Church attendance in America: Why is it in decline?
WASHINGTON — About a year ago, Gallup released results of a survey that, for the first time in history, showed the majority of Americans were not attending or belonging to any church. This proved shocking to many of us. Traditionally throughout history, Americans always came back to church during hard times, tragedies and disasters such as the Kennedy Assassination and 9-11. While we endured in hard times during the pandemic, people found themselves largely, and unconstitutionally forbidden from attending church, courtesy of state and local governments at least. But even today, now that the governmental high-handedness seems to have grudgingly concluded in most states and jurisdictions, church attendance in America still remains down. This holds true even in the wake of the dangerous Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This invasion should have inaugurated another triggering event. But yet it did not.
“U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time”
The job of Gallup is to call our attention to situations as they appear in the country these days. It is our job to analyze their findings and ask the critical thinking question, “Why is this happening?” Why is Church attendance in America currently in decline?
What the Gallup poll found
In 2020, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque
Down more than 20 points from turn of the century
Change primarily due to rise in Americans with no religious preference
Where their research may be slightly flawed is they make no mention or give allowances for the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns of 2020 which may well indeed reflect why this happened in the year of their research. Still, many of us who were baptized in a church at less than a year old, confirmed our faith in our early teens, and continued to attend worship into our Golden years know there is a problem.
Why is this happening to churches and churchgoers?
There is no one right answer to the phenomena America is witnessing in religions and church attendance. There are many variables at play that need to be considered together.
Christians of faith will first turn to the Bible and the Word in analyzing this issue. The Easy English Bible website offers us this about the problem:
2 Timothy 3:1-9
People will turn away from God in the last days
1 Let me tell you this. During the last days of this world, there will be times of great trouble. 2 People will love only themselves, and they will want lots of money for themselves. They will be proud and they will say how great they are. They will insult other people. They will not obey their parents. They will not thank anyone that helps them. They will not respect anything that is good. 3 They will not be kind to other people, but they will like to quarrel. They will tell lies to hurt other people. They will be unable to rule themselves properly. They will be cruel, like wild animals. They will hate anything that is good.
4 People will turn against their friends. They will do silly things and not think carefully about it. They will be sure that they are very important. They will not love God, but instead, they will only want to enjoy themselves. 5 Those people will seem to be serving God. But really they refuse to accept God’s power to help them. You must stay away from people like that.”
The next logical thing to do to analyze current trends involves looking more closely at the world as it exists today.
In today’s world, we see some megachurches growing by the thousands. Meanwhile, in the more remote areas of America, some smaller churches hang on by a thread. In some situations, megachurches put the smaller churches out of business (so to speak), something akin to Big Box stores killing off smaller Mom and Pop shops and stores.
Church as a Business
Some judgmental people will say it is wrong to talk about God’s house as a business. But from the moment a church gets a tax exemption from the government and sets a budget, it has to be thought of as a not-for-profit business. It has to be run as a business every day of the week but perhaps the Sabbath because that is exactly what it is. Many houses of worship have boards or councils to oversee operations.
To grow, churches have to consider issues of finance, marketing, community outreach, curb appeal, pew appeal, Internet presence of a website and streaming worship services… the list goes on and on. At the end of the year churches issue “giving statements” for those who itemize their taxes and give relatively generously.
Indeed, this is a sticky subject for churches. Some people genuinely do not have much to give. If they follow God and are fruitful and multiply, face it, kids are expensive!
Most Christians believe tithing calls for giving 10%. It is unclear if that means 10% of your income per year or 10% every three years or 3.33%.
“At the end of every three years, you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns.” Deuteronomy 14:28
Another argument made against tithing and giving 10% of your income is it is Old Testament and not New Testament.
It is interesting how so many churches operating as a business like to quote the passage of the Bible that plays God off as the lottery as a means to the ends:
“But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:6-7
The problem with this?
True Christians know two things that rub them the wrong way when it comes to giving money to today’s church:
They know what the Bible says about the care of the poor, the hungry, and care for the widows and they are not seeing the church doing much about it. Also, while it is very noble to do mission work in third-world countries, many feel we have enough needy right here in our own country needing attention.
They know the history of the church and how the church used to truly be a family rather than a bunch of strangers meeting as a congregation such that if any one family of the church family was in need, the church came to their aid. Again, charity starts at home!
That does not seem to happen much in today’s church and that remains a notable sore spot. As in…
“Why should I give you a bunch today in the name of God when I know you won’t be there for me tomorrow if I need it back?”
Separation of Church and State
Because churches do get a tax break from Uncle Sam, the Federal government forbids them from taking political stands promoting one party over another. That makes perfect sense. That is, until one party seemingly embraces the Antichrist by becoming advocates for abortion, sexual deviancy, destruction of the family unit, immorality broadcast on television and projected in movies and via the media. When a political party demonstrates lying, cheating, and stealing, and then actually gets away with it, that teaches a lesson to Christian youth that runs contrary to the lessons of the church. People increasingly see this as a problem.
Clergy Seen as “Pussies.”
