Three polls (by Gallup, Pew, and Barna) were published in 2021 which tracked church membership and religious affiliation among Americans. I will pick out a couple of salient plots from each poll, and comment at the end on their significance. The linked references can provide details on polling methodology.
Twice a year the Gallup organization quizzes Americans on their religious attitudes and practices. IN March, 2021, they released a set of results with the headline U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time. The chart below shows that membership in a church, synagogue or mosque was fairly steady at around 70-73% from 1937 (when Gallup first measure this) through about 2000. After 2000 there began a significant decline, which seems to have accelerated in the past few years:
A minor cause of this decline in membership is a decrease in the fraction of religiously affiliated people who actually join a church, synagogue or mosque, from 73% in 1998-2000 to 60% in 2018-2020. The more significant driver for the drop in church membership has been the increase in people who express no religious preference. The chart below breaks this out by generational cohort. This is probably the most significant chart from this poll. On the past twenty years, the percentage of “Nones” among baby boomers (born 1946-1965) rose from 7% to 13%, while among millennials (born 1981-1996) the percent of religiously unaffiliated is 31% and rising:
Thus, while in religious membership is dropping with time among all age cohorts, each new generation is less religiously committed than the one before.
The Gallup report notes:
Among religious groups, the decline in membership is steeper among Catholics (down 18 points, from 76% to 58%) than Protestants (down nine points, from 73% to 64%). This mirrors the historical changes in church attendance Gallup has documented among Catholics, with sharp declines among Catholics but not among Protestants. Gallup does not have sufficient data to analyze the trends for other religious faiths.
In addition to Protestants, declines in church membership are proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates. These groups tend to have among the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults.
The report concludes:
Continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults.
Churches are only as strong as their membership and are dependent on their members for financial support and service to keep operating. Because it is unlikely that people who do not have a religious preference will become church members, the challenge for church leaders is to encourage those who do affiliate with a specific faith to become formal, and active, church members.
While precise numbers of church closures are elusive, a conservative estimate is that thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year.
A 2017 Gallup study found churchgoers citing sermons as the primary reason they attended church. Majorities also said spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers, community outreach and volunteer opportunities, and dynamic leaders were also factors in their attendance. A focus on some of these factors may also help local church leaders encourage people who share their faith to join their church.
Pew Study Center
Pew published a report on religion surveys from 2007 to 2021. The overall picture is about the same as found by Gallup. The percentage of religious “Nones” (atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) among American adults nearly doubled from 16% to 29% in 2007-2021. Of that 29%, only about 4% (from another Pew poll) would identify as convinced atheists (i.e., God definitely does not exist); the majority of the Nones don’t take a position or don’t care. Self-identified Christians dropped from 78% to 63%, while “Other religions” held steady at 5-6%:
In 2007, Christians outnumbered Nones by around 5 to 1. Now that ratio is more like 2:1. The percentage of Protestants identifying as born-again or evangelical has held steady at around 60%. This poll shows that losses are much steeper among Protestants than Roman Catholics:
This result (i.e., that self-identified Catholics held nearly steady) contrasts with the Gallup result that church membership declined more sharply for Catholics then for Protestants. Perhaps many Catholics still identify as Catholic but are no longer formal church members.
George Barna’s American Worldview Inventory
The Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University in suburban Phoenix has started doing annual assessment of American “worldviews”, using half-hour telephone conversations with a nationally representative set of thousands of adults. This approach tries to drill down deeper into the nuances of what people believe, as opposed to just checking off a few choices. The study was directed by veteran researcher George Barna.
The full digital report from the 2021 American Worldview Inventory, “Millennials In America: New Insights into the Generation of Growing Influence”, can be downloaded here. That report can be referenced for how the various worldviews (e.g., Biblical Worldview or Moral Therapeutic Deism) are defined for the purposes of this study. Several individual portions of the study were released on line over the course of 2021. These will be referenced below.
The first release, America’s Dominant Worldview: Syncretism, gave a high-level look at the study results. The main takeaway is that most Americans draw from a variety of approaches in composing their overall worldview, rather than carefully thinking through matters consistently. Hence, by far the largest number (88%) of respondents are classified under “Syncretism”:
That said, most folks do lean towards one or another of these worldview positions, even if they do not hold to them consistently:
A substantial proportion of adults possess a moderately high number of beliefs or behaviors that meet various worldview specifications, but not quite enough to qualify as being a true adherent of that worldview. Examples of this include the fact that 38% of people have a moderately high number of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism beliefs and behaviors, yet just 1% are adherents of that perspective… About one out of 10 adults (9%) have a moderately strong set of beliefs and behaviors related to Marxism, Eastern Mysticism, or Nihilism, but an insufficient breadth of such beliefs and behaviors to qualify as being a true representative of any of those worldviews.
