For the first time in American History attendance of Religion Services has dipped below 50% nationally, currently at 47%. This is neither a shock or a surprise, but an opportunity.
Author’s note: The graphs used in this article are not mine, they belong to Barna and Gallop, if you want to see a more in depth look at the Barna research see: “Signs of Decline and Hope among key Demographics” from Barna’s State of the Church Blog. And the ChristianityTodya’s analysis of Gallop’s recent research read: “Gallop: Less than half Americans no longer attend religious services.”
Let me start this with a disclaimer, I have seen almost every take possible on the latest Gallop numbers, including people dismissing them and predicting a “Church attendance boom” in the months after COVID-19. Or I have seen takes that go the other direction and use the usual rhetoric of fear-mongering and culture war to predict that this is the end and we should hunker down and prepare for Jesus to return. Along that spectrum there are a number of different opinions that people hold, some of which make sense and some of which do not. I said on our God’s Heart Podcast in March, in regards to the Equality Acts, that this is what I would expect if the Church had routinely failed to live out the teachings and commands of Jesus in love, grace and humble service.
The same is true here: If The Church failed to live out its mandate over a long period of time then I would expect the Church to decline in membership as one generation failed to pass down the Gospel to another. Here are Gallops numbers over the last 60 years:
Barna paints a slightly different picture, as they classify adults who are active in their congregations and attend more frequency than those surveyed in the Gallop Poll
This is just among adults, look what happens when we add in all four adult generations living.
Note that the only demographic that has increased weekly church attendance in the last 2 years is the Baby Boomers (the yellow line). My own generation, Gen Y (Millennials) had trended up until 2018 and then started a steep decline. At the Heart we have had discussions about why that is and how we can reverse that trend, So far, the numbers out on Gen-Z show no signs of this trend reversing.
There is one more graph we need to consider that this is what Barna refers to as “Practicing Christians” who are defined as: “identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.” when compared with “Non-Practicing Christians” and “Non-Christians” who now make up the majority of the population:
Notice that the amount of actual “Practicing Christians” in the united states is not 47% but 25%, Twenty-Five Percent, that strikes me as a bigger problem than Religious Affiliation dropping below 50%. But at the same time, it has been true since the time of Constantine that the Churches numbers have always been inflated by nominal Christians, this was even true before Constantine, at Corinth, at the Church at Philadelphia, its nothing new, it has been around since the beginning. In America, we made a brand of this kind of mediocrity and sold it and now we are reaping the reward, God is spitting us out of his mouth, if you will.
It needs to be said as well that the Lifeway Research linked above and here shows that it is 18-29 year old’s who say that they will attend church more frequently after the Pandemic and Boomers who say that they will attend less or not at all. This means we will not know what the Pandemic will actually do to Church Attendance until 2022 or later. Baby Boomers are the largest generation in the nations history, they currently make up a majority of church attenders, if 1% of them do not return, it may not be enough to offset the number of millennials and Gen-Z who take their places in the pews. It also needs to be said that Baby Boomers are also starting to pass away, I have done 8 funerals in my first two years as a Pastor, I have not seen any national death statistics, but the largest generation beginning to pass away will leave even more empty churches in the years to come, especially if we do not reach the next generation and bequeath our churches to Millennials and Gen-Z, the Rural Church, already in crisis, will be devastated by this reality.
As a Historian though, this does not concern me, and it should not concern you. If we were to look at Church Attendance survey’s from Historical records I guarantee you we would see the same trends in Europe and Russia throughout the early 1900’s, execrating during the Post-War decades until places like the Czech Republic recorded a 5% church attendance rate during its last major survey. If you follow Pew, Gallop and Barna data you can also find that there are parts of the country where Church Attendance is either near or below 5%. For example, weekly church attendance in New England is currently hovering around 3%, but that is not the lowest number in the country, that goes to my home region, Appalachia, where the weekly attendance rate sits at…checks notes…1%.
But again, none of this surprises me, especially the statistics on Appalachia and New England, why? Not merely because I have lived there, I grew up in Appalachia and got married in New England during Seminary, but because as a Historian I recognize that these are two places where the Church has existed the longest in this country and the places where all the excesses and fights over religion took place in the wake of the various awakenings. Revivalism and unchecked Charismatic movements, the kind that laid claim to all the worst excesses of the movement, have decimated the Church. Churches that embraced Christian Nationalism long before it was a national problem in the Church and mostly learned the lesson the rest of the church in this country is learning now, the hard way, are now shells of their former selves. Churches that embraced Liberalism are also in steep decline. Churches that are thriving, like Park Street Church in Boston or Community of Love in Dorchester are churches with robust outreaches to the marginalized and downtrodden in their cities who have been forced to abandon the shallow theology of the Evangelical Marketplace and embrace the full council of Scripture. Churches which have clung to the “old way” in these regions are still in decline. These are just the facts of the matter, and the same is true on the West Coast, or will be in 5-10 years. It is also true that times of want tend to empty churches if the churches response is not one of service and compassion. In my region in Iowa in the 80s Church attendance declined rapidly and never really recovered, given the way many high profile Christians and even local Churches have responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic, I would expect the exact same thing this time around. Church attendance to decline again as people grapple with the reality that so many Christians did not respond to this, or any of the events in 2020, in a manner that is consistent with Biblical Truth or Historic Christian Practice. Instead of embracing the life set before us in Scripture, we have largely given into our worst impulses as Christians, in real life conversations and on Social Media, impulses that are supposed to be “Put away” from us as Paul writes, impulses of the Flesh, not of the Spirit. This is certainly not true of every Christian but it is true of many and it has been heartbreaking to behold.
