For the first time, fewer than half of Americans are members of a church

By Elias Miller
Boston University News Service

church interior

Americans belonging to a church are in the minority for the first time since Gallup started polling church membership nearly a century ago, according to their research released on March 29.

In 2020, 47% of American adults polled said they belonged to a church, including synagogues and mosques. While the numbers have been trending down since the beginning of the decade, these are the lowest figures yet, according to Gallup. 

In 2018, church membership in the U.S. was at 50%, down from 70% in 2000. Until then, that figure had been largely stagnating around 71% since 1940. 

COVID-19 regulations and the move to online could potentially wallop church attendance rates further.

With widespread lockdowns, many places of worship also had to switch to conducting services via video-conferencing services, potentially accelerating the declining trend in membership. 

“Like all churches, I think we’ve been kind of on a slow decline, year by year, for a number of years. But we’re still a pretty healthy church,” Pennsylvania-based Rev. Jeffrey Packard told the Centre Daily Times in December. “But honestly, I am not lying to myself or anyone else. I don’t really expect us to grow.”

Throughout the pandemic, the share of Americans who physically attend religious services has been inching toward normalcy. The number of regular church-goers who said they attended religious services in person in the past month increased from 33% in July to 42% in March, according to Pew research data published March 22. 

In that same time frame, those polled who said they watched services remotely dropped from 72% to roughly two-thirds.  

Gallup polled churchgoers on how they perceived the safety of in-person religious services during the pandemic.

Three-quarters of religious attendees said they were at least somewhat confident that they could safely check into in-person services, a more than 10-point rise from last summer. 

Religious affiliation is different from church membership — those who identify with an organized religion still form a vast majority in the United States, yet their rates are also at record lows. Like church attendance, religious affiliation is on a decline precipitated by younger generations, according to Gallup’s polls. 

Only 36% of millennials in 2018 to 2020 said they belonged to a church. That is in stark contrast to 50% of the previous generation and 58% of baby boomers in the same two-year time frame, according to Gallup. 

The polling outfit could not gather as accurate data on Generation Z, as the proportion of adults in Gen Z is limited. But, summary data based on those who had reached adulthood show rates similar to Millenials. 

“[T]he decline in religious affiliation … means that a smaller proportion of each subsequent generation is raising kids in religious homes,” Christel J. Manning, a professor and author in religion, said in Pacific Standard. “And those who do retain religion will often use a kind of ‘religion-lite’ approach, attending services sporadically and celebrating holidays as cultural events devoid of much of their original meaning.”

Compared with the two-year period of 1998-2000, before the plummeting rates, boomers dropped nine points in church membership from 67%. Generation X followed a steeper decline: 12 points down from 62% in 20 years. 

Manning said that the generation decline in religious affiliation, most recently shown in Generation Z, is not a show of opposition to religion but rather indifference to it. For many, religion does not occupy the preponderant role in their lives that it had for previous generations.

She also argues that an expansion in diversity also contributes to the downward shift.

“Exposure to diverse perspectives challenges the claims of any particular worldview, which is why people in multicultural, cosmopolitan societies tend to be less religious,” Manning said in Pacific Standard

Generation Z is more racially and ethnically diverse. In 2018, for the first time, non-Hispanic White U.S. residents made up less than half of the population under 15 years of age, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of U.S. Census estimates. Young people are connecting with peers who with different backgrounds much more. This versatility often leaves a dent in young people’s connection to their family’s religion.

Gen Z is also famously known as the generation to have never lived in a world without instant access to the internet. The internet provides a forum for encountering alternative or conflicting religious views or views that promote a departure from religion. 

Still, more than three-quarters of Americans adhered to an organized religion in 2018. While this is down from 90% at the turn of the century, it represents a strong supermajority of the U.S. adult population who have a religious affiliation. 

More religious Americans say their faith has been strengthened by the pandemic rather than weakened, according to early polling by Pew research.

Twenty-three percent of adults told pollsters their beliefs had grown stronger since the first declared case of the coronavirus in the United States, compared to just 4% who said theirs had grown weaker. A slim majority said it did not strongly change.

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