I found this section interesting:
Most of the rest of the drop can be attributed to a decline in formal church membership among Americans who do have a religious preference.
I find myself in that not-a-formal-member group—despite the fact that I rarely missed a Sunday until my pandemic sequester began and I’ve continued to teach a weekly Zoom-based Bible study for the church.
My choice not to become an official (“formal”) member is beyond the scope of this thread—but I’ll just say that I do not wish to appear complicit in various stances, politics, and not-fully-corrected heritage of the denomination of which this local church is a member. Some might also accuse me of pedantry in refusing to affirm formally the doctrinal statement of the church but I consider it unnecessarily flawed on a minor point. I wouldn’t tolerate such a misconception if a student included such a poorly conceived summary statement in a term paper so I’m not going to be a hypocrite and simply “go along to get along.” I think formal belief statements should be carefully written and mediocrity, much less outright error, should not be casually accepted.
Thus, the bottom line is that I am actually part of that “fall” in U.S. church membership.
I only recently officially joined a church after a six year break from formal membership. Like you, I am a regular churchgoer but not big on official membership. Honestly, the only reason I broke down joined the church I’ve been faithfully attending for several years is because church membership is a condition of my employment
I know so many people in that category. Part of what church memberships trends are measuring is the fact that what was valued by many a few generations ago—so much so that many had formal church membership and yet hadn’t actually attended church in years—is treated in yet another casual kind of way today.
By the way, in some denominations I’ve also noticed that they’ve been trying to “clean up” redundant memberships. People who grew up in one church still have official membership there despite having moved elsewhere in adulthood—where they formally join another church. And because some churches liked to make their member report to the denomination headquarters as rosy as possible, they rarely dropped anybody from the rolls. I think, for example, that one reason Southern Baptist Convention numbers have been dropping in recent years is because not as many members are being counted multiple times by various congregations! (Indeed, I’ve said for years that nobody Southern Baptists are like sands on the seashore: Nobody really knows exactly how many there are.)
That said, I do think fewer Americans are comfortable with traditional labels (in comparison to previous generations.) But seeing how Jesus specifically taught that most people who respond to his Gospel message would gradually turn away for various reasons, I just don’t find the statistics all that significant. (See the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13.) Also:
“Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” — Matthew 7:14
Total “attenders” and “members” will go up and down but there will always be a relative few who actually fervently focus on what Jesus demanded. Jesus demanded a lot.
I think it may still however have important sociological implications. A reduced tendency to automatically sign on to your regular church’s membership and any required doctrinal statement would seem to be indicative of a greater willingness to maintain your own religious identity separate from your church’s. This separation is likely to make it easier for believers to critically assess what their church is trying to make them do and believe, and so more resistant to peer pressure and pressure-from-the-pulpit, and the tendency towards a ‘herd instinct’ and/or ‘group think’ inherent in any human group.
I would not however expect any such tendency to be evenly distributed, and it will be interesting whether formal-joiners and non-joiners tend to be attracted to different churches, and/or if some churches soften their membership requirements to attract more of this growing crowd of non-joiners. The fact that the graph appears to show this trend accelerating would appear to imply that we should see whatever form of adaptation occurs become increasingly obvious.
I wonder how much of this is temporary due to COVID?
A lot of people this last year have been disconnected from their church. There could be big swings ahead as churches start opening their doors again.
Some possibly, and that was the first thing that I looked for. But the trend seems to have been accelerating downwards since the measure’s last slight ‘uptick’ in 2008 (61%, and before that 70% in around 1999, arguably the last year that the measure was ‘stable’). Covid may exacerbate the trend, but it did not create it.
Addendum: the data appears to be indicating a (decade-on-decade) drop in all age groups is accelerating (potentially exacerbated by Covid), but the 2008-10 to 2018-20 drop for Millennials (15 percentage points) is slightly over twice the next largest drop. This appears to be the main driver of the acceleration.
Looking at a later graph, 9 percentage points of the 15% 2008-10 to 2018-20 drop in Millenials can be accounted for by an increase in ‘No Religious Affilliation’ – so the majority of them are in fact leaving for good, it would seem.