Release #3 of Barna’s study is titled The Seismic Generational Shift in Worldview: Millennials Seek a Nation Without God, Bible and Churches. Here is a key table showing shifts from one generation to the next:
The generation abbreviations and definitions are: Mill = Millennials – born 1984-2002; Gen X = Generation X – born 1965-1983; Boom = Baby Boomers – born 1946-1964; Builders – born 1927-1945.
I find some of these results a bit puzzling. For instance, more Millennials and Gen X’ers appear to believe in Satan than believe in God, and more agree that humans were created by God in his image than believe that the universe is created and sustained by God. (I don’t know, but perhaps some of these incongruities may be an artifact of exactly how the poll questions were worded and how they were presented in the poll interviews.) I was surprised that the endorsement of human evolution (“Humans developed over time from less advanced forms“) was as low as it was (53-54%) even among Millennials and Gen X.
At any rate, there is a clear step down in traditional Christian or at least theistic beliefs in moving from Baby Boomers to Millennials, and an equally clear step up in vengeful, intolerant behaviors. The agreement with “You try to get even with people who have wronged you“ jumped from 10-12% for Builders and Boomers to 33-38% for Millennials and Gen X. Likewise, the agreement with “You treat others as you want them to treat you” (which is the essence of Christian ethical teaching) dropped from 81-90% for Builders and Boomers to 48-53% for Millennials and Gen X.
Drilling deeper into more specific spiritual beliefs and practices shows the usual trends. There is a significant step down (from 70% to 57%) from GenX to Millennials as to whether they consider themselves to be Christians, and a big step up (from 31% to 43%) for “Don’t know, care, or believe that God exists:”
Barna commented on some of these results:
The family unit and traditional family practices have been reshaped, with some long-term, fundamental family ideals and practices outlawed. The responsibilities of government have been significantly broadened and transformed. The influence of the Christian church has diminished while the influence of arts, entertainment, and news media has exploded…
Millennials are leading the way toward the new worldview emphases in America. The research reveals that their rhetoric is often inconsistent with their behavior..Millennials champion the concept of tolerating different points of view. Yet we see in the research that their behaviors—such as promoting getting even, situational treatment of other people, or censoring specific viewpoints or policies—conflicts with their alleged embrace of tolerance and diversity… The attitudinal and behavioral evidence related to a variety of beliefs and related behaviors suggests that they are not a tolerant generation despite their self-image and public promotion as such.
This table from the fourth release of the Barna study is fairly self-explanatory:
From 1991 to 2021 the number of those holding an orthodox, biblical view of God (defined as the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe who still rules the world today) has dropped nearly in half, from 86% to 46%. While less than 0.5% adults affiliated with Islam in 1991, now it is 3% and rising fast. Some 5% of Americans now associate with an Eastern or New Age religion, which is more than double the proportion measured a decade ago.
The percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. who self-identified as Catholic was 59% in 1991, dropping to 54% in 2001, 45% in 2011, and tumbling to 28% in 2021. Protestant adherence among Hispanics has remained fairly steady in the 32-37% range, but the number of Don’ts (don’t know, don’t care, or don’t believe that God exists) has mushroomed from 3% in 1991 to 31% in 2021.
Some remarks by Barna on these results:
United States has become one of the largest and most important mission fields in the world. We are faced with a young-adult population that is breaking the established patterns; they do not embrace many of the core beliefs and behaviors that characterized those who came before them… This group is largely indifferent to the United States, and is demonstrably skeptical of the nation’s history, foundations, traditions, and ways of life. They are technologically advanced, sexually unrestrained, emotionally unpredictable, and a spiritual hybrid. Christian ministry as practiced for the last five decades will not be effective with this unique population.
