The church in the West is undergoing some massive changes:
A 1957 science fiction film called The Incredible Shrinking Man had to do with the alarming situation of a guy who found himself mysteriously beginning to shrink, and how he had to learn to cope with this. He ended up being the size of an insect, living in a doll house, and doing battle with his family cat.
A new article from the Gallop polling organisation offers some interesting – if not alarming – information about another case of shrinkage – in American church attendance. The headline says this: “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time”.
Here are some highlights from the article:
Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century….
The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.
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% in the 2018-2020 data — say they do. That figure is down from 10% between 1998 and 2000….
Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.
The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong. The change has become increasingly apparent in recent decades because millennials and Gen Z are further apart from traditionalists in their church membership rates (about 30 points lower) than baby boomers and Generation X are (eight and 16 points, respectively). Also, each year the younger generations are making up an increasingly larger part of the entire U.S. adult population….
The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship. While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults. https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx
So what are we to make of all this? A few general thoughts come to mind. Yes, as the West continues to become more secular and less Christian, this sort of thing is to be expected. America and the West were once the centre of Christianity, and they sent missionaries out into the world to convert those in other nations.
Now things have pretty much turned full circle. As Christianity continues to decline in the West, in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America it is growing. So the centre of spiritual gravity has moved from north to south. And increasingly we are finding Christians from the developing world coming to the West to re-evangelise.
In the short term all these trends are likely to continue. Whether Christianity ever comes to again dominate in the West remains to be seen. At the most all the indicators seem to be pointing in the other direction. Without some mighty heaven-sent revival and reformation, the West appears to be toast. Things are not looking too good here at the moment, so we need to keep praying and keep working to see Christ and his kingdom restored here.
But a few other things can be said. Simply having a lot of folks staying away from church is not necessarily a foolproof indication of the state of Christianity in America – or elsewhere. One of course can be a Christian while not regularly attending a church. But the norm is for believers to meet together, to worship together, and to be taught together in a local assembly of saints. Hebrews 10:25 certainly comes to mind here in this regard.
And a related matter has to do with what are known as “dones” – people who are done with going to church. They are still Christians who still love the Lord, but for various reasons, they are done with attending a local church. The fact that so many believers seem to be leaving church certainly is something a lot of Christians are aware of and interested in.
Back in late 2014 I wrote a piece on all this, and for some reason, it has been my all-time most read, most shared, most liked and most commented on article ever. It has well over 500 comments, and it has been shared countless times. It seems I really struck a raw nerve or something in penning that piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/26/on-leaving-church/
A follow-up piece written a year later also received quite a bit of attention: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/12/12/on-leaving-church-revisited/
So we may not be able to say with complete certainty that Christianity is shrinking in America. What we can say is that church attendance sure seems to be. But the two are not identical, and many Christians still exist, even though for a whole range of reasons they seem to be done with church – or at least with the traditional established churches.
But there are other things happening with American Christianity, including the rise of minichurches. We have all heard of megachurches of course, and so many pastors aspire to have the biggest and the best. But it may be time to move in the other direction – to minichurches. Maybe smaller is better.
The rise of small groups, house churches, and much smaller congregations seems to be catching on in the US and elsewhere. Downsizing seems to be in. Of course COVID is responsible for some of this, but not likely all of it. Consider an article from late last year which spoke to this matter. It begins this way:
What is the future of the post-COVID Christian church in the United States? For a pair of millennial pastors, it meant leaving what they loved doing in pursuit of discipleship coupled with the sober recognition that existing church structures, even within those where the Gospel was being faithfully proclaimed, were not only woefully inadequate but hampering the Kingdom of God from advancing.
Parker and Jessi Green started feeling what they described as a Holy Spirit restlessness amid full-time ministry in New York City. Despite being well-compensated and “successful” by several measures, something was amiss and the couple could not ignore how God was tugging at their hearts.
For the past four years, the Greens have been active with SALT churches, a network of microchurches they started in the region of Southern California. Earlier this year, they led Saturate OC, a worship on the beach evangelistic outreach.
If you ask Parker, a microchurch is around 10 to 40 people reaching those who do not yet know Jesus, making disciples and, most importantly, who are on mission together. That “being on mission” aspect distinguishes it from previous home-based church movements. “Doing what Jesus is doing [in realtime], I find, is super helpful,” he said, chuckling lightly, in a recent interview with The Christian Post.
Jessi added: “We definitely think that this is the trajectory that the Church is going to move in and it’s funny because I think especially because of social media, we’re so afraid to almost innovate when it comes to church because we don’t want to appear like we’re bashing or against the current thing.”
“But if you look at church history, what we see right now is how many people would define ‘church’ is actually pretty new as of the last 100 years. What we see now as almost untouchable when it comes to church and how it’s done, most of the world would not define that as church at all.”
And distinctly missional microchurches are actually closer to what is seen in the pages of Scripture, they maintained. The “traditional” model that has become the norm for many in the Western world is not as normal as many think. https://www.christianpost.com/news/microcongregations-and-the-future-of-a-post-covid-church-part-1.html
You can have a read of the entire piece, but there might be something here worth looking at more closely. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention, and perhaps Western Christianity needed something like COVID to help it think again about what it means to be and do church.
New wineskins may well be needed. Smaller Christian fellowship groups is likely one of the ways we will proceed in the days ahead. So while the rise in secularism and the decline of Christianity in the West is a genuine worry, God is not yet done with his church there, and new things may well be happening.
Sometimes a bit of shaking and sifting is a good thing. If that results in the Bride of Christ becoming more and more what she was meant to be, then that is a welcome thing indeed.