empty pews

MILESTONE — For the first time since 1937, less than half of U.S. residents say they are affiliated with a church.

For the first time in the 80 years Gallup has been polling Americans about their views on religion, church membership had dropped below 50%.

Last year, half of those polled said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, but in 2020, the number was just 47%. In 1999, the number stood at 70%.

The question was first posed in 1937, a Gallup news release states, when church membership was at 73%. The number stayed in the 70% level until the 2000s when it began to decline markedly. By 2010, the number was down to 61%.

Church membership decline is linked to the growing number of Americans who express no religious preference, polling data concludes, noting 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.

This drop in those having no religious preference accounts for more than half of the 20-point decline in church membership, Gallup indicated.

Age is another factor, the most recent poll shows, with 66% of those born before 1946 belonging to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. Limited data for Generation Z indicates similar church membership as millennials.

“The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong,” the news release states. “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.”

Still, older adults are likewise pulling away from church, with each generation seeing a decline in church membership among those who do affiliate with a specific religion.

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.

“Declines in church membership are proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates,” the release states. “These groups tend to have among the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults.”

Over the past two decades, declines in church membership have been greater among Eastern residents and Democrats, with political independents having even lower rates of church membership.

Implications

The polling concludes 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.

“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,” the release states.

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