Church membership in America hits historic low, new Gallup report finds

Photo: Getty Images/Cristian Bortes/EyeEm
Photo: Getty Images/Cristian Bortes/EyeEm | Photo: Getty Images/Cristian Bortes/EyeEm

The percentage of Americans who say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque has hit a historic low, a new Gallup report released Thursday shows.

The new report analyzing religious membership of Americans have found that an average of 50 percent of Americans in 2018 said they belong or are members of a church or other religious institution. This represents a 20-percentage-point decline in church membership over the past 20 years, and the lowest it has been since Gallup began polling the question in 1937.

Previously church membership reported being at least 70 percent or more from the years 1937 through 1976.

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For Democrats, independents, Hispanics and men, fewer than half report being members of a church or other religious institution, according to the data.

The new Gallup report published this week analyzes the organization's data from 2016 to 2018 based on telephone interviews with a random sample of over 7,688 adults from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The sample has a margin of error of 1 percentage point.

Gallup’s report compares the data from 2016 through 2018 to Gallup polling results from 1998 through 2000.

As previous polling has shown, the decline in church membership coincides with an increase in Americans who claim they don’t have any religious affiliation. The data also shows that Americans with a religious affiliation has dropped to 77 percent, down from 90 percent in 1998 through 2000.

Those reporting no religious affiliation has doubled from 9 percent to 19 percent in 2016 through 2018. Among those who claim no religious affiliation, 7 percent report belonging to a church.

As Gallup notes, the trend also coincides with a decline in church membership among people who do have religious preferences.

Gallup’s reporting from 1998 through 2000 showed that 73 percent of adults with a religious preference belonged to a church. But the recent polling shows that only 64 percent of adults with a religious preference report belonging to a church.

The Gallup report adds that low level of church membership among millennials (42 percent) is also contributing to such an accelerating trend because millennials were too young to be polled as adults in 1998 through 2000.

Additionally, 29 percent of millennials report having no religious preference, compared to the 14 percent of the baby boomer generation and 18 percent of Generation X.

“The percentage of millennials with no religion may be continuing to grow, as an average of 33 percent in Gallup surveys conducted in 2019 to date say they have no religious affiliation,” Gallup Senior Editor Jeffery M. Jones wrote in a report.

The number of Catholics who belong to a church has dropped 13 percentage points (to 63 percent) since 1998 through 2000, the data indicate. By comparison, the number of Protestants who belong to a church has dropped by only 6 percentage points (to 67 percent) over that time.

“I want to acknowledge this real decline in church membership, but also note that, according to Gallup, Protestant church attendance is virtually unchanged over the same time period,” Jeff Walton, Anglican Program Director for the Washington-based think tank Institute on Religion & Democracy, wrote on Twitter.

Walton posted an earlier Gallup polling chart that showed that weekly church attendance among Protestants has remained steady at around 45 to 46 percent in polling data compiled between 1983 and 2017.

“Note that Protestant church attendance is remarkably stable,” he explained. “Nominal Christians are ceasing to maintain denominational connections, but those who actually went to church are, for the most part, still going to church.”

The data also indicates that the decline in church membership has been greater among Democrats and independents. In the data from 1998 through 2000, 71 percent of Democrats reported belonging to a church. But in the latest reporting period, only 48 percent of Democrats said the same.

About 20 years ago, 59 percent of independents reported being church members. But in 2016 through 2018, only 45 percent said the same.

Church membership among Republicans, meanwhile, dropped from 77 percent in 1998 through 2000 to 69 percent in 2016 through 2018.

“Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party — and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion,” David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political science professor, told the Associated Press.

Forty-seven percent of men surveyed say that they belonged to a church in 2016 through 2018. By comparison, Gallup’s data from 1998 through 2000 showed that 64 percent of male respondents at that time reported belonging to a church.

Today, only 58 percent of women report belonging to a church, compared to 73 percent in 1998 through 2000.

Among the three biggest ethnicities in the United States, Hispanics reported the greatest drop in church membership at 23 percentage points, down to 45 percent.

Non-Hispanic blacks continue to be the most likely to report being a member of a church at 65 percent (a 13-percentage-point drop since 1998-1999). The 53 percent of non-Hispanic whites that report being church members represent a 15-percentage-point drop since 1998-2000.

The decline in church membership is most greatly experienced in the eastern part of the country.

The poll shows that there was a 19 percentage-point drop in church membership in the East, and a 16-percentage-point decline in the Midwest and the South. In the West, only 43 percent of respondents reported being members of a church, a 14-percentage-point drop since 1998 through 2000.

“The challenge is clear for churches, which depend on loyal and active members to keep them open and thriving,” Jones wrote. “How do they find ways to convince some of the unaffiliated religious adults in society to make a commitment to a particular house of worship of their chosen faith? Roughly one in four U.S. adults are religious but not members of a church, synagogue or mosque.”

Although millennials are playing a key role in the decline of church membership, Jones explained that roughly two-thirds of millennials who express religious preferences may one day be convinced to join a church as they “get more established in their lives.” He suggested that having families can be an “impetus to becoming a part of a faith community.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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