U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time

True. But here in the PNW we seem to have been a hotbed of Scandinavian radicalism. More Veblens than vicars.

A bunch of goðlauss vikings, that’s what they are.

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Yet both Norway and Sweden are largely irreligious. Only 22% of Norwegians believe “there is a God” (though 44% believe “there is some sort of spirit or life force”). 18% (45%) for Swedes. This, in spite of the fact that a majority of both countries are, at least technically, members of their respective state churches.

Both have a tiny minority that are part of a ‘Free’ Evangelical church. Is it possible that the Scandinavian-American situation is somewhat replicating the native Scandinavian dynamic? A larger, largely-irreligious population (as Puck suggests), combined with a much smaller intensely-religious minority?

Maybe there’s something to that, but in Great Falls MT, my only hypothesis was that we got the Scandinavians who continued west because didn’t find MN to be cold enough.


I apologise if I’m stating the obvious, but this ‘reason’ (I would probably call it an excuse) does not match the circumstances. This database would in no way hamper “local congregation autonomy”, but rather ensure that the autonomous decision-making is better informed. The only ‘limitation’ it would apply would be on the ability to say ‘we had no idea’ when the hiring decision blew up in their face.

This farcical excuse further lowers my already low opinion of the SBC leadership (based upon Petterson’s recent scandal, as well as statements by Mohler). Their priority would appear to be protection of the Convention’s leadership (including at the local church level), rather than of its congregation. A viewpoint that would be very similar to the one that has gotten the Catholic Church into so much trouble.

Combine this with the less-than-responsive governance (I do not know, from a distance, if this is inherent in a large religious bottom-up organisation, specific to the SBC’s structure, or the result of the system being ‘gamed’), and I cannot help but see this as deeply dysfunctional.

Under the circumstances, I cannot say I’m surprised that many are either withholding their assent by refusing to formally join (as you yourself are), or ‘voting with their feet’, by disaffiliating, either individually or as a church. It would seem to be the honorable thing to do.

Perhaps—but based on their heritage, that would surprise me. The vast majority of Swedes and Norwegians who came to Americans were Lutherans, and they tended to be those Lutherans who were the most devout and strongly opposed to the church-state rule. [Yes, Lutheran rule but not one which fit their pietistic beliefs.] Indeed, that is why they created a Free Church in America—free of government control. For example, I can’t remember if it was in Sweden or in Norway, but the church-state government had a monopoly on alcoholic beverage sales and the pietistic Lutheran ministers who got attacked by the government for preaching against alcohol and in favor of emigration led large groups from their congregations to America (mostly into the upper Midwest where their descendants are easy to find throughout Minnesota.)

By the way, the Danes who migrated to the USA in great numbers in the 1800’s were also quite devout. They tended to be Mormons on their way to Salt Lake City.

I also find it interesting that Sweden lost a higher percentage of its population to emigration to America than any other country with the likely exception of Ireland.

The 1700’s and 1800s were difficult years for Pietist Christians in Scandinavia who didn’t want the government choosing their ministers and dictating how they worshipped. Those who chafed the most tended to be the most religious—and they left—while those who were fine with a more formal go-through-the-religious-motions society may have been more likely to stay. Nevertheless, I am in no way claiming that I can prove a cause-and-effect relationship which explains their secularity today. I’ve never studied the topic.

And if I wasn’t obvious, the “official” reason given by the Executive Committee doesn’t make any sense to me either.

I agree 1000% and I’ve emphasized this very point when explaining to people why it is yet another reason why I haven’t become a formal member.

I agree. However, most large and political systems tend to be chaotic and even dysfunctional. Yes, this kind of nonsense is not entirely rare when large collections of human beings are involved. In my case I am more likely to change it if I protest from where I am. Others may choose other paths with equal conviction.

Many tell me that they remain formal members of SBC churches because they refuse to let the tradition-bound power-brokers at the top have their way forever. I’ve had exactly that kind of conversation with various African-American pastors who remain committed to the SBC, some of whom at each annual meeting basically torment the most obstinate leaders by reintroducing resolutions of reform which have failed year-after-year. And I must admit that many of them have slowly made progress and gotten some reforms passed. I have great respect for African-American SBC pastors like Scott McKissic.

And every time I turn on Christian talk radio and hear them lambasting Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, I figure that reformed minded SBC leader must be doing a good job. At the same time, I also greatly enjoyed the publicity and general commotion within the SBC when Beth Moore finally threw in the towel and announced that she was no longer a Southern Baptist.

That said, daily life and ministry in a local SBC member church is not necessarily all that dependent on what happens in the denominational leadership (and its latest scandal or headline.) I’m involved in a SBC member church because I consider it my best opportunity to serve the local community and congregation in obedience to Jesus’ teachings.

POSTSCRIPT: @Tim, in fairness to the parties involved, here’s a more detailed and “official” description of what happened with the building names:

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Interesting facts: I have some family members by marriage who are part of the Swedish Covenant Church. It appears to be a fairly large denomination. An offshoot of Lutheranism? But obviously required a lot of immigration to establish.

I live in WA state today because my husband’s Danish great-great-grandfather and his brother decided to move to WA after a few years in the Midwest after immigrating.

