This column was first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader and then shared on The Rural Blog. To reach Prather, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)