I believe the church is a critical and indispensable — though not exclusive — vehicle for sharing the good news and advancing God’s beloved community here on Earth. But last week, Gallup caused a stir when it released new research showing Americans’ membership in houses of worship fell below 50 percent for the first time in the 80 years Gallup has been keeping track. According to Gallup’s data, in 2020, only “47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999,” continuing a steady decline that started near the turn of the 21st century.
Gallup identifies several different sources of this decline, most notably an increase in the percentage of Americans who do not identify with a specific organized religion. But the change is also a result of more Americans who do identify with a religion saying they do not belong to a particular house of worship. Much of the change is generational — 66 percent of U.S. adults born before 1946 belong to a house of worship versus only 36 percent of millennials — yet the last 20 years have also seen a doubling in the percentage of older generations (silent generation, baby boomers, and Generation X) with no religious affiliation. Gallup saw this decline across all racial backgrounds, through noted the decline was smaller among non-Hispanic Black people.
As with any survey data, Gallup’s findings are limited by the respondents they were able interview. We can also question whether data on church membership effectively captures house churches, storefront churches, and immigrant churches both in the Latinx community and more broadly. Gallup further noted that it recently changed its methodology for conducting English and Spanish language interviews, a change Gallup noted would make it difficult to compare Hispanic church membership over time.
Despite the data’s limitations, if you care deeply about sharing the good news of Christ and take the Great Commission’s call to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19) seriously, as I do, these trends are both disconcerting and heartbreaking. But instead of feeling hopeless, those of us in the church can see this as an essential wake-up call, recognizing this urgent opportunity to renew the church and redefine how it is perceived.
In reaction to Gallup’s findings, David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame University, told The Guardian that the decline in church membership was an “allergic reaction to the religious right” and “the perception that many ... American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.” I share Campbell’s concern. I have often wondered why many parts of the evangelical church have remained so silent about the detrimental impact of white Christian nationalism on the reputation of the church. Though these church leaders may believe they are remaining “apolitical,” by failing to challenge the unholy marriage between the church and Republican Party, these leaders have enabled destructive forces to hijack the gospel.
It’s also telling that just before Gallup’s new data was released, the governor of Arkansas signed an alarming law that allows doctors to refuse to treat someone based on religious or moral objections, a law opponents say will allow health care providers to turn away LGBTQ people; similar legislation is being explored and proposed in many other states. Instead of being defined by all the things we are against and the people we want to exclude, Christians should be striving to be defined by our radical love, especially toward those who have been most excluded, as well as by our commitment to advance justice for all. This commitment does not fit neatly in the political categories of Left and Right, Democrat or Republican. Instead, the church must serve as the “conscience of the state,” transcending partisanship and holding all sides accountable to our gospel values and priorities.
As we take up the call to redefine how the church is perceived, those of us in the U.S. and Europe — where declining religiosity and church membership has long been a trend — should also look to the explosive church growth in other parts of the world, including within many parts of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. This growth has been driven significantly by the growth of various expressions of Pentecostalism, which tends to place less emphasis on church polity and doctrine and more on worship as a full-body, participatory engagement with God as an embodied, ecstatic encounter with the Holy Spirit.
We would also do well to consider that while religious membership is on the decline, spirituality remains a potent force in U.S. life. A 2020 study released by the Fetzer Institute found that eight in 10 Americans consider themselves spiritual and that spirituality is associated with both greater prosocial action and civic engagement. As people in the U.S. who identify as “spiritual but not religious” continue to grow, we must better understand the growing interest in and commitment to spirituality and how that can serve as a bridge to faith and religious engagement rather than primarily an exit ramp.
The Greek word ekklesia, which refers to both the universal church and to local groups of believers, is found over 100 times in the New Testament. Acts 2:42-47 offers one of the most poignant and timeless images of what the church should be: a space (not necessarily a physical building) where people are able to worship, engage in fellowship, service, outreach, prayer, and more. As we move into the 21st century, the Christian movement may increasingly resemble these early believers who were known as followers of the way of Jesus, rather than as members of a particular church.
In other words, we need to rethink our ecclesiology — our understanding of the nature of the church. Though being in fellowship and regular worship with other believers is a critical part of faith formation and discipleship, church can’t and shouldn’t be confined to the four walls of a building. I believe that churches which fail to develop a more outward focused mission will fail to meet the challenge of this moment, particularly in staying relevant to younger generations. It reminds me of the adage that “I would rather see a sermon than to hear one.” I think many disaffected or alienated Christians — who have only seen an overly partisan and conservative brand of Christianity — are anxious to see more of what God’s radical and inclusive love looks like in action.
Sojourners has long worked to equip and inspire the church to preach, teach, and live out a commitment to peace and justice — something we believe is essential to discipleship and is a core expression of ministry. We also believe a commitment to justice is a critical way to build more thriving churches that can reach new generations and are developing curriculums to help congregations heal many of the social and political divisions that so often suffocate and constrain their public witness. We’re also working to equip Black and Latinx church leaders so they can address the ongoing crises of racialized policing and criminal justice as well as immigrant rights as a critical way to build more thriving churches by building more thriving communities.
The time is now to revitalize the church and Christian movement by engaging in greater and more faithful public witness and ministry to advance peace, justice, and the common good.