GALLUP: US Church membership declining FAST

I’ve been incessantly writing and talking about a “demographic sinkhole” opening up under the Church in these USA.

Gallup published (oddly, under “Politics”) about US Church membership.  When you go over there to read the article, be aware that they use the word “traditionalist” to identify people born before 1946.  It has nothing to do with liturgical choices.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.

As many Americans celebrate Easter and Passover this week, Gallup updates a 2019 analysis that examined the decline in church membership over the past 20 years.

Gallup asks Americans a battery of questions on their religious attitudes and practices twice each year. The following analysis of declines in church membership relies on three-year aggregates from 1998-2000 (when church membership averaged 69%), 2008-2010 (62%), and 2018-2020 (49%). The aggregates allow for reliable estimates by subgroup, with each three-year period consisting of data from more than 6,000 U.S. adults.

The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

As would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, although a small proportion — 4% in the 2018-2020 data — say they do. That figure is down from 10% between 1998 and 2000.

Given the nearly perfect alignment between not having a religious preference and not belonging to a church, the 13-percentage-point increase in no religious affiliation since 1998-2000 appears to account for more than half of the 20-point decline in church membership over the same time.

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. Between 1998 and 2000, an average of 73% of religious Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Over the past three years, the average has fallen to 60%.

[…]

That’s the generic nutshell.

What about Catholics?

Between 2010 and 2020 there was a big drop.  Why could that be?

Also, note the difference in the drop between Republicans (-12) and Democrats (-25), Conservative (-14) and both Moderate and Liberal (-21).

Protestant (-9) and Catholic (-18).  Could that be because Catholics are dropping out to go to megachurches?

Also,… NB: mention of pandemic…

The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion. However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship. While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults.

Churches are only as strong as their membership and are dependent on their members for financial support and service to keep operating. Because it is unlikely that people who do not have a religious preference will become church members, the challenge for church leaders is to encourage those who do affiliate with a specific faith to become formal, and active, church members.

While precise numbers of church closures are elusive, a conservative estimate is that thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year.

[NB] A 2017 Gallup study found churchgoers citing sermons as the primary reason they attended church. Majorities also said spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers, community outreach and volunteer opportunities, and dynamic leaders were also factors in their attendance. A focus on some of these factors may also help local church leaders encourage people who share their faith to join their church.

Let’s jump over to that link about sermons.

Sermons and Music Matter More to Protestants Than Catholics

While the rank order of priorities is similar between members of the two Christian branches, Protestants (including those who identify as simply “Christian”) attach much more importance than Catholics to the content of sermons, as well as to the quality of music.  [When you don’t have sacraments….]

Catholics and Protestants attach nearly the same levels of importance to the more social or pragmatic aspects of church, including access to youth programs, community outreach opportunities and social activities. However, Protestants are not significantly more likely than Catholics to care about the style of their religious leaders, saying the presence of dynamic leaders who are interesting or inspiring is a major factor. [When you don’t have sacraments….]

Reasons Protestants vs. Catholics Attend Church
% Major factor
Protestant/Other Christian Catholic
% %
Sermons that teach about scripture 83 62
Sermons that help connect religion to own life 80 67
Spiritual programs for children/teens 68 63
Community outreach and volunteer opportunities 61 56
Dynamic religious leaders 53 47
Social activities 49 48
Choir or other spiritual music 44 29
Based on those who attend church monthly or more often
GALLUP, MARCH 9-29, 2017

Overall, Catholics rate none of the factors as more important reasons for attending than do Protestants, suggesting that the latter group — with dozens of denominations and branches of Protestantism to choose from — may be more attuned to specific dynamics of what they prefer in their church experience than Catholics.

I wonder about that last component, “Choir or other spiritual music”.   Could it be that Catholics have been hammered with musical dreck for so long that they’ve tuned that aspect out?  I know one case, a parish in NYC which the Archdiocese was trying to close, that massively revived especially through having several sung TLMs during the week at a time when people were getting off work.  It was expensive to start, because they had paid singers.  However, once it caught on the contributions by far outweighed the expense.  Numbers at the evening Masses grew.

