Gallup: U.S. Church Membership Down over Past Two Decades
Gallup has released a new poll, and the news isn’t good for churches. Membership is down.
Jeffery M. Jones, with Gallup, writes, “U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s. The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.”
Gallup also found a trend pointing toward “no religious preference” as increasingly common among Americans. Jones reports, “Since the turn of the century, the percentage of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%.”
The downward trend in church membership is particularly pronounced among Millennials, as “Most millennials were too young to be polled in 1998-2000. Now that they have reached adulthood, their church membership rates are exceedingly low and appear to be a major factor in the drop in overall U.S. church membership. Just 42% of millennials are members of churches, on average.”
Here’s another key insight from Jones:
“The percentage of millennials with no religion may be continuing to grow, as an average of 33% in Gallup surveys conducted in 2019 to date say they have no religious affiliation.
Not only are millennials less likely than older Americans to identify with a religion, but millennials who are religious are significantly less likely to belong to a church. Fifty-seven percent of religious millennials belong to a church, compared with 65% or more in older generations.”
One other insight from the Gallup poll concerns who is (and isn’t) joining a church. It isn’t surprising that the poll found that fewer nonreligious Americans were church members, but it is rather interesting that fewer religious Americans are church members. Americans don’t join like they used to.
The Gallup report includes sound analysis on the implications of these findings, so you should read it. But here is one for church leaders:
Church leaders must also grapple with the generational slide away from religion. Millennials are much less likely than their elders to indicate a religious preference, and presumably the nearly one-third of millennials without a religious preference are unlikely to ever join a church. But the roughly two-thirds of millennials who do express a religious preference may one day be convinced to join, perhaps as more get established in their lives, including having families, which can be an impetus to becoming a part of a faith community.
I once saw a billboard that said something to the effect of “Do not come to experience our church, but come to meet our Christ.” In my work among Millennials and Gen Zers, appeals to join do not work. I once saw a pastor urge youth in my congregation to be baptized in order to meet a goal for the number of people to be baptized in a given period, rather than as an expression of their faith.
Winsome presentations of Jesus are far more effective. It is also helpful to remember that God is sovereign over the church and the culture. While the Gallup poll may be sobering, and may present us with a clear picture that there is work to be done, we should not be anxious. Rather, we should get to work, confident that Jesus is with us, and inviting everyone to come and meet Jesus themselves.