While America remains a highly religious nation with seven in 10 claiming affiliation with some kind of organized religion, for the first time in nearly 80 years, fewer than half of them now say they have formal membership in a specific house of worship, according to a new Gallup analysis.
In 1937, says Gallup, when they first measured formal membership in houses of worship, some 70% of Americans had formal church membership and that measure remained steady for the next 60 years until it began a steady decline in 1998. In 2020, formal membership in houses of worship stood at 49%.
The Washington, D.C.-based analytics and advisory company was able to highlight several factors for the decline through responses from more than 6,000 U.S. adults each time across three-year aggregates from 1998 to 2000, 2008 to 2010, and 2018 to 2020 when formal membership in houses of worship first dipped below 50%.
One of the biggest factors Gallup found strongly correlates with church membership is age. Some 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — have formal membership in a church, compared with 58% of Baby Boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. Current but limited data on members of Gen Zers who've already reached adulthood suggest their church membership rate is similar to millennials.
The analysis also pointed to the growing number of Americans who express no religious preference. In the last 20 years, the share of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998 to 2000 to 21% in the last three years. Only 4% of people from this group said they held formal membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. Between 1998 and 2000 that figure was 10%.
“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,” wrote Gallup Senior Editor Jeffrey M. Jones.
“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,” he added.
Among religious groups, Catholics suffered the steepest decline over the periods measured dropping from 76% to 58%. Protestants fell 9% from 73% to 64%.
The data also showed that declining church membership in the last two decades was greater among Eastern residents and Democrats.
Political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates experienced lower declines and tended to have higher rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic black adults, Gallup said.
In his analysis of data from the General Social Survey of five-year windows in which individuals were born spanning from 1965 to 1984 and published by the Barna Group in 2019, Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and pastor of First Baptist Church of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, showed that younger generations raised in the church weren’t typically returning to church when compared with members of the “Baby boomer” generation born between 1945 and 1964.
For anyone concerned with church growth, Burge says, “this should sound an alarm.”
“Many pastors are standing at the pulpit on Sunday morning and seeing fewer and fewer of their former youth group members returning to the pews when they move into their late-20s and early-30s. No church should assume that this crucial part of the population is going to return to active membership as their parents once did,” he explained.
“The data is speaking a clear message: the assumptions that undergirded church growth from two decades ago no longer apply. If churches are sitting back and just waiting for all their young people to flood back in as they move into their 30s, they are likely in for a rude awakening. Inaction now could be creating a church that does not have a strong future,” he added.