Another example, when I as a seminarian and then deacon was assigned to a church in Rome, San Nicola in Carcere, I got some of the other seminarians to come to serve Masses but also to sing Gregorian chant.  There was also a schola entirely of women, many of whom worked for the Comune.  We started leaving the doors of the basilica open and people walking by came in and then stayed.  The regular attendance at Sunday Mass began to grow.    I did the same thing when I was rector of a church, also in Italy.  A very good local choir would sing chant and polyphony for a Latin Novus Ordo Mass.  We left the doors open.  People passing by came in and stayed and returned the next week.  Attendance grew.

The plural of anecdote is “data”.  I’m sure you readers have music and liturgy related anecdotes.

When the sinkhole has taken the “beige” and the juggernaut of time, the biological solution, has taken our dear seasoned Catholics, there will be left only the highly motivated and committed: trads, converts, charismatics, etc.  These groups will have to find each other and unite to stay vital as Catholics in devolving modern society.  The key will be traditional sacred liturgical worship which will inform the sort of evangelical zeal and principles which the young and committed will surely embrace, especially regarding works of mercy and strong catechesis.   Rather like the ancient Church.

And the TLM is growing… growing… growing…. hear that you bishops?…. growing.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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20 Comments

  1. David Spaulding says:

    I have watched many of my children’s friends, either in high school or college, move from Catholic to non-religious and six of them “came out” as either homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered. Those are only the youth I know personally and I am led to believe that there are quite a lot more who went to school with my children who were twisted by the present age.

    It seems to me that there is a relationship between failing religiosity and the increased percentage of persons who see sexuality as an undeniable force of nature, one not subject to reason or any moral or ethical standard. The Church has, despite the present wishy-washiness of some clergy and lay leaders, been a steadfast opposition to “do as you wish” and it does not surprise me that those who wish to live free of challenges to their conduct would separate themselves from the Church. By extension, those who love them and have to personally interact with them, are drawn away from firm conviction.

    Satan uses our pride to destroy as many souls as possible. If he convinces us to become licentious beasts, rejecting our proper place as God’s children, he scores a greater victory than just our souls. Our choice to wallow in filth undermines the faith and integrity of those around us and challenges our friends, family, and associates to either confront us about our conduct, risking severing their relationship with us and those who won’t confront us… or become timid followers of the Christ.

    To many of us, rejecting the faith is unthinkable so I suspect satan knows that directly challenging us to reject God may turn us into saints. So, instead, he just pours water on our faith. Is there a better way than to present us with being ostracized for speaking the Truth or welcomed for being “tolerant”? He lets us be satisfied with quietly believing but robs us of our zeal and we are left with a faith that cannot save or even sustain. We shake our heads at the world, quietly doing the minimum we are asked by the Church and personal piety to do, and whittle away the years, accomplishing little more than silent witness to evils we do not stand against.

    In Revelations, we are warned about the Christians so many of us have become (and I include myself in this critique): “I know about your activities: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelations 3:15-16)

  2. ZestyLemonZach says:

    Of course it is. On a practical level, the church has declared itself non-essential.

  3. ChrisP says:

    I have seen in a number of videos and print, excellent priests like Fr Mark Goring, Fr Chris Alar, Mgr. Charles Pope plus others, all state, off the cuff, the same thing: they wonder if humanity is too far gone to be corrected by “usual” means, ie. a more blunt Divine instrument is needed, sooner rather than later.

    I think they may be right.

  4. moon1234 says:

    In many places the Church’s priests and bishops do not practice what they preach. The last year has pointed a very bright spotlight on that problem.

    How many times have you went to Mass and heard a sermon about how we need bring back those things in our liturgy which has been lost. Right after to be presented with a lay woman walk into the sanctuary followed by banal music, lay people bringing up “gifts” (not offerings for the sacrifice, but gifts) and presented to female “acolytes.”

    There is ZERO surprise at the declining numbers of people who believe in the real presence. The priests, bishops and lay people have allowed the Mass to become a confraternity instead of the worship of God. Most of the outward signs and actions have been changed to point towards Man instead of God.