A few years ago my university hosted a speaker who addressed the drop in church attendance among millennials. He pointed at data showing that people in this group are marrying later and delaying having children, or not having children at all. Children are a big reason people used to join churches. Church membership has always been low among people in their early 20s. But it picked up among people in their late 20s/early 30s, after they had kids. And churches know this. Just look at the resources churches devote to their children’s ministry. Or walk into a church and talk to the outreach staff. One of the first things they will tell you about is their kids programs. Further, families with kids are less likely to switch churches than single people or couples without kids. “Church hopping” is not uncommon among singles who have fewer entanglements.
Except that the survey is not showing that they are mostly “church hopping”/‘not members but still religious’ (which only increased 6 percentage points), but are losing their religious affiliation altogether (i.e. are no longer identifying as Christian, Jewish, etc – 9 percentage points).
Yes. We can hope so.
I think Pew Research has been doing polling which may help address these excellent and interesting questions. I’ve seen some relevant reports but can’t recall them well.
Because you said “churches” and not just “houses of worship” in general, I would say that the types of changes you mentioned generally started taking place at least a couple of generations ago.
And with many evangelical churches, such as mine, many of the older people remain emphatic about the importance of formal membership while the younger generations have far less concern. But the net effect is minimal because the “membership requirements” have been low for at least a half century. (The days of “examination by the elders” and mandatory catechisms—though not necessarily called that even back in the 1950’s—are distant memories for the few of us old enough to recall them.) A lot of churches nowadays are more focused on “steady attendance” than they are on formal membership. As I’ve been known to say more than once in recent years, “I’m happy to let the official members of the church go to the business meeting and debate the merits of Royal Caramel versus Harvest Gold carpet in the fellowship lounge.”
Furthermore, because financial support is not necessarily dependent on membership, that’s yet another reason that not all churches worry about membership in the ways they did in the post-WWII days.
As for me, I told Paige Patterson back around 1980 or so that I would never be officially associated with the Southern Baptist Convention until they quit honoring Simon Legree-type sugar plantation slaveholders and anti-abolitionist tract-writing theologians via their seminary campus building names and memorial plaques. (That situation has not improved in the forty years since.) Nevertheless, I’m quite happy to volunteer as a member of “the body of Christ” in the local ministry of this local congregation. Accordingly, I’m a committed Christ-follower but not a committed Southern Baptist or any other denomination member.
I am the opposite. I haven’t gone to church in 40 years (except weddings and funerals), haven’t given a dime, don’t participate. Yet I am still listed as a member of the local Catholic church in the Dioceses of Metuchen. According to the Bishop, I am unable to get off the roles because I was baptized and confirmed 50-60 years ago.
It strikes me as odd, and ‘putting the cart before the horse’, for the Convention to be talk about removing “Southern” from the SBC name (as seems to have been discussed recently), before doing this. Even from the most cynical ‘marketing’ viewpoint (which I’m not claiming is the driving force), it would make more sense to have ‘all your ducks in a row’ on such details, before making the big name-change announcement (otherwise the hypocrisy story virtually writes itself).
Obviously, deaths will reduce church membership. My own church has done surprisingly well virtually. While we are very liberal, we are very conservative when it comes to preventing viral transmission and have lost no members to COVID-19.
It’s like the Hotel California. You can checkout, but you can never leave.
I'm a Roman Catholic,
And have been since before I was born,
And the one thing they say about Catholics is:
They'll take you as soon as you're warm
Unfortunately, the Southern Baptist Convention is a huge and ungainly giant made up of many independent and semi-independent parts. So you have a lot of good people (and individual SBC member churches) who would love to make those changes but the SBC seminaries (for example) have their own leadership, a powerful and relatively small group of oligarchs—I mean seminary presidents and Boards of Directors—who by force of celebrity (e.g., Albert Mohler) and hard-core Southern segregationist cultural-heritage-lovers [oops, I mean “traditionalists”] are determined to preserve the status quo. Including the slaveholder names on the buildings. So many others in the SBC are pushing to change what they potentially can change: the new alternative but optional name: Great Commission Baptists.
