A recent Gallup poll showing that church membership among U.S. adults has dropped below 50% for the first time in 80 years has religious leaders scratching their heads. They’re not so much wondering why, but how do we get them back?
A summary showing who actually left may help.
Gallup says that declines are smaller among Protestants, political conservatives, Republicans, married adults, and college graduates. And declines are steeper among Catholics and “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation in the first place.
Overall declines are from 71% in 1999 to 47% in 2020, with most of that coming in the past three years.
Membership among Protestants was down 9 points, from 73% to 64%, while Catholic members dropped 18 points, from 76% to 58%.
COVID-19 may have an impact, but pollsters were unable to say for sure, and they didn’t expect a big bounce back.
“Unless we want to be a regional group of Christians who only talk to ourselves, we’ll need to redouble our efforts in evangelism and church planting to engage an increasingly secular context,” said Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center.
As expected, younger adults showed higher declines: 66% of the WW2 generation belong to a church, but only 36% of Millennials.
Counteracting the downturn
In reporting its 2020 findings, Gallup turned to a 2017 survey for some answers. At that time, majorities cited significant factors in their church participation:
- good preaching (75%)
- kids’ programs (64%)
- community outreach and volunteer opportunities (59%)
- dynamic leaders (54%).
Gallup was encouraged that 7-in-10 Americans still say they identify with some religious affinity, even if not actual church membership. Does that offer opportunity? While Gallup didn’t call it evangelism per se, they concluded the future of the church depends on faith sharing.
“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 other words: witness and teach the importance of actually joining the local church.