In the western world, churches, in particular Christian churches, are showing a general decline in attendance and membership. There’s much hand wringing within those denominations most affected; reports are being prepared, and great plans are being made to try to stem the tide, but I am not yet convinced the people in these organizations have the self-awareness to overcome the trend.
The Facebook response to a recent article I posted in a conservative United Methodist discussion group really brought this home for me, and helped me congeal my thoughts on this subject.
Stats aren’t all that fun, but I think it is necessary to give some background on what is happening that’s causing this concern. The overall number of people who are religiously affiliated has, according to Pew Research, not changed all that much between 2007 and 2015.1 However, according to their most recent “Religious Landscape Study, “A growing share of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, including some who self-identify as atheists or agnostics as well as many who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Altogether, the religiously unaffiliated (also called the “nones”) now account for 23% of the adult population, up from 16% in 2007.”2
Perhaps most important is that these “nones” are growing less religious, and the pace of that change is increasing. The Pew Study reports the following:
“For example, the share of religious “nones” who say religion is “very important” in their lives has declined by 3 percentage points in recent years, and the share saying religion is “somewhat” important in their lives has declined by 4 points. Meanwhile, the share of religiously unaffiliated adults who say religion is either “not too important” or “not at all important” to them has grown by 8 percentage points since 2007. Roughly two-thirds of the “nones” now say religion is of little importance in their lives, up from 57% in 2007.”3
There is some shift in those who are remaining affiliated with a denomination. Churches are wrestling with issues such as welcoming LGBT people, abortion, global warming and issues of equality and social responsibility. Most have been slow to change, and these are the reasons younger people are no longer interested in being affiliated with churches. This talked about by David Kinnaman, Barna Group president and author of the book, “UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity.” According to Kinnaman:
“The vast majority of non-Christians — 91% — said Christianity had an anti-gay image, followed by 87% who said it was judgmental and 85% who said it was hypocritical. Such views were held by smaller percentages of the active churchgoers, but the faith still did not fare well: 80% agreed with the anti-gay label, 52% said Christianity is judgmental, and 47% declared it hypocritical.”4
So younger adults are leaving because most denominations have been slow to change, but as these churches have begun to change, older, more conservative adults are leaving them to go to more conservative churches and denominations. This has led many conservatives and evangelicals to claim the problem is churches are becoming too progressive. The thinking is, look at which churches are growing, and you’ll realize you should be even more conservative in your theology.
While that might have a short-term benefit, it’s not a long-term solution. If one gives a more careful look at the statistics, it’s easy to see that this group older demographic is going to decline through death, and those churches will not have younger people coming to back-fill the pews. Pew Research says it this way:
“As noted above, this is the second report on the results of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The first report, published in May 2015, focused on the changing religious composition of the U.S. public. It documented the continued, rapid growth of the religiously unaffiliated population and described the importance of generational replacement in driving the rise of the “nones.” As older cohorts of adults (comprised mainly of self-identified Christians) pass away, they are being replaced by a new cohort of young adults who display far lower levels of attachment to organized religion than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did when they were the same age.”5
All of this is posted to help stop, in its tracks” the argument that the real problem with church attendance is that church isn’t conservative enough.