    I have been “forced” to attend the Novus Ordo due to a family situation for the last year or so. Every Sunday I leave Mass feeling cheated for I know what I am missing. I hear a homily that is a complaint about of current secular situation. I almost never hear a homily about the Gospel and how it can be bring me closer to our Lord.

    I still attend Mass, but I tend to sit in the Nave or very back of the Church. I don’t want anyone else to see my discomfort. Maybe I should be thankful that I can attend Mass at all. It is just so very hard to attend and I do so out of obligation more than desire.

    All the Latin Mass times are either way too early for our family (7:30am or ealier) or way too late (12:30pm or after), or we need to drive more than an hour. The few times I have been able to attend the last year have been on Holy Days when the TLM is placed at the desired time. I can then take off work to attend. When it is over I feel again like I am returning to the desert.

    I fear for our society. Without moral leadership we will be the new babylon. In many ways we are already there.

  5. TonyO says:

    While the numbers of those who associate with a SPECIFIC house of worship declining is a sad testament to modernity, there is one facet of the numbers that is quite interesting, as a reversal of what the left would like to claim:

    College graduate vs not-college graduate. IN 2000, the Nots slightly edged out the graduates, 69% to 68%, in having a specific house of worship. In 2010, the Graduates dropped some to 65%, but the Nots plummeted to 60%. By 2020, the Nots continued their precipitous (almost cliff-like) decline to 47% while graduates dropped to 54%.

    Yes, both groups declined a LOT. But here’s the funny thing: 97% of college graduates are getting their “education” (if you don’t want to call it brainwashing) from leftist-controlled edu-ganda system, and EVEN SO the majority of them still associate with a specific house of worship. (And some (small) additional percentage still hold to a religion, just not one specific house, such as church-shoppers). Oddly enough, the entertainment system of modern media in TV and movies, which is the single largest mind-molding force on adults not in college, is FAR more able to sever believers from their churches than even the lock-step leftist-controlled universities. Go figure. The old-style secular humanist atheist predictions that religion will simply shrivel up and disappear into a cloud of dust when everyone gets educated turn out to be rather inaccurate.

    (I have not attempted to factor in the decline in church-goers’ actual effective belief in anything that requires them to act differently than secular humanists, and the resulting de facto situation that a lot of “churches” are simply holding pens for secular humanists who are only nominally Christians (or Jews) and just don’t recognize it. It would be interesting to find out how many of those church-goers could even recognize a concrete contradiction between secular leftist policy and Christian theology/belief if it bit them on the rear.)

  6. Ages says:

    I think the Wuhan Devil is definitely a factor.

    They say it takes 65 days to break a habit. How many people were just barely hanging on, when last March everything closed? I grew agitated around May/June when I realized how many were “breaking the habit” of attending church.

    Attending church should not be a mere habit, but it’s better than nothing. To go back after months takes effort. Sad to say I have family members who haven’t been back. They hate masks and most churches are requiring them. That’s a factor too.

  7. Matthew says:

    I enjoy a good homily and I get one about 2/3 of the time. My job keeps me at odd hours so sometimes I have to go to a different parish or a different mass time so I get a variety of priests. Even the ‘bad’ homilies are OK.

    However I go for the Mass itself, not for the homily.

    Gallup won’t see me leaving the Church. Mass is the highlight of my week ( and day when I can get to that too).

  8. Gaetano says:

    The fact that more non-college graduates than college graduates are leaving is further evidence of our failure to connect the Church with the working class.

    We used to be so much better at that.

  9. mamajen says:

    moon1234 said: “I hear a homily that is a complaint about of current secular situation. I almost never hear a homily about the Gospel and how it can be bring me closer to our Lord.”

    This is a significant problem.

  10. JMody says:

    Singing attracting attendees – my “Maxims of Christian Chivalry” by Kenelm Digby includes this gem.

    “Music is said by some holy men to have drawn the gentiles frequently into the Church through mere curiosity, which ended in conversion of heart and the desire of baptism. This gave occasion to Dr. Burney to say that ‘the generality of parochial music with the moderns is not likely to produce similar effect, it being such as would rather drive Christians with good ears out of the Church than draw Pagans into it'”.

