Going…Going…Gone???: Church Trends


Perhaps not gone; but a new study of cultural-religious trends in the United States points to a seismic shift in U.S. Religious engagement.

Churchless, a new book by George Barna and David Kinnaman, draws on more than twenty years of research and more than twenty nationwide studies of the “unchurched.”

I read the book a couple days ago and strongly recommend it. Great material for an adult discussion group….The United States is undergoing a major shift in religious interest and practice. The findings (which resonate with other studies of religious trends) are a clear challenge to religious leaders. For an ever-growing number of contemporary Americans (and Europeans and others as well I suspect), the old theology, the old rituals, and the old institutional church structures just don’t communicate the good-news of Jesus anymore. Critical institutional leaders, I guess, can just dismiss studies like this; but they do so at their own risk….to say nothing about ignoring their vocation as messengers of Christ. The impact of what’s going on here will be far bigger than the sixteenth century Reformation.

The percentage of unchurched adults in America, since 1990, has risen from 30% to 43% of the total population; and the numbers are rising. It is a major religious climate change. The Barna study highlights five religious trends, which I briefly summarize:

1. America is becoming post-Christian.
Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian. In other words, in spite of our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. Traditional religion leaves them cold; and the younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is. Nearly half of the Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen X-ers (40%), one-third of the Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of the Elders (28%).

2. People are less open to the very idea of church.
Barna research suggests that the unchurched are becoming less responsive to churches’ efforts to connect with them. Barna’s tracking data stretching back to the 1990s reveals a slow-growing calcification of unchurched people toward churches. For every outreach method surveyed, the unchurched are less open to it today than they were two decades ago.

3. Churchgoing is no longer mainstream America.
Churchgoing is slowly but incontrovertibly losing its role as a normative part of American life. In the 1990s, roughly one out of every seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Today, that percentage has increased to nearly one-quarter. Buried within these numbers are at least two important conclusions: 1) Church is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to millions of Americans, and yet 2) the churchless are still largely comprised of “de-churched” adults: people who once found meaning in church but not anymore.

4. There are different expectations about church involvement.
Another intriguing shift among the churchless has to do with their expectations about church involvement. In the early 1990s, nearly 7 out of 10 adults, if they were to visit a church, would be most interested in attending the Sunday service. Today, weekend worship services remain the most common entry experience, but only slightly. Only 57% of churchless adults say they would be interested in attending some firm of Sunday worship. Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they would prefer attending some activity other than the Sunday services.

5. There is skepticism about the churches’ impact on society.
When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact. Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22%), bolstering morals and values (10%) and helping people believe in God (8%). Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18%), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15%), sexual abuse scandals (13%) and involvement in politics (10%).

Perhaps our religious leaders (at all levels) should stop telling people what to do and start listening to them instead. Start to really listen to them…..especially to young people….listening to their contemporary lived experiences and their genuine search for meaning and purpose in their lives.

We used to say Vox Populi Vox Dei: the Voice of the People is God’s Voice.
We just need to open our ears…….

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11 thoughts on “Going…Going…Gone???: Church Trends

  1. Thank you, Jack,

    Very timely. This is related to the very topic I am writing about these days. What is the role of the parish director of religious education (now called parish catechetical leader here in the US) in creating new models for parish faith formation. The models that we have been supporting for the past 50 years (school/Sunday school/CCD) are not meeting the needs of adults and families.

    Dan Pierson,
    http://www.eCatechist.com
    http://www.faithalivebooks.com

  2. Jack, not yet. I am working on it with a colleague together with a guidebook/resource for parish catechetical leaders. Your ideas and suggestions are most appreciated. Dan

  3. Very nicely articulated, John. The Church is an institution only secondarily, by consequence of the gathering of believers, whose witness to the good news in deed and word takes on continuity over time and space.

    Thank you for your thoughtful observation about our journey, torturously winding as it often is.

  4. Hi Jack,
    As a catholic educator and mother of grown parochially schooled children, I can verify that the numbers are probably larger than reported. One of my daughters shared with me several years ago this view, “Mom, my generation is just waiting for yours to fade away. The views of the Church towards gays and birth control are so ridiculous that we are embarrassed to even admit being Catholic.” She further filled me in on her disgust with pedophiles and then said,”Now tell me who is intrinsically disordered?”

    • Dear Vera
      I am delighted to hear from you……..Yes the younger generation of your daughter…and my son……see things very clearly and with no nonsense. A few days ago I was chatting with a group of university students, one young fellow, commenting about TV coverage of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, said when they are all dressed up and processing into the church they look like they are all set for Halloween……..

      Every good wish.

      Jack

  5. It would be interesting to have the survey people ask the churchless what they are or intend to pass on to their children as a belief system/organizing principle for life/faith or whatever one wants to call the ideas which shape one’s answers to what Guy Noir on Prairie Home Companion calls “life’s persistent questions”.

  6. My main concern in talking with my then teenage sons, as they were on the brink of adulthood, was to THINK before acting & “first, do no harm (to others or themselves)”…
    “What are the long-term consequences of your behavior as honorable men, who have so much to contribute to the betterment of the world?”
    They & I had been strongly psychologically abused by their fundamentalist religious father while he was married to me, so ANY religion as far as they had experienced it, had no beneficial impact at all.
    They continue to admit that some religious people are worthwhile, but since the leaders didn’t speak out against religious excesses done by the followers, then the institution is really not worth belonging to, since it doesn’t practice what it preaches.
    Can anyone blame their logic??

  7. An extremely important post, thank you, Jack. I will have to explore this book. But it is clear that there is a significant shift in church attendance. Mainstream churches in the US are losing members. My own ELCA began with over five million members and is now well below four. I was a member of the Dept. of Ecumenism, but the word “ecumenism” in churches today has gone the way of “aether” in labs. For example, nothing is heard about the WCC or the NCC in religious/social discussions. Instead there are attacks on critical thinking and the smearing of the Islamic and other traditions. I live in TX now and what I see is an explosion of mega-churches or the transformation of established denominational churches in that entertainment/self-congratulatory direction. Frankly it has become embarrassing to call myself Christian when the meaning of the term has become practically synonymous with anti-science, anti-gay, sexist and jingoistic thinking. The road returning to constructive leadership, creative questioning, self-examination and a dynamic, dialoguing community appears to be a long and winding one. Which, as a persistent pioneer, you already know!

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