change, Church Leadership, Churches, Culture

Why 9 in 10 Believe in God but not Church

June 9, 2011


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”.

godbelieveIt 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.

Do you have associate or assistant ministers in your church? Are you an associate pastor? Get a copy of my book, The Work of the Associate Pastor. This valuable resource will set associates and churches up for success.

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  • sattvicfamily June 9, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    fantastic article. I completely agree. I think some people have also become turned off of churches ( I am mainly referring to Catholic) because of clerical abuse ( as Deliver Us From Evil documents) and how many clerical abuse cases are covered up. I was raised Catholic, and found the particular church I attended to be hellish: the attendants were mean and hypocritical, and seemed they only went ‘because they had to’. It lacked life. I am now reading Forgotten God ( francis Chan) as well as More then just a good bible study girl ( Terkheurst) and I feel these two authors are passionate about their faith, at the same time as not being all ‘hell and damnation’.
    I think people are looking for community/church, but want an inclusive one that focuses on Jesus’s message of love and kindness versus the hell and damnation. People are dying to have spiritual fullfillment, on some level. They want to feel God loves them, and without a deep connection to a church ( of some kind) this can be a challenge.

  • Alan Rudnick June 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    sattvicfamily ,Thanks for your thoughts. Certainly the clergy abuse affected the Catholic church. For many in mainline protestant churches, we are seeing a death due to a discount in culture/values.

  • Laura June 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I grew up with church, it was a requirement every Sunday morning. The congregation was full of what we as kids referred to as ‘blue hairs’ (little old ladies with bad dye jobs). All my friends got to sleep in on Sunday mornings, so we were jealous of their freedom.

    As we got older, we were involved with the youth group so met more ‘kids like us’ (usually only a couple other kids in Sunday School, so we felt like freaks). Life was a bit better now knowing there were others like us.

    Young adulthood came and the need to experience other religions … and I didn’t like what I saw/felt. Hypocrisy and ‘hell and damnation, fire and brimstone, you are all sinners’ sermons. People going to church because it was expected and they then looked like pillars of their communities, but once out of the building, anything goes. Who needs a church to be a good person?

    In my 40’s now and still don’t believe in ‘church’ but I do believe in God. I do not subscribe to the religion I was raised in (lost that faith after watching my mom, a fervent believer in her religion, die horribly almost 19 years ago). I still can not abide being labelled a sinner or being told Jesus died for my sins. And I do not like how some churches have turned into places for people to showcase their musical talents … guess I’m old school in that regard.

    So, for me, I will continue to believe in God, pray my way, serve Him my way but do not see the need to enter a particular building ‘just because it’s expected’ …

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