There’s been a lot of talk across the channels about the Public Religion Research Institute’s release of the 2020 Survey of American Religion (PPRI 2020 America Religion Survey Results). The study is primarily concerned with faith adherents by faith affiliation, political affiliation, age, ethnicity, education, and location (by county). The study is statistically significant and as such, we ought to take their findings seriously.
Most of the results weren’t particularly surprising. Christianity continues to decline, we’ve lost another 3 percent of the population since 2016 (from 73 percent to 70 percent). The older you are, the more likely you are to be Christian. And the younger you are, the more likely you are to be a part of a non-Christian religion. But there were a couple of surprises too. And that’s where the questions begin.
- Between 2018 to 2020, the religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) began to lose traction, shifting from 25.5 percent of the population to 23.3 percent.
- During that same period, white mainline protestants climbed from 13.5 percent of the population to 16.4 percent.
- Again, during that same period, white evangelical protestants fell from 15.3 percent of the population to 14.5 percent.
- The biggest gains for the mainline came in from the under 50 year-olds, with the highest increase from the 30–49 year-olds (today’s “young families”).
There have been ripples of cheers by many who have seen this as a sign that things in the US are starting to turn and that the mainline church has begun making up ground for their decades of decline. I’ve heard claims that the cause of the “growth” is because the mainline’s stand on social issues is drawing people back to the church, even while evangelicalism continues to alienate the rank and file American. Looking at the age range of those who are returning to the fold, one might conclude that young families may have once again decided that raising their children in church is a good thing.
But therein lies the issue.
Affiliation doesn’t mean attendance. In fact, even though there’s a rise in the mainline affiliation rate, across the board, mainline church attendance across all the denominational lines continues its frenetic sprint to oblivion. The mainline continues to loose thousands of members each year. Years ago, there was a push by mainline denominational leaders to plant new churches, but even that has brought us little relief. A recent study showed that over the past few years, for every two churches that gets started in the US, three churches close (Ephesiology.com). One last sign of the times – just a few months ago, Gallup reported that for the first time in statistical history (since 1937), church membership has fallen to less than 50 percent. That’s down from 69 percent in 2000. Our members are not just leaving the building, they’re just plain leaving.
So … where’s the hope? (because the celebratory hype appears to be just that – hype)
The hope is where it’s always been. In you and your congregation. National statistics are accurate on a national basis – they’re the Bell Curve picture of what’s going on. And yes, there’s a lot of less-than-positive news out there. But what’s true nationally isn’t true everywhere and it doesn’t need to be true in your congregation. Yes, we’re closing a lot of churches these days, and we’re going to close more. But for every three that close, there are two new congregations that are just getting started. And though the majority of mainline churches are spiraling out of control, there are some that are faithfully making disciples, baptizing new Christians, and growing steadily.
We believe that every church, mainline or not, can become increasingly faithful, effective, and sustainable … every church has the potential to turn from decline to growth. We believe you can be the catalyst for your church’s turnaround. It’s a matter of commitment by the church’s leadership – starting with you – to embrace best practices. And that must be followed by active participation by the membership to embrace Paul’s mandate that every faithful church member embrace doing “Whatever it takes” to reach the community for Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 9:22).
If you’re looking to get something started in your church, take a look at the wide variety of church growth tools available from The Effective Church Group. Or … text/call us at 888-470-2456.