Given these things, why are we surprised that the number of people who attend Church at least once a year or who belong to a Religious Organization of any kind has dropped below 50%? We shouldn’t be, if anything, we should expect this. The early Church grew precisely because the people who made up the Body mostly lived out the Gospel and those who did not faced corrective actions or excommunications (we have examples of both in Paul’s Letters). Arius faced consequences for his Heresy, Christian Leaders today are never held accountable and attempts to hold them accountable are often rebuffed. Instead the Church goes after those who try to speak prophetically from the scriptures, the ones who try to do what Jesus did, the ones who try to hold the religious elite accountable. We see this everywhere, including with the next generation of pastors who, if they are not complicit in keep Christianity shallow and American, are treated with contempt.
It should also be said that attitudes towards the church by regular attenders do not help. Church has largely become a place where we go to hear a nice message about nice morals and then have fellowship and go home, we devote maybe an hour to church a week, less if we can get away with it. Church has become something we consume, like everything else in our culture it is a commodity that we can buy, sell and trade. This is a fundamentally flawed attitude, the church belongs to no one but Christ and serves the purposes of no one but Christ. Those who try to claim ownership of her, who try to manipulate and forced her to serve at their whims are making the same mistake, falling into the same sin, as the religious elite of Jesus day. The Pharisees were comfortable, Jesus made them uncomfortable, they killed Jesus. The same patterns is lived out in our modern Churches today, Church members are comfortable, God sends someone to preach the full council of scripture, church members become uncomfortable and the church rises up and kills the pastor (sometimes literally). The unchurched living in our communities hear of these things happening and it only cements their bias against the people of God. The reality is, Church is not a club we belong to, but a people, a global community, a kingdom, we belong to. That kingdom knows no geographical of demographic bounds, we are part of the Global body of Christ, just one part, there is no solitary Christian or church, even among Congregationalists.
I will say it again, why should we expect people to come to our churches when what we offer them is no different than the world? When all that makes the Church unique and stand out is thrown out in favor or a comfortable nihilism? When Christians act as immature as they do? Is that a recipe for looking at us and saying: “Man, Jesus really offers these people something, I want in!” The answer to that question is always going to be a resounding “No!”
Let’s take one final lesson from this: Attendance is a poor marker of Church Growth. I say that because there is also Data that suggests that Churches which are in what are considered “Post-Christian” parts of the country are actually thriving. There was a Pew report on the New England Churches that found them to be “thriving” while a similar study on Midwestern and Southern Churches found them to be in a “rapid state of decline.” Why are they thriving? Because being marginalized has forced them to actually live out the Gospel in word and deed in their lives. They will not do it perfectly, but they are in a position where they have to or they will not survive. These churches are often smaller than you’d expect, but they are living as the Church and that is an important distinction. I once heard Derwin Grey tell Skye Jethani that :”Tumors grow too.” What he meant was that numerical growth often covers up a lack of spiritual growth. He would rather have a church of mature Christians than a congregation of 6,000 where none of them know The Great Commission (note, Barna has found that 51% of Christians have never heard of The Great Commission, let that sink in). Numerical growth should not be the basis for determining if a church is “healthy” or not.
So what do we do with this? One, we do not panic, as God winnow’s and chastises the Church we will see an even more rapid decline, or should expect to see one, until the remnant in left. But that remnant will have a much more robust and deeper and healthier faith because their faith will have grown up in conditions hostile to it. That is what is happening in New England and Appalachia, I am greatly encouraged by the faith of my own generation and Gen-Z, do both have issues? Of course, but their faith is much deeper and broader than the faith that Billy Graham quipped was: “100 miles wide and an inch deep.” I actually mentioned this to my wife yesterday as we were talking about putting our daughter in Public School. My faith was deepened as I studied the Scriptures in response to secular philosophies and teachings, not the other way around. I also grew up in a home environment that, for all its flaws, encouraged critical thinking and more importantly, biblical thinking. I learned the faith and I learned it well and many of my peers have as well, I also learned to defend the faith well.
But we should also take time to take a lesson from our brothers and sisters in the Black and other minority churches who have born the yoke of Persecution and yet have remained faithful, The Black Church in the United States has not seen the decline in numbers that the European descended Churches have. Are they perfect? If we are looking for a perfect example we will never find one, so no, but they have endured more in 300 years, from meeting in secret, to being forcibly removed for praying at the alter in Philadelphia, to Church bombings by the KKK, to the modern threats and examples of violence against predominately black churches. They have remained faithful to the Gospel and to the Lord. We can learn from them, and should learn from them as we find ourselves become more and more marginal in our society. We can also learn from our persecuted and marginalized brothers and sisters around the world. Those who daily believe and face torture, beheading and whose blood becomes the Holy Seed that first spread the Gospel. As we face minor discomfort by being pushed to the margins of society, we can learn how to live out the Jesus life in the Jesus way through watching those who have had to do it through the worst possible scenarios and kept their faith.
So let’s not panic, let see this as a good sign, the fields are ripe for harvest, there is a willingness to learn about what Christians believe and a desire for deeper community, wisdom and life than what we currently have in our secular culture. The church is only body on this planet that is equipped to offer all those things and more, and she does it through Christ and the Holy Spirit. But for that to happen, her people have to recommit to Christ and the way He showed us to live as “servants of all.”
Lord, help us become the people who are called by your name, now and forevermore. Amen.