I’ve seen more blaming than hand wringing over the Gallup organization’s recent poll showing that less than half of Americans claim membership in any church, mosque or synagogue.
Gallup first started tracking church membership in 1937, when 73% of American adults professed church membership. The number stayed around 70%, with brief blips up and down, for the rest of the 20th century.
That’s when it began a sharp decline, dropping from 70% in 1999 to 47% today.
It doesn’t take a statistician to realize that’s a worrisome trend for fans of the faith, though it comes as no surprise to members of churches who have been rattling around once full but now sparsely populated sanctuaries even before COVID-19 sent all of us home.
More than half of the drop is associated with the rise of the “nones,” or people who express no religious preference. Comparing data in three-year blocks to allow for greater statistical reliability, Gallup found that “over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.”
A 13% increase in “nones” accounts for more than half of the 20% drop in church membership, but not all of it. Lots of folks who still call themselves Christian are unaffiliated with any church.
The findings have led to much speculation as to the reasons for the decline.
I used to credit the rise of Sunday sports leagues for children and youth for part of it. While that has played a role, it is only one aspect of societal changes in which Sundays have lost their sacred cachet and become just another day for business or play.
Cultural renovations are driven in part by generational change, and younger generations show steadily less interest in belonging to a church than older adults. The “traditionalist” generation of folks born before 1946 is hanging in there with 66% claiming church membership, while membership among Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) drops to 58%.
The trend continues: 50% of Generation X (born 1965-1980) belong to a church, but just 36% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) claim a church affiliation. You can bet that the leading-edge members of Generation Z (born 1997-2015) are even less interested in church membership.
Among subgroups, Catholic membership (down 18 points, from 76% to 58%) fell at twice the rate of Protestants (down 9%, from 73% to 64%). Membership has fallen slightly more among women (down 20%) than among men (18%).
One might expect higher education to suggest lower church affiliation, but the opposite was true: membership among college graduates fell 14%, but among those without a college degree, it fell 22%.
Not surprisingly, membership among single adults (down 22 points) fell more than among married people (down 13).
It’s also no surprise that membership among those who identify as Democrats (down 25%) or Independents (down 18) fell more than among Republicans, who dropped just 12%.
That’s driven in part by generational affiliation: older adults are more likely to identify as Republican and conservative than younger adults, who lean more toward Democrats and have more progressive views.
And for many observers, here’s the rub: the rapid decline in church membership tracks, at least to a degree, with the rise of the religious right and its inevitable association with the desire to preserve white/male/heterosexual dominance.
The fear of cultural changes associated with postmodernist thought, increasing racial diversity, and growing acceptance of non-majority gender identities have led already conservative churches to double down, not in defense of the gospel, but in defense of the cultural dominance that is slipping away.
This bears fruit in Christian nationalism, the misguided belief that America was founded as a “Christian nation” or even a new Israel, chosen by God to lead the world.
The version of Christianity espoused by those who support Christian nationalism might be unrecognizable to Jesus, who made it clear that he did not come as a political messiah to exert power through governmental control, but to inaugurate the kingdom of God and tap the power of the human heart to bring love and goodness into the world.
Many Christians and Christian churches still hold to that ideal, but the loudest voices identified with the faith – amplified by conservative TV networks and social media – are the same voices that blatantly promote voter suppression, economic disparity, and discrimination against LGBTQ people.
In many cases, while society moves forward in areas of humanitarian and environmental concerns, the dominant “Christian” voice moves backward to defend the trenches of power against those who cry for equality.
Where is Jesus in that? If that is what church means, then why would younger generations want any part of it?
Some observers have taken comfort in noting that the church tends to be healthier when it’s a minority movement rather than a dominant force: it’s hard to maintain a servant attitude when you’re running the show and profiting from it.
Among the several responses to Gallup’s findings that I’ve read, I think Kate Murphy, pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, put it best: “What we should fear is not people who refuse to belong to churches, but churches who refuse to belong to Jesus.”
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.