The headline in Christianity Today is shocking: Gallup: Fewer Than Half of Americans Belong to a Church. How can that be when somewhere between 70-80% of the population claims to have some religious affiliation? Ultimately, what does it say when fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church?
To be sure, the largest group of Americans is Christian – and yes, I do include Catholics as Christians. I know some will disagree with me, but sorry, that’s what I believe. In any case, the number does include Jews and Muslims.
Certainly, 50% of the people in America belonging to a church isn’t a good number. That’s not good for any country! Well, maybe for someplace like China or North Korea, where people risk their very lives by even attending a church, let alone officially joining one. But we’re talking about a country where there’s no penalty to pay at all for going to church.
Fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church – is it really that bad?
Is it really so awful that fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church? Let’s consider a couple things.
Look at the image of the glass above. Obviously, 50% is halfway between full and empty. We often look at 50% and then judge based on our own feelings. Some say the glass is half-full. So that’s a good thing. Others say the glass is half-empty. That’s a bad thing.
But this isn’t about personal feelings. This is about trends. Are we actually going towards full? Or is the number actually going down, towards empty? The sad truth is – we’re going down. Rapidly. As the CT article points out:
Forty-seven percent of Americans now say they belong to a house of worship, down from 70 percent in the mid-1990s and 50 percent in 2019. The decline is part of a continued drop in membership over the past 20 years, according to Gallup data.
The polling giant has been measuring church membership since 1937 when nearly three-quarters of the population (73%) reported membership in a house of worship.
For much of that time, membership remained at about 70 percent but began to decline after 1999. By the late 2000s, membership had dropped to about 62 percent and has continued to fall.
Those numbers are most definitely not good! We were steady in the 70+% range for a long time. But now, over the last 20 years, we dropped below 70%. Dropped through the 60-69% range over the course of about twenty years. And then blasted through the 50-59% range in a mere 10 years! And now we’re under 50%. There’s just no way to say this isn’t bad news.
What does it say about us when fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church?
First, let’s see what CT said about the numbers.
The decline in membership coincides with the rise of the so-called “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation. Gallup reports about one in five Americans (21%) is a none—making them as large a group as evangelicals or Catholics. Other polls put the number at closer to 30 percent.
Few nones belong to a house of worship, Gallup found.
“As would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, although a small proportion—4 percent in the 2018–2020 (survey)—say they do,” the report from Gallup states. “That figure is down from 10 percent between 1998 and 2000.”
Gallup also found a decline in membership at churches, synagogues, and mosques among religious Americans, who make up about 76 percent of the population. In the time frame from 1998 to 2000, about three-quarters (73%) of religious Americans were members of a house of worship. That number has fallen to 60 percent.
Church membership is down across religious groups, but Catholics saw a bigger drop (76% to 58%) than Protestants (73% to 64%).
As I said, the numbers aren’t good. The question arises, if “religious” Americans aren’t going to church, where are we learning about God? This site is about how it can be hard to find God in “religion”. But the solution isn’t to avoid religion! The solution is to get through all the noise and find God within the church! Jesus told us this.
Are too many religious people staying away from church?
We can’t really know why, but there must be a reason why the so-called “nones” are increasing. And let’s not forget about the “spiritual but not religious”. Why are these numbers going up? Is part of the reason that people are turned off by “organized religion”? I suspect that’s very likely. And I wonder if part of the reason isn’t something Jesus actually warned us about!
One instance is in a parable about yeast. Lots of people baked for the first time over the past year, thanks to COVID. But still, people today aren’t as familiar with yeast as they were in Biblical times. With that in mind, here’s Matthew’s recording of the parable about The Yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Mt 16:5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Mt 16:7 They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
Mt 16:8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Can we really understand what Jesus said if we stay away from “church”?
Remember what I said about people back then being more familiar with yeast? The Jewish people had special Laws about leavened and unleavened bread because of the Passover. Passover celebrates the final event that led to the Israelites’ freedom from slavery under Pharaoh, when they were required to bake unleavened bread. Leavened bread rises because of the yeast in it – like our common white breads today. On the other hand, unleavened bread has no yeast, so it doesn’t rise. It’s like flatbreads bread today.
