The Big News That’s No News: U. S. Church Membership Falls Below 50%

How do we find “truth” about what’s going on in our confused & confusing society?

One source many often turn to for answers is public polls. If a big time pollster says something is happening, many of us still choose to believe it must be so.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the decline in U. S. Church attendance & membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Gallup is just out with a report saying it’s happening, on a major scale. So if there’s a poll behind such an assertion, it must be true:

Gallup: “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.

In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

U.S. church membership was 73% in 1937 when Gallup first measured it. It stayed near 70% through 2000 before beginning to decline, to 61% in 2010 and 47% in 2020.. . .”

Now, to bolster a poll’s credibility, charts & graphs are important, and Gallup’s new report has a bunch. We’ll settle for one:

Going down, sure enough.

And when an alert reader has any remaining doubts, if major media picks up the poll story, that usually nails it.  And here, right on time, is the Washington Post on March 30, 2021:

“In recent years, research data has shown a seismic shift in the U.S. population away from religious institutions and toward general disaffiliation, a trend that analysts say could have major implications for politics, business and how Americans group themselves.”

All very intriguing, unless you’re a pastor or rabbi wondering if you’ll still have a job in a year or two (short answer: sure you will; probably two, or three, one of which may be delivering pizzas).

The pollsters’ knowledge machine breaks down, at least in this case, when the reporting turns from bean-counting and trend-charting to the question of “WHY is this happening? (Or more accurately, NOT happening?)

At this point, we begin to confront what polls are often a substitute for— something not so easily reducible to numbers, or even data: the genuine mysteries of the human heart.

It was the 17th Century polymath Blaise Pascal, no mean bean-counter himself, who insisted that “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know….” And neither, in many cases, do the pollsters or the pundits.

Ryan Burge: church membership is dropping because. . . .

Gallup, despite its charts & graphs, has little more to offer by way of explanation than the pundits who were contacted by the Post. One such is Ryan Burge, a Baptist pastor and a professor of sociology, put it thus:

“Burge said many Christians still attend church but do not consider membership to be important, especially those who attend nondenominational churches. But no matter how researchers measure people’s faith — such as attendance, giving, self-identification — Americans’ attachment to institutional religion is on the decline.”

Which is all very well, until we realize it’s no more than a rephrased repeat of Gallup’s message: numbers are down because more people aren’t going.

Other observers are quick to use the polls as a mirror, reflecting their own preferences:

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued in a recent essay for the Atlantic that what was once religious belief has been replaced by political belief in many communities.
 On the political right, he said in an interview, conservative Christians focused on Trump as a political savior rather than focusing on their traditional questions of morality.. . .”

And on the left, liberals are uncovering a Woke Jesus, who turned the Last Supper into an intersectional anti-racist seminar and Me-Too session to answer Twitter charges that he may have harassed the woman at the well.

I jest, rudely. But the point, and the mystery, remain. More & more Americans are abandoning church, or not even that, just bypassing it entirely.

Will that trend continue?  Sure looks like it; but as that pioneering pollster Yogi Berra concluded after a distinguished career in base path research, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”  (Remember the presidential polls in 2016? Or the pollsters’ confidence about the 2020 “Blue Wave”?)

And for that matter, real explanations for why Americans are increasingly done with God and religion are still, unlike polls, in very short supply.

Meanwhile, as we’re considering outlandishly “unscientific” possibilities, could it be that the most unscientific object of all, “God,” is tired of our American churches, and is going back to the divine drawing board for a thorough redesign and, er, “rebranding”?
After all, something like that happened to Judaism after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans; and to Jesus’ followers following the crucifixion. Then there was the Reformation. (Not to mention “New Coke”, and other saviors.)

When will the polls figure that one out for us?



2 thoughts on “The Big News That’s No News: U. S. Church Membership Falls Below 50%”

  1. Unfortunately, US Church membership had come to be connected with being a right-wing nutcase. When I fill out surveys, I’ve yet to see any of the more liberal churches on the checklist, so it may be under-represented.

  2. I really do have a hard time being unhappy with this news. I love my meeting and it’s work, but we are almost all now over 60 and I for one don’t see anyone who wants to do what we did. I loved our events as a kid especially the work camps and camping trips almost all of us participated in, but just organizing a camp-out now requires a team of logistic specialists and way to much patience. sigh. Love Ben

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