Many in the religious right have been running for the hills because this “godless” nation has become too secular. The rhetoric of our nation’s direction is flawed by the growth of atheists and secularists is over played. It seems a recent Gallup study confirmed what has simply is unknown to many: We are still a religious nation. More than 9 in 10 Americans still say “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?” Perhaps even more encouraging is that 84% of 18-29 year-old segment and 94% of 30-49 year-old segment answered in the affirmative.
And this is not a statistical bump, but historically, since 1943, the vast majority of Americans believe in “God”.
It would seem that we are still a religious nation, but obviously church leaders want to know how many of those 90 plus percent are Christian. Logically, many ask the question, “If we are such a God-believing country, then why is church attendance so low?”
In reality, since the 1960’s, mainline church membership and attendance has slid but the belief in God has been fairly consistent. Does that mean a disconnect exists? Many Christians believe this has always been a strongly Christian, Bible-believing, and church attending country. Well, sort of.
Almost 78% of the people in this country claim to be some brand of “Christian”.
There is a myth within church life that Americans have always been strong church attending people, except in the last 20-30 years. While there were periods of high church attendance and membership, there were also low watermarks. John Lamont, who wrote an article in First Things in April 2010, explains:
During the [American] Revolution, less than one-fifth of Americans claimed church membership. By the mid-19th century, one-third did so. Today, more than half are church members, and approximately 40 percent attend church once a week (a number that has remained fairly constant since at least the 1930s.
What about the last 75 years? Here we find Gallup’s 74 year tend of church membership:
In the 1937 Gallup Poll, for example, 73% of Americans said they were church members. That number stayed in the 70% range in polls conducted in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. By the 1970s, however, the number began to slip below 70% in some polls, although as recently as 1999, 70% said they were church members. Since 2002, self-reported church membership has been between 63% and 65%.
Based on these statistics, our church membership is stronger than other periods in our nation’s history. Yes, mainline denominations have taken the biggest hit in church membership and attendance, but both Protestant and Catholic churches are not seeing the lowest historical metrics based on percentage. It seems that our perception of this godless nation is not as grave as we thought, but the fact remains the relevance of “church” has changed.
Why have people lost their faith in “church”?
Today, many people just do not believe in “church”. They are burned out, uninterested, or do not see an application to their life that compels them to belong to a church. Many of our
mainline churches are structured, cultured, and organized using 1950’s institutional religious lens. Many churches die because they are not able to write the next story in the congregation’s life because they are too focused on the great “church of yore” instead of the great church of the future.
Postmodern people have lost faith in “church of yore”, but not the idea of church.
For those churches who haven’t changed much in the last 60 years, they will continue to dwindle. For those established mainline churches who woke up in the 1980’s and 1990’s, they most likely have more vibrate ministries. Newer churches have a better chance at growing because they did not have to reinterpret their setting in culture because that church was born our of a contemporary culture. Or, the churches who had the leadership to constantly think about and implement the vision and mission of the church year by year will stay strong.
People believe in those churches.
The challenge for older churches is to help the leadership understand it is not about being stuck in who we were (although it is important to honor the past) but to talk about who the church wants to become. We must affirm the past in order to move toward God’s faithfulness towards the future of the church.