But, even with the concern over yeasted and unyeasted bread, the disciples didn’t make the connection. How much less likely is it then that people today will know why Jesus spoke about yeast? This one example alone is a good reason for going to a church – so we can get information like this to gain a more complete understanding of what Jesus said and the meaning behind His words.
However, within the context of using yeast to talk about the words of the Pharisees and Sadducees, we see something else. Jesus is warning that the Jewish leaders back then added all sorts of things to the Jewish Law. Things way beyond what God told Moses. To give an idea of how bad it was, here’s a passage from Matthew titled “Seven Woes” in the NIV.
23:1-7 pp — Mk 12:38, 39; Lk 20:45, 46
23:37-39 pp — Lk 13:34, 35
Mt 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
Mt 23:5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
Mt 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Mt 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
[Mt 23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”] Is not included in the NIV, but is in some other translations. It would, of course, make eight woes. <fn>New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Mt 23:14). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.</fn>
Mt 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Mt 23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
Mt 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Mt 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Mt 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Mt 23:29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
Mt 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.
Mt 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”
Do you see my point? Is what we’re seeing now actually the result of people realizing there’s something wrong with what’s being taught in too many of today’s churches, but then walking away from “church” to find another source for learning about God? Or, has it even gone so far, the “yeast risen so much”, that otherwise religious people are just walking away from God entirely? If so, it’s a tremendous, and incredibly sad, victory for Satan. And an unspeakable loss for those who walk away.
Is there a way to increase church membership?
Let’s look at one more excerpt from CT. There’s one important item in it. And one, let’s call it unfortunate, item as well.
“Churches are only as strong as their membership and are dependent on their members for financial support and service to keep operating,” said the report. “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.”
A solution to people leaving the church or a cause?
Let’s deal with the unfortunate thing first. Money is brought up. I admit, there were times when I was really fed up with the number of sermons about the church needing more money. It often felt like the only topic. Nothing on what Jesus taught. Just telling us we weren’t giving enough. When there’s a discussion on people leaving the church, this money issue seems more like a possible cause of the problem. Spending more time and more sermons on getting people to formally join a church to get them to give more just seems counterproductive.
Isn’t it better to have a church where people really can learn about God, and will want to join because of that? Giving will follow, because there’s something worth giving to. Giving more to hear more sermons about why we should give even more is kind of like paying for cable TV and then having to watch commercials on the CABLE TV we already paid for!
A real solution to fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church?
Yes, churches are only as strong as their members. Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but isn’t it better to first strengthen the members, then the strength of the church will increase? And by strengthen the members, I mean strengthen their faith, not strengthen their giving. To that end, let’s examine a passage the NIV titles “Warning Against Falling Away”. It seems very appropriate for our topic.
6:4-6 Ref—Heb 10:26-31
Heb 5:11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Heb 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so.
Heb 6:4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Heb 6:7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
Heb 6:9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
Notice the part about milk and solid food. And that based on the amount of time people have spent in the church, they should be teaching others and not still learning. The author is writing about stagnation in the growth of people in the church. Contentment with little to no growth. Not becoming mature in their faith.
Just as people were being told here in Hebrews, people today also need to take heed of this. We cannot be OK with mediocrity. We cannot be satisfied, and especially not happy, as beginning Christians forever. Jesus asks for our all. But we’re just not willing to give it.
In the early church, people were literally risking their lives, and giving their lives, to spread the good news of the Gospel. Today, too many seemingly don’t even have the energy to get to a church service, let alone take additional time outside of Sunday morning to learn about God. The early church was exciting, because they knew what was at stake!
Today’s church is often seen as boring, because we don’t have even close to the same level of realization that our eternal souls are involved! Even worse, we don’t have a clue, because Heaven and Hell aren’t spoken of. And the devil is forgotten. We think church is just singing songs and having a good time.
I was going to write – don’t even get me started on “fellowship”. But I think I have to do just that.
Fellowship as a way to strengthen and grow the church
These days I think “fellowship is often regarded as a bunch of Christians getting together and talking. Talking about anything. Sports. What the kids are doing. Where to eat out. When to get the families together. Etc.
That’s NOT what fellowship used to mean! Not even close. Here’s what it was to the early church – and should still be today.