Since “typical church services and programs are not likely to minister to people in the way they did in the past,” Barna suggests that new ministry strategies and tactics may be called for to reach the new population:
Because a worldview is developed when people are young, it is imperative that churches focus on and invest most heavily in reaching children and equipping their parents. Because the Bible is increasingly rejected as a trustworthy and relevant document of life principles, we must re-establish the reasons for its value and reliability. Given that most young Americans view success as whatever produces happiness or satisfaction, we will have to address the emptiness and inadequacies of a life devoted to self and our fluid emotions.
The sixth release of Barna’s American Worldview Inventory is What Does It Mean When People Say They Are “Christian”?. Although a large majority (79%) of American adults self-identify as Christian, many in this group hold views in conflict with traditional teachings. Only 9% possess a consistently biblical worldview (as defined by this study) and only 6% hold a biblical worldview and consistently demonstrate application of these principles:
This final table illustrates the answers that various self-identified subgroups gave for specific spiritual beliefs:
The narrative driving the faith of the self-identified Christian population, then, is not consistently in tune with biblical perspectives. It might best be described as acknowledging that God is real, powerful, and caring, and is worthy of worship and consideration. He is open-minded and tolerant. Our moral choices are important but primarily because of their effect on other people. Those choices are best influenced by human experience and personal expectations. If we invest in being happy, God will bless those efforts. Toward that end, the best advice we can live by is the wisdom developed and shared by other people.
Some thoughts on these poll results
There is a consistent picture across all three of the studies described here. Religious indifference has risen greatly in the past decade or so, while the fraction of Americans holding to consistent biblical Christianity, or even some watered-down version of Christianity, has dropped. This is not just a decline in nominal, shallow church membership, but also a drop in the percent of those holding to core biblical tenets. Declines in Christian commitment with time are evident in all generational cohorts, but the sharpest drops are from one generation to the next, younger generation. From Barna’s study, some 43% of Millennials “Don’t know, care, or believe that God exists.”
These trendlines seem to be relentlessly consistent, and hence we can expect a continued, significant movement towards secularization. America will become a mission field rather than a “Christian nation”. Where will this end? A reasonable guess is that the beliefs of the broad American public will come to resemble Western European levels of religiosity. Is this a terrible thing? Some secularists may breathe a sigh of relief to put all this religious nonsense behind us. We need to be careful what we wish for, however. Values that secular humanists prize, such as graciousness and honest truth-seeking are not an automatic part of the human condition.
At several points in the New Testament, the core interpersonal ethic is stated as treating other people the way you would like to be treated, and indeed, loving your neighbor (and even your enemies). Think of how our politics might look if all candidates and spokespersons genuinely loved the other guy, despite substantive disagreements on policy. Jesus and his apostles could be forceful in verbal argumentation, but they never endorsed violence or coercing people into becoming their followers. They valued truth and eschewed “peddling” religion for gain (II Cor. 2:17).
I am not prepared to argue it in depth here, but it seems to me that many of the winsome values of secular humanism derive from (the best of) the West’s Christian roots. As those roots are severed, it becomes harder to provide justifications for graciousness and honesty. One study here found a correlation between a decline in theism and a rise in vengeful behaviors (though of course that does not prove causality). Many observers note that we have entered a crisis in civility, where opposite sides just lob sound-bites at each other instead of dialoguing to look for common ground. Religious zealotry can certainly lead to hideous behaviors, but secular zealotry (fascism, communism, ethnic identification) has led to misery on whole new scales in the past hundred years.
Church historians in the past tended to view the takeover of the Roman empire by Christianity in the fourth century as a wonderful thing. Certainly it was nice for Christians to no longer face the likelihood of being mutilated and murdered by the empire. But soon enough, church and state became intertwined, such that Christian churchmen would endorse the empire using force to suppress “heretics”. The late medieval Roman Catholic church was notorious for wealth and corruption; Roman Catholic authorities were burning heretics to death well into the 1700’s.
Thus, it can be argued that a smaller, purer church may be a healthy development. For Christianity’s first three hundred years, there was little earthly benefit to becoming a follower of Jesus, yet the tiny, persecuted church survived and thrived. It may be that the American church will become reinvented in ways that can better appeal to today’s young people. There are some current church models that seem to be more successful than others. Or, as in the past, God could simply send a new wave of revival that would rapidly capture the hearts of millions.
Why these secularization trends have become established in the U.S., what the future implications are for church shrinkage and for social and political issues, and how the evangelical church can respond are all important questions, perhaps to be explored in some future article. Meanwhile, Christianity continues to grow in non-Western lands, particularly in Africa.