Indeed, the annual SBC convention already approved the idea a few years (if I remember correctly) that any member church is welcomed to replace “Southern Baptist Convention” with “Great Commission Baptists” on their letterhead, church signs, bulletins, etc.
I know many Southern Baptists who would agree with you 100%.
What I find remarkable is that a few years ago Al Mohler released an extremely detailed report of the racist, segregationist, anti-abolitionist and worse history of the Southern Baptist Convention that pulled no punches. Frankly, I have to commend him on doing a very honest and thorough job. But it left me even more flabbergasted that he refuses to budge on completing renouncing and abandoning all vestiges of what I call the traditional “Confederate Baptist Convention.” (I have SBC pastor friends who visibly wince whenever I use that term. But nobody really argues with me. Perhaps part of the reason is that they don’t want to perpetuate the discussion because even many senior citizen elders of SBC churches are totally unaware that the SBC was founded in order to defend slavery and pro-slavery theology.)
Metuchen! Hence the passion for Rutgers. I am afraid that the only thing I know about Metuchen is that it’s somewhere near Rahway on the Amtrak…
Never been a “member” of a church. We used to attend Unity church when I was very little, in the 1960s. My first experiences with church services had a Rosemary’s Baby feel about them – the first time I heard a congregation mutter back something in monotone to a priest, I damned near jumped out of my skin. But here in Seattle I think we have a lot of “born unchurched” people. After watching a few old Ingmar Bergman films I’m beginning to think it may have something to do with our huge population of Scandinavians.
Yet, one of the “ivy league” evangelical seminaries is Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which was founded by the Evangelical Free Church of America—which was founded when the Norwegian and Swedish churches in America combined into one denomination (after they transitioned to English-language church services and no longer had a language barrier between them.)
This seems to be somewhat of a case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’. Does the Convention have no ability to discipline its affiliated seminaries for such egregious glorification of the Antebellum South? I would think it would be classifiable as ‘bringing the Convention into disrepute’ or something similar.
This rather implies that the report didn’t get far enough ‘into the pews’ to make a real impact. But given that the suggestion that it was founded for these reasons is already implicit in the fact that there is separate ‘Southern’ Baptist Convention, it may be that this ignorance is, at least in part, willful. I also cannot help but think that changing this name, without a more thorough ‘spring cleaning’ of the deeper issues, may simply serve to obscure the issues rather than help correct them.
A suggestion that the Convention, if it is unwilling to thoroughly disown its pro-slavery past (even if that means bringing seminaries to heel), should at least have the transparency to acknowledge it, by formally adopting your suggested title of ‘Confederate Baptist Convention’, might force some hard thought on the issue.
Unfortunately, there is ongoing confusion and disputes over who is the dog and who is the tail.
First I should reiterate that I’m not a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and so I’m sure just about everything I am posting would agitate someone (i.e., a lot of someones) within the SBC. Secondly, the “Convention” is to some degree a huge herd of cows which can wonder in various directions based on which leader-cow last mooed—and mooed the loudest. The SBC is an interesting conflict between top-down management and bottom-up management. Yes, there are powerful personalities at the top who lead but each member church is considered totally autonomous. Major questions/issues are put up for a vote at the annual SBC convention held each summer. As I understand it, each member church sends voting delegates to the summer convention based on their size. However, many show up with no knowledge of what is going to be voted on and no instructions as to how their church wants them to vote. Many will vote solely based on what their favorite SBC radio preacher, celebrity author, or best-known seminary president tells them to do.
So, yes, the ability to discipline the affiliated seminaries is there in theory but one must also keep in mind that there’s lot of SBC rank-and-file who love to egregiously glorify the antebellum South. And lots of Southerners in general love their heritage—and even gladly cling to “The Lost Cause” myth of the Civil War and the sentimental glorification of “both sides of the war were brave and noble” that is illustrated by TV mini-series epics like “God and Generals.”
Here’s an example of an obvious, common sense idea which one would think would pass almost unanimously: A vote to create an official SBC-wide database of pedophiles, abusers, and sex predators who have been caught by a member church and removed from ministry and/or service. The idea was to make it impossible for sexual predators to get fired by one SBC church and then hired by another SBC church without their crimes being easily exposed. To my knowledge (last I checked), every annual convention effort to create such a database failed. Why? The Executive Committee (the big Kahunas) have repeatedly rejected the idea because of their “commitment” to local congregation autonomy.
