For the first time since they began keeping track in 1937, Gallup found that a minority of Americans (47%) are now members of a house of worship. This wasn’t really news to anyone who has been involved in a church in recent years. We’ve been seeing it every Sunday for more than a decade; they just keep leaving.
We could blame the new survey data on COVID-19 — and some have. However, if COVID plays any role in these numbers, it’s merely accelerating a two-decades-long trend that already had seen church membership decrease by more than 20 percentage points since 2001. The hard truth is, COVID or not, an ever-increasing number of Americans just aren’t going to church anymore.
It’s not just a Gen-Z problem. Yes, only about 36% of Generation Z adults are church members — 15 points lower than Millennials when they were the same age — but these trends cut across generational, geographic and denominational lines. Even among stalwart Traditionalists (born before 1946), 14% of church members have spit the hook since 2000.
If it wasn’t already clear before this latest survey, whatever is going on in most American churches isn’t landing with people the way it used to.
Admitting that there’s a problem is a crucial first step, but it’s only a first step. If churches are to thrive in the coming decade, they’ll need to understand the “why” by asking: What is going on? Why are so many people leaving church behind with the previous century? What is it that former members didn’t find in the houses of worship they left?
As with any question, there are plenty of opinions, but to me, two key statistics stand out.
First, in 2018, Pew Research found that the No. 1 reason people go to church is “to experience God.” In recent years, several Barna Research studies have found that most of the top reasons people leave churches can be distilled into one over-arching theme: They’re not experiencing God there. Is it possible they’re not going because they don’t take God seriously; they’re leaving because they don’t see us taking God seriously?
The second statistic evidences a broader disconnect that spans several issues. A 2019 Barna report revealed that while nearly 70% of pastors believe they are meaningfully engaging their congregations on matters of social responsibility, only 30% of 18- to 35-year-olds see it the same way. Obviously, there’s a major disconnect many church leaders don’t even realize exists.
“One way churches can learn to thrive in the coming decade is to glean from those outside traditional church structures.”
What can leaders do to reverse these trends? One way churches can learn to thrive in the coming decade is to glean from those outside traditional church structures. Informed by recent trends in the attitudes, doubts and concerns of former church attenders, many are building vibrant, life-affirming online communities that nourish faith in their adherents. Churches wanting to thrive in the coming decade should seriously consider what needs to change to do the same.
Take OurBibleApp.com, for example. It has changed in recent months, but the tagline used to be “Encouraging Believers of All Stripes.” This wasn’t just a slogan or a pipedream for them; this is how they operate. Black, white, indigenous, LGBTQ, Hispanic, Asian, disabled, and more — OurBibleApp offers a seat at the table for everyone.
As the world becomes increasingly diverse, the theological, social and political positions of church members are diversifying as well, whether or not church leaders recognize it. There needs to be a seat at the table for everyone going forward if churches are to thrive in the coming decades.
Or look at the online following forming around the podcast “Trans Regret Snoopy Presents the Bible.” On this podcast and anonymous Twitter meme account, Trans Regret Snoopy sits down with friends, fellow believers and doubters each week, reading Scripture, discussing faith, engaging in liturgical prayer practices.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest ancient liturgy as the way forward, but significant evidence is beginning to point in that direction. A 2020 Barna poll showed a greater percentage of Millennials than any other generation preferring contemplative or liturgical worship styles — one point higher than those born before 1946 and a full 11 points higher than their Gen-X elders.
Liturgy also may be good for the soul, rooting us in our ancient heritage of faith, something many find immensely comforting in a bizarre, constantly changing world. Through prayer practices that have endured for centuries, liturgy connects us, not just with the faithful around the globe but also with the untold millions who came before us.
Finally, look to Dan Koch, host of the “You Have Permission” podcast. Koch is at once annoying and endearing. He sidetracks, stutters, works through complex issues on the fly, and asks 10-minute-long questions that sound more like op-eds. In all of it, though, Koch embodies his “You Have Permission” moniker both on-air and in his patron community.
Overwhelming evidence shows people leaving churches (especially evangelical churches) over issues from climate change, racial justice and LGBTQ acceptance to the creation-evolution divide and presidential politics. Church leaders don’t necessarily have to change long-established views, but they will have to engage these kinds of issues with their congregations thoughtfully.
Simply put, if churches aren’t willing to deal with the implications of faith in today’s weird and complex world, most young people see no reason to stick around.
The world is constantly changing, and while that doesn’t mean God has to change, the ways we access and interact with the divine must shift to meet the challenges of a new decade. Churches unwilling to do this will continue to dwindle as an increasing majority keeps walking.
I have complete confidence that Christianity will survive the cultural shifts of the early 21st century, but whether the American church thrives is another question. The answer depends on if and how church leaders are willing to engage a new landscape of faith in the coming years.
Jason Koon is an ordained Baptist minister who writes at the intersection of faith and politics. He lives in Western North Carolina with his wife and two teenage daughters. His “Almost Ex-evangelical” blog is at www.jason-koon.com.