In a sobering Gallup Poll, the number of Americans saying that “they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque” has dropped down to 47%. It’s the first time that the number has dropped below 50% in eight decades, since Gallup started the poll.
There has been much discussion about the state of the Christian church in the United States, with some arguing that it’s dying and others that its thriving. A Pew Research study published in January showed that the net percentage of Christians hovers around 65%, which is a decline from 77% in 2009.
Glenn Stanton, director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family, argued in his 2019 book, The Myth of the Dying Church,” that while liberal, mainline Protestant churches are dead and dying, “biblical churches are either growing or have plateaued.”
Gallup Poll is the latest to weigh in and shows a startling decline in church membership over the last 20 years, dropping from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020. For the polling period between 1937, the first year the poll was conducted, and 1999, church, synagogue and mosque membership hovered around 70%, averaging between a low of 68% to a high of 76%.
According to the polling organization, this decline can largely be attributed to the increasing number of Americans who “express no religious preference.” The percentage of those people who don’t have a religious preference has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 21% between 2017-2020.
Much of this drop could be attributed to the decline in formal church membership, as the practice has largely faded from use, especially among younger generations. The poll reports that 66% of adults born before 1946, described as “traditionalists,” belong to a church, compared to 58% of baby boomers, 50% of Generation X and 36% of millennials. Though there is not enough data to report on Generation Z, it appears that their numbers are similar to millennials.
For younger generations, especially millennials and Generation Z, the percentage of the population without a religious affiliation is high, at 31% for millennials and 33% of Generation Z.
This drop is especially apparent in the Catholic faith, with the church seeing a drop in membership from 73% to 58% or 18 points. In the same time period, Protestants have also experienced a decrease of 9 points, from 73% to 64%. This precipitous drop occurred just in the last 10 years.
When dividing the polling data between men and women, in the last 20 years the percentage of those who are members of a church has dropped 46% for men and 53% for women, a decrease of 18 points and 20 points, respectively. Married couples have dropped by 13 points to 58% and not married has declined by 22 points to 42%
Gallup concludes by stating that “the U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship. While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, 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.”
In this study, there really isn’t any good news to gleam. The report is, overall, rather depressing, and it’s become clearer that what the United States needs is a spiritual revival.
Charles Murray, a prominent political scientist, said in an interview with National Review that “the American republic is unlikely to survive without another Great Awakening—or, at the very least, a revival of the religious values that the Founders depended on to undergird their experiment.”
That requires both consistent evangelism and parents dedicated to bringing their children up in the church with a strong faith that can survive the pressures of an education system dedicated to indoctrinating the nation’s youth.
Focus on the Family’s Back to School: For Parents guide.
Focus on the Family: Resources: Christian Growth for Children & Teens
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