    And this is a book whose first edition was published in 1924. I suspect that Mr. Digby and Dr. Burney are both apoplectic at what 97 years have wrought.

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  12. JonPatrick says:

    I wonder how much of the decline at the start of the 21st Century could be attributed to the well publicized homosexual sex abuse crisis that came out around that time. Certainly among Catholics it shook their faith in the Church as an institution.

  13. swvirginia says:

    There is so much to unwrap in these statistics, but certainly lack of catechesis is an issue. We don’t go to Mass to hear nice songs or a nice homily. We to to Mass to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. Of course, that question is not part of the survey, because it would mean nothing to Protestants.

    But as Father Z. has pointed out so many times, Mass for many Catholics has become a meaningless ritual.

    I live in a very liberal community with a very liberal congregation, and so the music is truly awful and the sermons are dull, and have been for many years. But that’s not why I go to Mass. But I’m an oddball in the parish.

  14. Cincinnati Priest 2 says:

    JonPatrick: That would be hard to tease out although I believe that Bishop Barron has cited some polls showing it is a significant factor, especially among younger Catholics. Within that data, hard to tell how many are using that as an “excuse” and how many are genuinely scandalized (i.e. “I didn’t really want the obligations for the Catholic faith anyway deep down, so now the abuse crisis is giving me cover to leave” – vs. – “I have truly lost faith in the Church because of the terrible sin”).

    One thing working against the hypothesis is the timeline: fairly small loss from 1998-2000 to 2008-2010 period, after became widely publicized in 2002 — and not much different from Protestant loss. Of course, that doesn’t take into account the “second wave” of the McCarrick awfulness where possibly many decided to stay with first revelations but “had enough” in the 2nd round.

    My hunch: while a contributing factor, the loss is much bigger than the abuse scandal, as terrible as it was, and the seeds had been sown long before that with terrible catechesis, weak episcopal leadership, and above all irreverent and trivialized celebration of holy Mass.

  15. Jim Dorchak says:

    I would be interested to see the numbers here in Chile. Especially since we have not had ANY Mass since March 2020. Here we were already in a very bad way because of the betrayal of the bishops of Chile and then the subsequent betrayal of all Chileans by Our Holy Father in his visit to Chile in 2018.
    The communist news papers made sport of the Holy Father on his visit. Excoriating him and the bishops for their inconsistent and un-Catholic liberation theology policies. It came as a great surprise to us when we moved here to find how anti Catholic the Chilean Mass had become. We actually had to ask if we were actually in a Catholic Church and was this a Catholic Mass.
    Now with the Whohan Flu we have become even more lost.
    Indeed the road to hell (especially the one that lead out of Chile) is paved with the skulls of bishops.
    Thanks for the article. Jim in Chile

  16. hwriggles4 says:

    I wonder if the survey included those who attend church on certain occasions such as “weddings and funerals” and “Christmas and Easter.” Mainline Protestant denominations (i.e. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Church of Christ) also have congregations like this too, not just Catholics, and I am sure there are cultural Mormons and Jews too.

    I have a good friend who is Jewish (he and his family are active regularly at Temple) and as kids, the years of preparation he did for his Bar Mitzvah (including Hebrew school) made Catholic confirmation look like pulling an all nighter for a college final exam.

    I was glad to see the South had a higher rate of attendance than the left coast. I live in the South and I have Protestant brethren who “church shop” (as a Catholic revert I can relate and many of us know by now that the parish across town is oftentimes more solid than the parish down the street) based upon certain pastors, activities (a good Baptist family I know has 3 kids and they attend a certain Baptist church that has youth oriented activities, which helps with community), bible studies or groups (years ago I attended one parish because they had a solid Catholic young adult group, which produced several good strong Catholic marriages with children, plus lifelong friendships), schedules (I remember missing one year of Scout meetings because confirmation was the same night our Boy Scout troop met), relevant teaching series (my parish has a Thursday morning mens group that meets at 0600 and we usually finish up by 0730 prior to going to the office), and orthodoxy (a coworker years ago was a Presbyterian who attended services regularly and had mentioned to me that her congregation was dwindling, and the United Methodist Church is contemplating a split over you know what).

