The Decline of Religion in America

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life just released the results of an exhaustive study on the current state of religion in America. The research does not paint a pretty picture.

Among the findings:

  • “The United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.”
  • “More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all.”
  • “One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.”
  • “The majority of the unaffiliated — 12 percent of the overall population — describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them.”
  • “The Roman Catholic Church has lost more members than any faith tradition . . . roughly 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics.”
  • “Non-denominational churches are growing.”
  • “Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the ‘unchurched,’ the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.”
  • “Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.”
  • “The group with the worst retention is one of the fastest growing — Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only 37 percent of those raised in the sect known for door-to-door proselytizing said they remain members.”

These findings suggest several important lessons for churches today.

  • Despite the effort to remain “relevant” over the last several decades, usually by providing all kinds of social activities, American churches are increasingly viewed by Americans as irrelevant. For all its good intentions, the social gospel is a failure; it does not address the deepest needs of humanity.
  • Evangelism efforts directed at converting members of other churches are facing a shrinking market. Increasingly, churches must adapt their message to reach people who have little or no religious background.
  • Religions built upon a highly authoritative command structure (such as Catholicism and Jehovah’s Witnesses) have the most difficult time holding on to members, while churches with the least authoritative command structure (non-denominational) are bucking the trend and growing.

Put all of this together, and a simple picture emerges: People find the greatest fulfillment in a religion that emphasizes personal spirituality without bureaucratic control. Do a fresh reading of the New Testament, and you’ll find that’s exactly why early Christianity became so popular. It consisted of independent local churches that were dedicated to a simple program of character development.

I suspect the same approach would work today, if churches would only try it.  Of course, it would require that a lot of very powerful people give up their positions of prominence, so I don’t expect a mass movement in that direction.

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9 responses to “The Decline of Religion in America

  1. “The research does not paint a pretty picture.”

    That right there makes a reader believe this is going to be a biased article. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Religion may not work for everyone, to want to strengthen churches when it’s evident people don’t want it, is to force something upon the people (brain washing) which is inhumane. Let people discover their religion on their own. People need to look into multiple religions, and decide which makes most sense.

  2. I agree with Aaron. However, it’s ALL religions that are suffering the loss of members, most of which are the youth as soon as they are given the freedom to either continue participating or not. I’m one of those that was very “active” but it was only because my parents made me, and i know that to be the fact with many, many others. like marriage, i feel that the meaning of religion has changed as well. It’s something we want to beleive but we just don’t want to commit. Science, politics and even the economy I beleive have a huge influence on this. Not to mention the skeletons in the closet that have been discovered in many religions.

  3. I find it disturbing that all these born again christian churches are popping up. I don’t believe in god and am a happier person because of it. I don’t spend my sundays in church and lead a happier life. I don’t steal or cheat and try to live as fair as i can, morals dictate my train of thought and i don’t need a book written by some neanderthals to tell me how to live my life.
    I am happy and a non believer, and i hope by 2100 that we will look at all this religious bull as a funny period of our time, a certain transiti0nal period that brought us from the middle ages into the age of reason.
    I hate religion for all the wars it has brought this world, i hate the muslims, the jews, and the christians for all the hate and murders they have commited against each other in the name of religion. Religion should be banned in the 21st century, there you have it, i vented, thank you for reading.

  4. I have been atheist for my whole life, I always thought that the notion of some dude snapping his fingers and creating all this is so ridiculously childish to believe. Its as if the people who wholeheartedly believe in their religion without an open mind or open heart to anything else are supposed to be the ones we look up to, you know? Its unfair, almost evil, the way religion judges you and forces beliefs on you, while asking for your money, your time, and your soul, while at the same time it provides nothing but emotional crutches to weak minded people. In my experience the ones who are so devoted to church and religion are the ones who are truly evil and who truly screwed up and are so scared of their mistakes their willing to do all of this for the sligthest chance at redemption. It isnt happening. Live your life to the fullest, f**k what the pope says, Christianity has executed thirty times more people than Hitler ever did.

  5. I find the article’s conclusion that American religion is in decline somewhat dubious. Just because more people are claiming themselves to be nonreligious doesn’t mean they have nothing to do with religion. Actually religion has become so enmeshed in society that nobody can escape its influence. Like it or not, it is still, and probably will be for a long time to come, a reality most of us have to live with. I agree with what Juan said. Even with people who profess to be nonreligious, it is more likely only the understanding of religion has changed rather than anything else. The change in people’s attitude will give religion new meaning in this new era. Clinging to the old definitions of religion will eventually turn out to be a futile effort.

  6. I find that in my own life. Religion is religion and God is God. They are not the same. I claim no denomination.
    I believe in Jesus Christ and the Bible. I read the New Testament extensively. I feel that much can be learned by self study of the Bible. I have also found that the teachings of the various religious denominations contain a lot of falseness. They are based on traditions taught by the various seminaries. I have often wondered about the amount of religions in the world, why are there so many of them? How many truths can there be?
    I perceive that your belief is that witch is in you and not based in an external system of belief. I think that this is where true spirituality resides.
    It has moved from the external thought to a more personal state of being. It has moved to the soul, if you will.

  7. Jesus saves. He’s saved me. But he so loves humanity that he will not force a thing upon them, he loves them even in their disbelief, just as he loved me in mine. And the longer I live in his grace, the more I realize – I need him. All life – all good morals, all good feelings, all love – comes from him. He has given all of us these things from the moment we are born, even if we will never believe in his death for us. He loves all people, even if they are slipping away from him.

    Religion may have declined, but Jesus’ love has not.

  8. Once again the catholic church as an institution, has demonstrated remarkable “sin” from the top of its command structure to its front-line workers.
    It is no wonder that a growing number of people are questioning churches and their so-called teachings. Critical examination of religion seems to follow, leading most thinking people to design their own philosophy of life, including their own concept of spirituality. As education and knowledge rises, religions with their messages and silly rituals and symbols become irrelevant. As I approach my 60th birthday, I am becoming increasingly adamant about the need for our public institutions to refrain from references to religion and “higher” spiritual authorities. Moreover, keeping children away from religious publications until they can review them comparatively, may be in the best interests of our society.

  9. Well, the scriptures teach that in the last days (which we are living in) mankind would become lovers of themselves, lovers of money, without love of goodness, headstrong, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, HAVING A FORM OF GODLY DEVOTION BUT PROVING FALSE TO ITS POWER; AND FROM THESE TURN AWAY (2 Timothy 3:1-5). And this article and most of these responses is exactly what proves that true.

    And in the infinate wisdom found in the scriptures Colossians 2:8 says “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ”. So if you respect no other aspect of the Bible and the wisdom found inside it, you should atleast respect that almost 2000 years ago when that was written (in a society that was completly centered on active worship of God), the writers had the knowledge by inspiration of God that this is the way the world would be headed.

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