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My hunch is that the Swedish Covenant Church is an older name for the Evangelical Covenant Church. Yes, they are basically Lutheran in their theological history. They were part of the pietist “great awakening” occurring in Sweden in the mid-1800’s and a part of the great migration to America. (I think something like one-fifth of the Swedish population made that trek.)

As with many of the Swedish “rebels” against the official state church, they met in homes and often got hassled by state church officials who would visit and demand they shut down. Many of those house churches organized together under what they called their covenant.

I used to deal with a lot of scholars at North Park Theological Seminary near Chicago and it was founded by this denomination. A lot of Swedes settled in the Chicago area and the original Trinity Evangelical Divinity School campus (founded by Swedish and Norwegian people) was in Chicago until it moved to its present location in a northern suburb.

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Yeah, that’s what I was referring to. My brother-in-law went to North Park. My kid goes to a preschool run by one of the churches. Thanks! Interesting to learn that history!

It would be interesting to study American history from the perspective of migrating churches and their organizations. It explains so much of what most history books don’t cover. (For example, why did the Quakers and German Brethren head inland to Pennsylvania and eventually Ohio, Indiana, etc.? The long-established coastal lands were already largely controlled by English-speaking Anglicans et al. Indeed, religion provides a lot of background to why various groups quickly headed into the “forbidden” French and Indian territories and even Appalachia.)

When I was young, we were taught in a vague way that “Many people came to America for religious freedom.” but it was never explained why that same factor applied to people in such differing situations in Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. One would think the topic fundamental because “the separation of Church and State” concept doesn’t really resonate much until one understands the “un-free” situations in the churches of various European countries of that era. Many simply assume by default that “those big bad meanie governments of Europe were oppressing Christians” when the actual situation was “some powerful Christians used the governmental powers to control and oppress other Christians.” Indeed, that problem of religious people using the state to control people of differing beliefs continued virtually unabated in America. (Indeed, the oppressed groups often became the oppressors once they had the power to do so.) And that led to Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter promising some less powerful Baptist groups that the more powerful Baptist groups would not be allowed to deprive them of their religious liberties because there was to be a separation of church and state.


Yeesh! Do they really? I always have assumed that everyone knew that the established Christian churches in Europe were themselves the problem where freedom-of-religion is concerned.


Yeah, one would think. But never overestimate the average persons grasp of history or virtually anything else. (When I teach layperson audiences, I tend to aim pretty low, frankly.)

I don’t remember textbooks in the 1950’s and 1960’s making that simple point about “religious freedom”—and I don’t think many of my history teachers knew any better than the misunderstanding you mentioned. And in the heart of the Cold War, it was often assumed that “those godless Communists” and the non-god-fearing in general were to blame for everything. And certainly in the Bible Belt states a history teacher would not have been comfortable explaining who the real oppressors were (i.e., in terms of being religious oppressors) because they might have gotten flack from their school boards. (I’m spit-balling here, based on the culture of the era. I’ve never researched this for hard evidence.)

Nowadays with some Christians thinking that they are being oppressed 24/7 by “the godless”, I would assume that there is even less understanding of what “they migrated to America for religious freedom” was really about. Yet, again, I’ve not tried to research this.

Thinking further, I’ve found that very few of my students have had much of a grasp of how the Reformation set the stage for centuries of religious conflict which complicated the already-existing, lots-of-reasons for conflict situation which already existed and was ready to boil over.

Indeed, one of the refreshing aspects of PS is that we tend to have a good number of people with some modicum of educational background and in general are not completely clueless. (It is a Friday and I’m speaking aspirationally.)


I’d like to read that book! It would explain a lot of history. I’m Dutch, and as far as that history I know a few ministers led groups to Michigan and Iowa specifically. I believe there’s a few books written about it, but I haven’t read them. I know they were against the state church as well. But I’d love to learn about all these immigrant populations in the U.S. as a whole.

Yeah, and as I’ve been reading up on that period a bit (yes, I lived through much of it, but I was very little during some of the livelier bits) it occurs to me that in a world where people assumed communism to be the principal threat to religious freedom, it would be natural to assume that religious freedom in the sense sought by early immigrants to the US was freedom from THAT sort of oppression, not from the state-sponsored religion that it really was.

And that might help explain something else. My sense is that a lot of Christians today think that the secular state is like the barrel of a gun, aimed right at them – and that they’ve got to destroy the secular state and replace it with something that favors their faith. What they neglect to understand is that a sectarian state inevitably will be sectarian in ways with which you disagree – and that the secular state, far from being a way to suppress religion, gives religion a healthy and oppression-free environment in which to flourish.

Ha! Then I shall not burden you with any possible contrary points there. And it’s THAT Friday, so I’m spending it listening to that Pete Seeger song.


My dad did his undergrad and seminary work at Trinity. He was also a pastor in both the Evangelical Free Church and Evangelical Covenant Church (though not at the same time!) for many years. Perhaps not coincidentally he is also Swedish.


Yeah, I was smiling as I wrote that—knowing exactly what you were thinking.

I may have known him depending upon his “era” there.

Mid 60s for undergrad and late 70s for seminary.

My contract began in 1979 but I wasn’t teaching until 1984. Your father probably had Kenneth Kantzer for Systematic Theology. Kantzer was also Dean from 1960 to 1978.

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That’s Metuchen. LOL