    By the way, preaching does matter to me, and I think men like myself look for nuts and bolts when it comes to preaching.

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    It would be interesting to see the numbers by urban, suburban and rural. And the difference between San Francisco (no offense to Abp. Cordileone who’s been fighting the good fight) and, say, Topeka. The rural numbers are probably somewhat better than the urban.

    Some study a couple years ago stated that rural areas tend to have a higher level of entrepreneurship than urban, and rural startups have a better survival rate after five years.

    Perhaps community has something to do with all that. (By the way, Tennessee is working on legislation to designate the Holy Bible the State’s official book. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth at the Fishwrap and Amerika magazine, perhaps with animal sacrifices to Baal.)

    Meanwhile in Oklahoma things are afoot at Clear Creek Abbey:

    “…recently unveiled a new tympanum that is found above the main door of the abbey church. The work in question was executed by George Carpenter who, along with his family, has lived in the shadow of the monastery for some years now and has contributed to various artworks in both metal and stone for the abbey.”

    https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2020/10/substantial-architectural-progress-at.html?

    Art and beauty, Roger Scruton had something to say about that. At a minimum, religious art is an antidote to the Cloaca Maxima of much of pop culture entertainment (“Walker, Texas Ranger” is, of course, a sign of a benevolent God).

  18. Semper Gumby says:

    Zesty Lemon Zach: Unfortunately, you’re on to something there, but there are faithful clergy and laity.

    A recent article at First Things titled “Woke Religion” begins:

    “We Americans tell our history in light of our awakenings, those periodic spasms of panic over the spiritual debts we have piled up against God as well as flesh and bone. This is what the summer’s racial unrest was: a mass attempt to expiate centuries of guilt.”

    No. The author should familiarize himself with the 1619 Project, the Marxist BLM, Antifa, the Death Party political religion, and the term “Useful Idiot.”

  19. Semper Gumby says:

    There is a difference between the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ and the regime today in the Vatican that cavorts with Pachamama and Jeffrey Sachs, and states that “God contaminates himself” while also cancelling Holy Mass.

    An interesting statistic in addition to Attendance is Baptisms. Perhaps Baptisms are in a better situation than Attendance. On the other hand, I hear that an Irish lass (“Saoirse”) is reporting that there were no baptisms in Ireland this year. Perhaps that statistic could be verified.

    Deo gratias, the situation in the U.S. is not as bad as Ireland, here is a priest celebrating at dawn Easter Mass at a Mass Rock in Ireland:

    https://twitter.com/ProtecttheFaith/status/1379042127401877505

  20. Semper Gumby says:

    hwriggles4: Interesting comment.

    The Sacrament of Baptism, Protestants, and the Catechism: “In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula.”

    In a post from last summer a comment by Kathleen10:

    “On Canon 212 there is a video of a BLM mob strutting into a Baptist Church and obnoxiously marching through in a threatening manner.”

    https://wdtprs.com/2020/07/the-coming-storm-st-louis/

    Three more posts to further illustrate the lack of spiritual and situational awareness of the first paragraph of the First Things “Woke Religion” article:

    Maoists:

    https://wdtprs.com/2020/08/signs-point-to-maoists-rampaging-in-kenosha-minneapolis-chicago/

    Anarchists, Opportunists and Warlords:

    https://wdtprs.com/2020/06/the-glorious-seattle-free-capitol-autonomous-zone-has-survived-another-day/

    Religious statues beheaded:

    https://wdtprs.com/2020/07/the-lunacy-is-spreading-northern-ontario/

    The decline in church membership (in the U.S. and around the world) has something to do not only with the temptations and distractions of modernity, but also re-paganization, brainwashing, scapegoating, free-roaming rage that is not checked by serious consequences, and feckless leadership and pastors with, too often, weird theology.

    1 Cor 14: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

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