The Church is Not "Plummeting"

Today, the Drudgereport linked to a Gallup Report today announcing that "Church Membership is Plummeting!" I will admit when I saw this story, it concerned me. I have never believed the sky is falling on religion in the US but the persistence by which the news and the general population announcing the end of religion in the US sometimes gets to me. But then I looked at the study and realized it is meaningless.

It struck me that membership is a strange way to assess the state of the church in the US. Some of the most conservative churches (evangelical church plants) have much higher attendance than membership (people attend, give, worship and pray but never formally become members) and some of the most liberal churches have higher membership than attendance (people got on the membership roles long ago but no longer attend).

So, dropping membership might even be a sign of health (people leaving old liberal churches for new conservative churches). Not saying it is (could also be people everywhere leaving the church). Just noting that membership is meaningless.

What is a better measure? Well, in the Christian faith at least, a key sign of faith is attending church (praying in fellowship, taking the sacraments, hearing the word, etc). Church attendance is not a perfect measure (you can go to church and have no faith or circumstances might prohibit a faithful person from attending) but it is much better than membership.

So what is happening with church attendance? Is that plummeting? Short answer is that it is not plummeting but has been amazingly flat for almost 100 years.

Let's look at the data. Gallup has been asking this question, 'did you attend a worship service last week,' since 1939. Now, people lie about church attendance (the real number is probably lower than the reported number) but there is no reason to think that people would lie more today (in fact, I think you could argue that there is less societal pressure today so maybe less lying). So, the data (whether high or low) at least can give us a trend. Gallup does not have all this data in one place so I had to collect it from a few places (here, here, and here). But I pulled that data and here is the chart from the data:

See the plunge? Neither do I. Church attendance has been amazingly steady since Gallup starting asking the question - hoovering just around the 40% mark. It drifted up a bit in the 1950s and 60s (probably due to the returning war vets all having families at the same time) but now sits about the same place it was in the 1930s and 40s and most of the 70s and 90s. It might be on the low end of that band but the lowest data point on the chart is in 1940. Also, it is worth noting that there is probably a several percentage point error range on these sorts of questions so the variance you see might be completely insignificant statistically.

So, the percentage of people in the country that are faithful enough to attend church has remained pretty steady. And in many ways, this is remarkable. Because there has been an implosion in church attendance in two areas: The Roman Catholic Church and The Mainline Protestant Church. The Catholic Church has suffered huge drops in attendance due to several factors. First, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the church de-emphasized the fact that missing church is considered a mortal sin (you go to hell for missing without a good excuse). Second, they made major changes to the services (going from Latin to English, changing the format and hymns, etc) that certainly bothered many attenders. Third, more recently, it is been plagued by bad press relating to sexual scandals. And this has had an effect, at least among the more nominal Catholics. Here is a chart:

Now that drop is significant. Catholics once had more than double the attendance of Protestants but now they have dropped below Protestants.

Another group that declined is the liberal Mainline Protestants (Presbyterian (USA), Episcopalians, EC Lutherans, United Methodists, etc). I didn't have Gallup data on this but here is a chart that shows the trend. It drops in more than half!

So, the two largest groups of Christians (Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics) had a true plummeting of attendance and yet the nation as a whole held steady. This means that conservative Protestants did heavy lifting on evangelizing (and making babies) to make up the difference.

And I think this also might explain the drop in membership. Mainline churches and Roman Catholics tend to have a emphasis on membership that conservative Protestant churches simply do not.

So, for Christians bemoaning this study as a sign that things are getting worse, take heart. For the haters who think this signals the end of Christianity, sorry to break it to you but it does not. What it might signal is the end of a nominal sort of Christian faith (the kind that is not particularly Christian at all but says 'Christian' when a pollster asks about religion).

Which, if you are a conservative Protestant like me, this shift is good.


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