The American Church in Decline

By WES CRAWFORD

The headline of a March 2021 issue of The Washington Post grabbed the attention of many American Christian leaders by reporting that church membership in the United States dipped below 50 percent for the first time in this nation’s history. To put that statistic into perspective, the number of Americans claiming membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque had hovered around 70 percent since the founding of America.

In the year 2000, the number dipped into the mid-sixties, and since that time, a sharp downward trend continued, including a noticeable eight-point drop during the previous five years alone. Though alarming, this recent study does not surprise American religion scholars who have studied these trends over the past two decades. Since the year 2000, all such studies indicate a sharp and steady decline.

  • Gallup reports that in 2020 40% of Americans said religion was important in their lives (compared to 59% in 2000).
  • Lifeway research reports that 70% of churches are getting smaller or are plateauing.
  • The Pew Research Center reports the number of religious “nones” has increased by 30 million since 2009.
  • The Pew Research Center also reports that 65% of Americans identify as Christian (compared to 77% just one decade ago).
  • Lifeway research indicates that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant Christian denomination in America, lost nearly 300,000 members between 2018-2019.

Gallup polls, the Pew Research Center, and even Lifeway research all paint the same picture of Christianity in America. Succinctly stated, America is becoming less Christian. 

In an effort to soften the impact of such news, some have suggested plausible reasons for the decline of Christianity in America. Some blame the pandemic, advancing the notion that church membership and attendance declines have resulted from fear of contracting Covid-19 or the government shut downs of church buildings. In reality, however, the decline started well before the advent of the pandemic. Others suggest statistics such as these are cyclical, offering the theory that numbers always rise and fall. Studies of Christianity in America, however, do not support this theory. Religiosity among Americans has remained fairly consistent since the colonial period, and though church attendance and membership have fluctuated a percentage point or two during previous eras, America has never witnessed a comparable sustained plunge.

Religion historians and church scholars have written extensively on this subject in recent years, each one making valiant attempts to designate the root cause(s) of the rapid and steep decline of religiosity in America, including (but not limited to) the anti-institutional leanings of younger generations, an unhealthy partnership between the American church and political parties, the historic and present existence of white supremacy in the American church, gender exclusion in key leadership positions within the church, and an increase in the number of public church scandals. Each of these factors has certainly contributed to the current challenges of the church in America, and to this list could be added many others. 

Whatever the causes, Christianity in America seems to be following the same path traveled by Christianity in Europe generations ago. Situated in a once vibrant and deeply religious region, the massive cathedrals in Europe function more as tourist attractions than as places of worship in the opening decades of the 21st century. Recent studies suggest America may not be far behind their neighbors across the Atlantic.

One observer of American religion, Shadi Hamid, author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers insightful observations about the vacuum being created by religion’s decline in America. He writes in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The vacuum of religion can’t just remain a vacuum. Americans are believers in some sense, and there has to be structures of belief and belonging. The question is, what takes the place of that religious affiliation?” 

With this comment, Hamid opens the door to the field of American civil religion. Sociologist Robert Bellah first laid the foundation for the theory of American civil religion in 1967, and subsequent generations of scholars have built upon the idea that America itself has taken on qualities typically reserved for traditional religion. Until the United States of America arrived on the scene, civilizations found cohesion through their religions. Despite the many ways in which people in a given society differed from one another, religion served as the one, common factor uniting them together.

In America, however, no common or established religion existed; diversity reigned from the beginning. Lacking the connection that ordinarily arises from religion, Americans found cohesion through their common commitment to America. In such an environment, American symbols took on religious significance. Consider the “sacredness” of the American flag, the national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, and national holidays, such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Consider also the firestorms created when Americans dishonor one of these sacred symbols. These symbols have unified Americans by providing a common language and common objects of allegiance for an otherwise diverse population. Returning to Hamid’s observation, with the waning of traditional religions in the nation, American civil religion has grown and is taking the place of religious affiliation. 

Currently, more and more Americans are worshipping at the altars of the Republican or Democratic parties. Their allegiance to these ideologies resembles the dedication and devotion one would expect to find toward God. In fact, the ties of political allegiance are proving stronger than the familial bonds traditionally found in religious bodies. Just as religious passion has fueled the fires that sometimes lead to holy wars, political and nationalistic passions are leading people to battle against one another in America, oftentimes pitting Christians against other Christians. As religiosity in America wanes, one could surmise that many Americans are exchanging their loyalty to traditional religion with a loyalty to nationalism and political parties. 

Mark Noll, prominent American church historian, does offer some good news for followers of Jesus Christ. Even though the church may be experiencing a sharp decline in America, the church is growing exponentially in other parts of the world. In his book The New Shape of World Christianity, he writes, “More than half of all Christian adherents in the whole history of the church have been alive in the last one hundred years. Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now.”

In other words, though the church may be growing numerically smaller in the Western world (America and Europe especially), the church is expanding at an unprecedented rate in other parts of the globe, including South America and Africa. For the past 500 years, Christian missionaries have poured out of Europe and America into other parts of the world; today, scores of missionaries are pouring into these Western nations from Peru, Ecuador, Kenya, and Rwanda.

Church leaders seeking to respond to the challenges presented by empty buildings, decreasing financial contributions, and political battles in their own pews may find the most helpful answers to their questions not by looking back to the so-called “glory days” of the American church of the 1950s, when buildings were filled to capacity. Rather, perhaps they should look to their neighbors in the global South, seeking to discern and partner with the new things God might be doing in the world. 

Wes Crawford

Dr. Wes Crawford is an assistant professor of church history at ACU and director of the Center for Restoration Studies

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