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The decline of church attendance in America

Unsplash/Stefan Kunze
Unsplash/Stefan Kunze

There’s a charming old tale about three pastors hailing from the American South who found themselves sharing lunch at a quaint diner.

One of the pastors spoke up, a furrow of concern etched on his brow. “You know, ever since summer descended upon us, I’ve been grappling with a rather vexing issue at my church. Bats — countless bats — have taken up residence in our loft and attic. I’ve exhausted every conceivable method to rid ourselves of them — noise, sprays, traps, even enlisted the help of felines — but alas, they persist.”

A sympathetic nod passed among the trio as another pastor chimed in, his burden carried a similar tone. “Indeed, I share your plight. Our belfry and attic are overrun with bats numbering in the hundreds. I’ve resorted to extreme measures, even resorting to fumigation, yet they remain undeterred in their residency.”

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Then came the third pastor, a twinkle in his eye betrayed a hint of mischief. “Ah, well, I took a rather unconventional approach with the bats that plagued the heights of our church,” he said. “I performed baptisms on them, and since then, they only grace us with their presence during Christmas and Easter.”

Concerns about regular church attendance have always challenged most faith leaders. However, according to a recent Gallup poll, a decline in consistent church attendance is at an all-time low. The survey, conducted from 2021 to 2023 with over 32,000 participants, reveals that only 30% of U.S. adults are steady in their church attendance. Protestant churches and non-denominational groups were among the highest at 44%, while Catholics were at 33%.

Notably, there has been a significant drop over the past two decades, particularly among Catholics, whose regular attendance fell by a whopping 12%. The decline is attributed largely to the rise in Americans with no religious affiliation, which more than doubled from 9% to 21%.

Gallup anticipates that church attendance will likely continue falling, especially among younger Americans. The survey found that 35% of 18- to 29-year-olds have no religious preference or affiliation, with only 22% attending religious services.

In 1937, seven out of every 10 Americans said they were part of a church. And even in the 1980s, around 70% still claimed to have membership in a church. The current findings, however, should be alarming, not just for faith leaders but for the entire country.

Founding Father, John Adams admonished, “We have no government capable of dealing with an irreligious people.” Certainly, the demons howl when it’s said, but their loathing for the truth is what prompts their wailing. Nonetheless, the assertion holds as steadfast as the North Star: It is the religion of Christ that granted us freedom and provided America with unprecedented privileges in human history.

This assertion is not intended to promote what some have called Christian nationalism. Neither is it made in pursuit of making America some sort of theocracy. Such interpretations are misguided and baseless. Rather, it is a simple acknowledgment of the profound historical role Christianity and the Church have played in shaping the principles and values of our society.

To evaluate such impact, we need only compare the practice of Christianity with other religions in other places. For instance, examining the historical consequences of atheism or non-religion, one might consider the former Soviet Union and China, where totalitarian regimes have suppressed liberty and imposed strict controls. Similarly, Hinduism’s influence can be observed in India, where a hierarchical caste system has stratified society, determining individuals’ social status, occupation, and opportunities based on birth into specific social groups. Likewise, Islam’s effects can best be seen in Islamic nations, characterized by authoritarianism, terrorism, and unequal rights for women.

We hold no disdain for any of these religions. Everything good in them comes from God, because all truth belongs to God. However, as Alfred Tennyson aptly termed them, they are akin to “broken lights.” While they possess some illumination, they remain incomplete and flawed, incapable of engendering the cherished liberty and quality of life embraced by the Western world.

Derek Thompson, who is a self-proclaimed agnostic, recently wrote a column titled, “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust.” In the article, Thompson explores the declension of religion in America and its broad implications, more specifically, its profound implications for societal cohesion.

Thompson says initially he viewed the waning of faith in a positive light, due to his perceived shortcomings of religion. However, today he believes religion has acted as a stabilizing force against American hyper-individualism. He expresses he now has concerns about the way religion historically provided Americans with a sense of community, identity, and ritual for people, which with religion’s deterioration is diminishing.

The decline in religious attendance correlates with less face-to-face socializing, especially among young people and the working class, says Thompson. He adds the weakening of religion is leaving a void in communal activities, exacerbating the problems of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. The loss of religious influence with the rise of digital technology suggests that while smartphones, computers, etc. offer constant connectivity, they lack the embodied, synchronous, and collective nature of worship practices.

“I wonder if, in foregoing organized religion, an isolated country has discarded an old and proven source of ritual at a time when we most need it. Making friends as an adult can be hard; it’s especially hard without a scheduled weekly reunion of congregants,” writes Thompson. “Finding meaning in the world is hard too; it’s especially difficult if the oldest systems of meaning-making hold less and less appeal. It took decades for Americans to lose religion. It might take decades to understand the entirety of what we lost.”

These are very powerful words, especially coming from an agnostic!

It’s important to clarify that church attendance is not synonymous with genuine spiritual transformation (Hebrews 10:25). The primary reason for church attendance stems from a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ (Matthew 18:20). Mere attendance doesn’t automatically guarantee that someone is right with God (Matthew 7:21). Indeed, many individuals within congregations lack a genuine encounter with Christ’s redemptive power (this can sometimes include pastors, priests, bishops, deacons, elders), which frees them from both the penalty of sin and its control over their lives (2 Timothy 3:5). It is a certainty that whenever someone has actually experienced God’s saving grace, they are not characteristically averse to attending church regularly (Acts 2:42). It’s at church they know they’ll hear the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, which contributes to their spiritual growth (Romans 10:17). They actively seek community within the church, finding support and accountability for their faith journey (I Thessalonians 5:11). Additionally, it’s via the church they can engage in evangelistic outreach and missions, aspiring to positive change beyond their immediate circles (Matthew 28:19-20). Worshipping and serving God alongside fellow believers fosters a shared identity grounded in eternal significance, unmatched by any other affiliation (Ephesians 2:19-22).

A believer may occasionally falter morally or lose motivation, leading them to stop attending church for a time (I John 1:9). Still, a genuine follower of Christ does not desire to remain disconnected or isolated spiritually. Instead, they long to be united with their spiritual family and participate in the fellowship of believers wherever they gather (I John 3:14).

Years ago, a local pastor from my hometown paid a visit to my grandfather, knowing he seldom attended church. In those days, my grandparents’ home lacked central heating, relying instead on small coal-burning fireplaces scattered throughout the rooms. During winter, the coals would be carefully stoked, blazing brightly to provide warmth. Occasionally, my grandfather would use fire poker to stir the coals, ensuring the fire remained vigorous.

On the evening of the pastor’s visit, a stray coal rolled away from the others and onto the hearth. Observing this, the preacher pointed to the fading coal, its once-bright flame dimming with each passing moment. As the coal cooled, it turned black and lifeless, eventually cool enough for the preacher to handle. With insight, holding the coal in front of my grandfather, he said: “This is what happens to spiritual life and virtuous living without regular church attendance. Inevitably, it becomes dull and listless, emotionally disconnected and morally indifferent.”

As it is for the individual, so it is for the nation.

The serious decline in church attendance, whether complete absence or sporadic participation limited to Christmas and Easter, is not just an individual concern anymore; it’s evolving into a matter of national security, reflecting broader societal shifts and potential consequences for the nation’s survival.

Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.

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