For the first time since it began its survey eight decades ago, Gallup finds that fewer than half of Americans have a formal membership in a local church.
“The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship,” Gallup said.
The survey, which began in 1937, found only 47% of Americans have a formal membership in a church.
“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.
“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.”
In his “Washington Secrets” column, the Washington Examiner’s Paul Bedard wrote: “Even with Easter less than a week away, America just isn’t into churches anymore.”
While every subgroup that Gallup assessed “suffered declines in church membership,” the group with the highest remaining was Republicans, at 65%.
Only 46% of Democrats claim to be members. Liberals were at only 35%.
Church membership was 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. In the 1950s, it was in the range of 76%. It was at or near the 70% level for nearly six decades.
“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years,” Gallup said.
“As would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, although a small proportion – 4% in the 2018-2020 data – say they do. That figure is down from 10% between 1998 and 2000.”
Gallup said: “Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists – U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.”
Church membeship is changing along with changes in demographics.
Older generations likely to be church members are being replaced with younger generations who are less likely to belong.
“The change has become increasingly apparent in recent decades because millennials and Gen Z are further apart from traditionalists in their church membership rates (about 30 points lower) than baby boomers and Generation X are (eight and 16 points, respectively). Also, each year the younger generations are making up an increasingly larger part of the entire U.S. adult population.”
Even people who say they have a religious preference are dropping out of churches.
“Currently, 31% of millennials have no religious affiliation, which is up from 22% a decade ago. Similarly, 33% of the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood have no religious preference,” Gallup said.
“Among religious groups, the decline in membership is steeper among Catholics (down 18 points, from 76% to 58%) than Protestants (down nine points, from 73% to 64%). This mirrors the historical changes in church attendance Gallup has documented among Catholics, with sharp declines among Catholics but not among Protestants,” the report said.
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