Column: US church membership falls to 47%

On March 29, Gallup reported 47% of United States adults claimed to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, which is low from 70% in 1999 and 50% in 2018. This decent is the first-time in Gallup’s eight-decade report that Americans’ membership to a house of worship falls below half the population.

In 1937, Gallup first reported U.S. church membership to be at 73%, and it remained consistent at 70% through the next six decades but steadily declined, beginning in the 21st century.

Twice each year, Gallup questioned and analyzed more than 6,000 Americans on their religious attitudes and practices. The past three-year periods of polling indicate a significant decrease in church membership: 1998-2000 (69%), 2008-2010 (62%) and 2018-2020 (49%).

Highlighted in this report is the increased number of U.S. adults who are identifying as religiously unaffiliated across political and generational spectrums.

Regarding the political spectrum, from 1998-2000 to 2018-2020, church membership dropped by 12% (77% to 65%) among Republicans, 18% (59% to 41%) among independents and 25% (71% to 46%) among Democrats.

Change in church memberships for religious and nonreligious affiliations are becoming noticeable throughout generations as well. In the past two decades, religious affiliations for traditionalists (those born before 1946) saw a 7% dip (79% to 72%), baby boomers (1946 – 1964) witnessed a 6% decline (71% to 65%) and Generation X (1965 – 1980) incurred an 8% decrease (68% to 60%), while in the last decade millennials (1981 – 1996) saw a 13% drop (63% to 50%).

Meanwhile, nonreligious affiliations almost doubled for traditionalists (4% to 7%), baby boomers (7% to 13%) and Generation X (11% to 20%) in the past two decades. Millennials surged 9% (22% to 31%) in the past decade, while a recorded 33% of Generation Z have no religious preference from 2018-2020.

So what is the point of this data? Does this small, surveyed group accurately reflect the larger population of Americans? Unfortunately, it does.

Pew Research conducted a telephone survey from 2018 to 2019 and reported that 65% of Americans self-identify as Christian, which is 12% lower from the previous decade. However, 26% of the population describes themselves as religiously unaffiliated, a 10% increase from the previous decade. The reports of both groups—those identifying as Christian and those identifying as religiously unaffiliated—show a staggering pattern through their opposite trajectories, as younger generations form their own beliefs and older generations slowly dissipate. As the data for church membership across the country appears to be naturally declining, the COVID-19 pandemic—while a substantial factor—is not the sole factor for the decrease in religiously affiliated Americans.

Ultimately, who is to blame for this change, and who can fix it? Simple: the Church.

The demographics for the decline in church memberships are predominantly millennials and Gen Zers, based primarily on the advancement and diversification brought on by the 21st century. Technological innovations, racial diversity, nationalistic attitudes, social connectiveness and mental health issues are common factors that millennials and Gen Zers have experienced in their lifetime. Exposure to these developments allows church leaders to gather larger bodies of followers online, but how does carrying traditional practices online affect younger generations’ attitude towards the Church?

The Barna Group conducted a study about the spiritual challenges teens and young adults face in a “rapidly shifting culture.” The project concluded that teens and young adults perceive Christians as overprotective, antagonistic to science, exclusive in nature, judgmental about the topic of sexuality, exclusive to outsiders and unfriendly to doubters of the faith.

These characteristics poorly represent the Church, but, if the public perceives this exclusivity and prideful nature in it, then the Church needs to take action to counteract this narrative. To combat this negative image, Christians should become engaged with the public through their loving nature, sharing the gospel and faithfully serving on mission trips.

In John 13:34, the author commands us to “love one another” as a simple attitude to hold when spreading the gospel. The degree of love varies, but it is simple enough to practice when engaging with others.

At the end of its report, Gallup concluded, “Churches are only as strong as their membership and are dependent on their members for financial support and service to keep operating.” Reporter Jeffery Jones asserted church leaders must embrace the challenge of encouraging affiliated church members to become “formal, and active” in their institutions.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Hudson