Today begins a 4-part series “Churches in America.” In this first part, we’ll look at overall statistics. Tomorrow we’ll consider Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals. Thursday will cover three vital trends and Friday we’ll look at the Catholic Church in America.
The polls are in and the news is bad for the Church in America. Christianity is on the decline, Americans have given up on God, and the “Nones”—those who have no religious ties—are on the rise. It is indeed true that parts of the Christian Church in America are struggling, while a growing number of Americans are far from God.
As head of a research firm that studies the church and culture, I often tell pastors and other Christian leaders that “facts are our friends.” Surveys and other polls are a bit like running a series of tests during an annual physical. The scale, stethoscope, and blood tests don’t lie. There is no positive spin on your increased weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Research data gives us a realistic picture of our health—rather than the overly optimistic view we’d prefer.
What the Numbers Tell Us (If We Will Listen)
So what do the numbers tell us about the Church in America?
Overall, the Church’s influence on Americans is beginning to fade. A growing number of Americans have given up on God—or at least on organized religion. They have become “Nones,” a term popularized by Pew Research. And their numbers are growing.
Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape study, which surveyed 35,000 respondents, found that about 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2015, that number had grown to 23%, almost one in four Americans.
Gallup, another well-respected national firm, gives a wider view of the rise of the Nones. In 1967, Gallup found that about 2% of Americans—or 1 out of every 50—claimed no religious preference. By 2014, that number had grown to 16%, or about 1 in 7.
Pew has also tracked the decline in the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christians. In 2007, Pew found that about 8 in 10 Americans identified as Christians. That number dropped to 7 in 10 in 2014—a statistically significant change in a relatively short time. Pew also found that less than half of Americans (46.5%) now identify as Protestants for the first time in American history.
The Pew data demonstrates a consistent and noteworthy increase among Americans who are disconnected from faith. If this trend continues, and we have every reason to believe that it will, this portion of society will become increasingly prominent and perhaps even become a majority.
These studies show that American religion is in a period of slow decline, says Mark Chaves of Duke University: “None of this decline is happening fast, and levels of religious involvement in the United States continue to remain very high by world standards. But the signs of decline are unmistakable.”
Pew’s findings have led some to forecast the complete collapse of Christianity in the United States. The data, however, implies a more complex reality. Frankly, there is no credible research showing that Christianity is dying in America despite the flashy headlines we often see.
Instead, American religion is simultaneously growing and in decline. Fewer people claim to be Christians, but churchgoers—those who regularly attend services—are holding steady in some segments, and thriving in others.
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