Even the SBC’s official doctrinal statement (known as the Baptist Faith & Message) does not necessarily apply to each SBC church and its members because of the local church autonomy tradition. (Moreover, it is my understanding that it has only been in recent months that the SBC has started disciplining and removing local congregations which has demonstrated egregious racist behaviors. That is how strong the “We don’t interfere in local congregation autonomy” mindset has been for generations now within the SBC.)
I doubt that the average Southern Baptist even knows that the report exists. Plus, it is somewhat lengthy and academic (i.e., complete with copious footnotes) and even though I’m not actually a SBC member, I’m the only person I know within the SBC community who has read it. (Indeed, at the local church level I don’t necessarily find a lot of heavy readers in general. For example, when I’ve asked friends if they’ve read the aforementioned SBC doctrinal statement, they say no and even add, "I don’t think I’ve ever read this church’s doctrinal statement—because my membership was automatically transferred from the SBC church I grew up in. So I’ve never read any of those statements. One person who heard that I had objections to the local church’s doctrinal statement and therefore couldn’t in good conscience become an official member, said to me, “Just join another SBC church which has a statement you can agree with and then just ask for a transfer of membership.”
That brings up the broader question in American daily life (and lots of Internet forums) of whether ignorance is a willful choice—in contexts of all sorts. And, yes, I think more people need to take personal responsibility for their ignorance. If members don’t know of the SBC racist founding and racist history throughout the slavery error, then Jim Crow, and then in opposition during the Civil Rights Movement era, then shame on them. No new member should be brought into the local church without an understanding of why the SBC exists and the evils done in its name—and a commitment to address and reverse those evils. The Bible has a term for it: repentance.
I can respect that opinion. However, knowing what I’ve known about the culture and the typical mindsets within the SBC (which, again, is a very big and diverse community scattered across the South and even the rest of the world), I think the process of adopting the name, “Great Commission Baptists” would inevitably force the deeper issues and tragic history out in the open. Plenty would want to obscure the deeper issues but I personally doubt that they would succeed as often as some might wish. There are a lot of people like me who would squawk loudly. And there are lots of committed SBC pastors who are African-Americans determined to get the truth out in the open. Indeed, despite the problems, many feel strongly that they must stay within the convention in order to change it. On the other hand, there was another big exodus recently when that group of SBC seminary presidents issued a “grand statement” condemning Critical Race Theory. Even though lots of African-American SBC pastors are equally critical of CRT, they were infuriated that a small group of powerful white men who run the seminaries crafted their official condemnation while being (1) tone deaf to the bigger racial issues, and (2) not including the AA community of the SBC in discussing and drafting the statement.)
I thank you for your understanding of my frustrations.
Meanwhile, I should explain that this long excursus about the SBC actually is very pertinent to falling U.S. Church Membership. It explains my refusal to become a formal member of my local church and it also helps explain why the most famous Southern Baptist women’s leader/speaker/author, Beth Moore, recently and loudly left the SBC. Indeed, I’m curious to see if many SBC women who are fans of Beth Moore will also end their memberships.
POSTSCRIPT: One of those SBC seminary buildings is named after a famous Southern Baptist theologian whose pro-slavery tracts and pro-secession tomes probably pushed a number of Southern leaders past their indecisions into an all out commitment to the Civil War. If not for SBC theologians telling them “The Bible endorses the enslavement of Africans” and “You as a good Christian MUST defend God’s institution of slavery”, I don’t think Stonewall Jackson would have fought the war, for example. And Robert E. Lee may have been in the same category. Yes, I am willing to blame early SBC leaders (especially those seminary professors and theologians) for the carnage and inestimable suffering of the Civil War. Lots of Southerners were convinced that the 13th chapter of Romans condemned such insurrection but their SBC pastors and denominational leaders convinced them that the Apostle Paul injunctions didn’t apply to them. Some SBC theologians even claimed that the Anti-Christ described in Revelation was Abolitionism!