Fellowship describes the unity and community of the church that can exist because of the gospel. As such, it is important to note that fellowship with other Christians can exist because God took initiative to bring us into right relationship with him. God the Father, through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, has established, by his grace, a covenantal relationship with humanity. Those who believe the gospel are united in the Spirit through the Son to the Father (John 15:1–17; 17:1–26; 1 John 1:3–7). This relationship leads to the reality of communion between man and God. Those who are thus “in Christ” are in communion not only with Jesus Christ (and the Father) in the Spirit but also with one another. This relatedness, relationship, and communion is fellowship. Fellowship did not begin among humans, however; it stems from Trinitarian realities, namely the eternal fellowship of the three persons in the Triune Godhead.
Christian fellowship is a practical reality. This fellowship with God translates into a strong partnership around a commonality of conviction and belief (Phil 1:5). Paul was clear that the relatedness of gentile and Jewish believers “in Christ” leads to mutual obligation. If the gentiles “share” in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings (Rom 15:27). In “fellowship” the Jewish Christians have given the message of Jesus the Christ to the world, and in “fellowship” the gentile Christians give material assistance to the Jewish Christians. There is, therefore, not a strict independence from one another, but an interdependence and mutuality (Acts 4:32–37; cf. 1 Tim 5:1–24). 1Kimble, J. (2018). Fellowship in the Life of the Church. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
How often do we have fellowship with other Christians where the topic sounds like:
God the Father, through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, has established, by his grace, a covenantal relationship with humanity.
I dare say, not often enough.
The English word fellowship appears 96 times in the 1984 NIV. I don’t want to make this any longer than it needs to be, but I am including two of those occurrences. The first one from the Old Testament. And the first one from the New Testament.
Ex 20:22 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.
Ex 20:24 “ ‘Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. 26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it.’
Ex 21:1 “These are the laws you are to set before them:
The fellowship offering here is about fellowship with God and His people. I wonder, have we even gone to the point where we turn sports, eating out, and to some extent even family get-togethers into idols of sorts? When they replace God, it certainly seems possible. For more on the sports issue, please check out The religion of sports.
Ac 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This example from the early church, as I pointed out earlier, is a far cry from what Christians generally do today. We’re just too busy. Too busy for God. And yes – I do get it. I was there. And yet, pretending the problem doesn’t exist gets us only one place – and it’s not fellowship.
Conclusion – What does it say when fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church?
Clearly, we have a problem today. It’s a catch-22 of sorts. People who are looking for God can have a hard time finding Him in church. There are various reasons for that, ranging from (on one hand) being so rigid as to be the Pharisees Jesus warned about being to (on the other hand) being so appealing to everyone that what’s taught has little to no value.
There are also those who just don’t want to hear what God has to say.
But it seems like, from what I’ve read, people are just turned off by “church”. So we try to make it more fun. More of a show. More “worship” music. All sorts of stuff.
But are we learning from the early church? We must recognize that when Jesus came to earth, people actually wanted to hear from God! Jewish people were waiting for 400 years! Imagine, 400 years of silence while desperately wanting to hear from God!
So when the leaders of the church, as in Acts and the other letters in the New Testament tell us, were able to go out and deliver their message.
What’s different? It seems the first thing that’s different is the lack of interest. Lack of interest in church, per se. And lack of desire to hear from God.
And yet, there are people who do want to hear from God. Do are very interested. Maybe we don’t need a mass revival at sports stadiums and the like. Maybe we need small groups of really interested people to have a new early church. One that focuses on God – not on sports and asking “what’s new”.
Getting back to the original meaning of fellowship is a good way to work on the problem of fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church. Interest generates more interest. And it really doesn’t take all that long for it to grow. Not if we return to the original excitement about the Gospel of salvation.
Yes – the Gospel of Salvation. You know – the one where we talk about eternity, instead of just tomorrow or next week? The one where we’re interested enough in it to actually spend time outside of Sunday morning. Or Saturday night, for those who aren’t even willing to give up Sunday morning sports.
Why is this so important? Because we if, the current Christians, can’t get interested in our own churches, why should anyone else? No wonder fewer than 50% of the people in America belong to a church!
- 1Kimble, J. (2018). Fellowship in the Life of the Church. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.