A recent episode of Louder with Crowder took on the issue of church attendance.
(Churches Need to STAND UP: Why Church Attendance is Dropping | Louder With Crowder)
Crowder mentions how clergy is more worried about losing their 501(3)(C) status than preaching the word of God. He states how the clergy has a responsibility to stand up for the Word of God.
“I cannot stress to you the importance of this is, you are s shepherd. You may be the pastor of a church, a poor small church and you may have billionaire CEOs in your church and guess what they are doing? They are submitting to your authority. They are saying, ‘I am your sheep, be my shepherd today!’ And if you’re not, because you’re a pussy, well you should expect your church to shrink! And I just don’t think neutrality is an option in today’s world.”
Crowder was not advocating clergy should take sides in Democrat and Republican candidates but rather they should be coming out full force against this business of advocating and giving identity to more than the two God-given genders.
This remains a serious problem in America today that we must address.
The same way government does not want churches involved in their affairs, so, too, the inverse. That road needs to run the other way as well. When you murder the unborn rather than carry them to term and put them up for adoption, when you mandate vaccines that many believe are against their bodies as Temples of God, when you try to indoctrinate young children that all forms of sexual deviancy are “okay” behind the backs of their parents, you should be called out as running contrary to God, His Word, and the church and this simply not happening.
Two Markets to Satisfy
Churches today often have to consider the two markets they must cater to. Some might wrongly blurt out, “Oh, yeah, young and old with the old preferring the old hymns and traditional service and the young wanting the more contemporary music and service.” That seems both untrue and ageist.
What remains true? We have two populations of people: One that prefers the old, traditional worship service, and another that prefers the new contemporary mode of worship.
If a given community follows the newer megachurch model, they may have no traditional service to fall back on. Many of these churches adopt the label “non-denominational.” That means they do not regard themselves as tied to a traditional religious denomination such as Roman Catholicism. Or, for that matter, any of the protestant sects that fell out of the Catholic Church after the time of Martin Luther.
Destruction of the Church from Within
When people feel they have no voice or vote, they tend to tune out and drop out. That remains true when it comes to church attendance as well.
In 2003 a book titled “The Homosexual Agenda” came out. That book described how homosexuals would infiltrate the churches and take them over. One example occurred in 2009 when the ELCA voted to accept both homosexual members and allow for homosexual clergy to preach in the church. This was all done without a vote of over 4 million members. Many, like myself, left that church to begin attending megachurches that would stand by God’s Word and had the money and legal teams to allow them to continue to do so.
Consumer Christianity and Performative Preaching
These are two terms being tossed around that are most interesting. Both are considered negative terms in church attendance today but they need to be each valued and assessed thinking of the church as a business.
Consumer Christianity has to do with how guests, looking for a church, look at and feel about a church as they first attend. It can involve variables such as; “The chairs were uncomfortable to sit in for an hour. The music was too loud. There was too much standing and singing. The pastor’s message was too long and too repetitive. Nobody was clapping to the music or raising their hands to God and the Lord. The congregation seemed to be asleep. The place was too cold/hot. This church was not a very welcoming church. There was no childcare. The hymn/song selections were awful. There was no cross in that church.
The granddaddy of them all:
Their pastor makes 6 figures, lives in a mansion, has a number of cars, and his own jet/helicopter at his disposal. So what is this church doing for the community, particularly the hungry and homeless?
If you think a church is not a business, you are wrong. There are published church periodicals of journals and magazines as well as church trade shows. One time I was on the cusp of joining a megachurch and was asked to sit in the waiting room for the pastor to speak to me. I picked up my first ever church magazine where I learned the pastor I was about to meet and speak with was ranked as one of the Top 12 preachers in the United States that year. I was blown away on several levels. In the defense of this pastor, he hated this kind of notoriety but begrudgingly loved it if it brought one more lost soul through the doors of the church. Talk about mixed emotions.
The problem with performance preaching is it makes the art of delivering God’s Word more like performance art than stating the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Bible. Of course, if you are going to be a top preacher of the United States by only choosing to preach about the grace of Jesus Christ rather than the Laws of God you are going to be very popular with men.
True Story: Why church attendance in America is really in decline
In my first year of teaching, I had a fellow teacher down the hallway who taught driver’s education and who was a former Marine. His students adored him. He was small and short but he was wiry and a scrapper. So this teacher had a rule that if all of his students did well on one of his exams, he would march around his classroom as he used to do as a Marine shouting out a Marine marching cadence. His students would laugh and cheer.
One day he came up to me as an elder teacher trying to impart some knowledge to a first-year teacher. He said “Mark, don’t ever let kids fool you. Kids love discipline. They love to be told what to do and shown how to do it. And if you can do that, they will respect you.”
I lived by those words for all my 40 years of teaching and it was the best lesson I ever got. Thank you, United States Marines. This lesson still remains neglected by both many of our parents of today as well as much of our clergy. And this remains a serious problem.
And I believe that is why church attendance is in decline. God’s kids’ love (and need) discipline!