America’s Changing Spiritual Landscape
Five religious trends affecting faith
Seventy years ago, “Walking to Church” by Norman Rockwell appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting depicts a family of five strolling along a city sidewalk in their Sunday finery, Bibles in hand. A ringing bell and a tall steeple with a cross are visible in the distance.
For an increasing number of Americans, the notion of church attendance is as antiquated as the milk bottles and barber pole Rockwell included in his scene. For others, nearly three years of pandemic disruptions have changed the way they interact with church.
In 1955, about half of Gallup poll respondents (49%) said they had attended religious services within the past week. By 2019, the figure had fallen to 34%. And in 2021, amid the pandemic, 30% reported attending services, either in person or remotely.
Instead of walking to church, it seems many are walking away. Statistical insights help paint a picture of our nation’s changing spiritual landscape. Following are five trends to watch.
1. Rising ‘Nones’
A growing share of Americans identifies as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” — a group collectively known as “nones.”
In 1972, 5% of Americans were religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew Research Center. By 2020, 3 in 10 were “nones.”
During the same period, those claiming Christian identity declined from 90% to 64%.
A recent Pew report projected that if current trends continue, Christians will make up less than half the U.S. population by 2070, while the “nones” will approach majority status.
According to the report, “religious switching” is partly responsible for these shifts. In recent years, fewer people raised in Christianity have retained their faith as adults. And fewer individuals who grew up unaffiliated have converted to Christianity.
Among U.S. adults brought up in Christian households, 31% of 30- to 39-year-olds and 18% of those 40 and older now identify as religiously unaffiliated.
“With each generation, progressively fewer adults retain the Christian identity they were raised with, which in turn means fewer parents are raising their children in Christian households,” the Pew report says.
Among those with unaffiliated upbringings, 21% of respondents aged 30–39 reported becoming Christians, while 39% of older adults converted.
Not all “nones” reject spirituality outright. In a 2007 Baylor University survey, 29% of religiously unaffiliated respondents expressed belief in a “higher power or cosmic force.” Ten percent agreed with the statement, “I have no doubts that God exists.” And 7% said, “I believe in God, but with some doubts.”
2. Shrinking Membership
For the first time since Gallup started tracking the trend eight decades ago, the share of U.S. adults claiming church membership fell below 50% in 2020.
In 1937, 73% of respondents reported belonging to a place of worship. In 2020, just 47% said the same.
While the pandemic may have played a role, membership was declining long before COVID-19. About 70% of U.S. adults belonged to a church at the beginning of the 21st century, but that figure has decreased steadily over the past 20 years.
According to Gallup, the rise of the “nones” over the same time frame accounts for more than half of this loss. The rest may reflect diminished interest in formal membership among those who claim religious affiliation.
Among U.S. adults brought up in Christian households, 31% of
30- to 39-year-olds and 18% of those 40 and older now identify as religiously unaffiliated.
A majority of senior adults have retained church membership. Two-thirds of those born before 1946 belong to a church, as do 58% of baby boomers. By comparison, half of Generation X and 36% of millennials are church members.
Although the sampling of Gen Z adults was limited, Gallup estimates this younger generation’s membership representation is similar to that of millennials.
3. Struggling Small Churches
Even in an age of megachurches, churches are getting smaller — and some are disappearing entirely.
Using data from 34 denominations and organizations, representing 60% of all U.S. Protestant churches, Lifeway Research calculated a net loss of 1,500 churches during 2019 — as 4,500 closed and 3,000 opened.
In early 2020, before pandemic shutdowns began, 65% of all U.S. congregations had fewer than 100 weekly attendees, according to Faith Communities Today, a research initiative involving the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. In 2000, 45% of congregations were that size.
Over the past 20 years, median worship attendance has declined from 137 to 65, Faith Communities Today reports. (This means half of all churches have more than 65 attendees and half have fewer.) And more small churches are shrinking than growing.
While the full impact of the pandemic remains to be seen, a loss of attendees and resources has exacerbated the strain on many struggling congregations.
4. Changing Habits
Before the pandemic, attending church was mostly an in-person activity. It’s a different world today.
According to a 2022 Barna Group report, 20% of churchgoing adults are still attending almost exclusively online. Another 26% have adopted a hybrid approach, switching between remote and in-person attendance.
March 2022 data from Pew Research Center showed more churchgoing evangelicals attending in a hybrid fashion during the previous month (46%) than exclusively in person (29%) or exclusively online (18%).
Nearly half of churchgoers in the Pew survey (47%) said their churches were still following pandemic-related changes, such as social distancing.
5. Maturing Millennials
There is good news regarding millennials. Despite their tendency toward disaffiliation, this generation of young adults is showing an increased interest in church.
As young adults mature and take on family responsibilities, the support of a church community often becomes more appealing. Some millennials may be following that trajectory.
Since 2019, the share of millennials attending church weekly has jumped 18 percentage points, from 21% to 39%, according to Barna Group. (Barna defines millennials as those born from 1984–98, which puts them in their mid-20s to late-30s.)
This shift is particularly remarkable considering it took place during the pandemic. Even as attendance among boomers declined, millennial participation rose. One reason seems to be the ability and willingness of young adults to embrace online church.
Millennial adoption of hybrid options remains high. Among millennial Christians who attended church before the pandemic, 1 in 3 now attend both remotely and in person.
Much of the attendance boost came from young racial and ethnic minorities. Prior to 2019, church attendance rates were roughly the same for white and non-white millennials. By 2022, 45% of non-white millennials were attending weekly, compared to 35% of white millennials.
As a new year begins, these trends present both challenges and opportunities for church leaders. Ministry is seldom easy, but the fields are indeed ripe for harvest.
Statistics cannot reveal what is happening in the spiritual realm. However, these insights can help us grow in understanding. Studiously and prayerfully discerning the times lays the groundwork for moving forward in wisdom and faith.
Whether you are evangelizing your religiously unaffiliated neighbors or looking for new ways to connect with online worshippers, you can lean on the One who accompanies you in your going (Matthew 28:19–20).
Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).
This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Influence magazine.