Is Religion Really Declining in America?

Is Religion Really Declining in America? April 17, 2013

Is Religion Really Declining in America?

            Everyone’s talking about a recent Pew survey allegedly showing that nineteen percent of Americans say “none” when asked about their religious affiliation.  As a result, one news outlet declared that “religion is declining” in America. Another (headline) stated that the survey shows “unbelief” is growing. I question the interpretations of the survey (as I question those of most surveys—especially about religion).

            There can be little doubt that “religious affiliation” with specific, nameable religious organizations is declining. We are in a trend away from highly visible, structured denominations. Many church goers do not know what “religion” their church is. In part that’s because of confusion about the word “religion.” When confronted with the term, many people immediately imagine a specific denomination—“Catholic,” “Orthodox,” “Lutheran,” “Episcopal,” etc. If they attend a church without such a highly visible denominational affiliation, as many do, they may answer “none” to a question about their “religious affiliation.” They mean “I don’t belong to any specific denomination.”

            I was raised with much confusion about religious terms and labels. Our little denomination was “not a denomination but a movement.” Only much later did I come to realize that we were a denomination. “Denomination” was sort of a bad word. Other people belonged to denominations and had “religious affiliation;” we had fellowship energized by the Holy Spirit.

            Over the years I’ve come across many people who are strong believers in some gospel, some religious belief system, some form of spiritual reality and practice, but who, for whatever reason, prefer not to name it with any of the traditional sociological categories and labels. “We don’t go to church; we have fellowship with others in our home” or “We don’t have ‘religion’; we worship God in Spirit and in truth.” Etc., etc.

            Then there are the many, perhaps numerous, people who have simply dropped out of any form of organized religion but still have religious beliefs and practices. How often have I heard “We just can’t find a church?” Too often to count. Or “I got burned out on churchianity but I pray and read my Bible.” Too often to count.

            I can readily imagine many people I know to be deeply religious checking “none” on a questionnaire that inquires about their “religious affiliation” (or simply saying “none” if asked by a survey taker)—for various reasons.

            Recently I was at a Baptist church in a large metropolitan area. I asked two employees what Baptist denomination, conference or convention the church belonged to. Neither knew. Later I found out the church is affiliated with a state Baptist convention and a metropolitan Baptist association. But the people I asked misunderstood my question; apparently they thought I was asking about a national group. Right now the church doesn’t belong to any.

            A friend visited a Church of God in a city she’d never been to before. She asked someone in the church if it was part of a particular denomination. (There are many called “Church of God.”) The person didn’t know.

            I believe many deeply spiritual, religious people, even people who attend church often and are deeply involved in church life on some level and of some kind, are simply ignorant or confused about “religious affiliation.” What are they likely to check on a questionnaire if their religious practice basically comes down to watching podcasts or television programs of sermons, etc.? What are they likely to check if they are between churches or have simply dropped out of organized religion altogether—even though in their own minds they believe in Jesus? What are they likely to check if they attend a house church unaffiliated with any larger network or organization (that they know of)? What are they likely to check if they frequently attend, but have not joined, a megachurch with no denominational label?

            By “religious affiliation” the survey designer may mean simply “Christian” or “Jewish” or “Buddhist” or “Muslim,” but the survey taker may think “church membership in a church with a specific denominational affiliation” or something else entirely.

            In conclusion, I’m not drawing any conclusion from the Pew survey results except that an increasing number of Americans don’t belong to any specific religious organization or, if they do, are confused about what it is or what to call it. They may nevertheless be deeply religious and even identify as “Christian” although they don’t “affiliate” (whatever that means to them) with any organized form.



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  • Jack Harper

    Roger, there seems to be a trend lately of people pulling away from traditional church going to home type settings. From what I see people are looking to connect and have some personal interaction with others they can relate to. I hear complaints all the time from senior folks that churches tend to favor the younger crowd, with they fast moving songs etc. In reference to survey’s, there are to many variables that are not considered: some you mentioned, for there to be any real proof that faith in God is really declining.

  • Rob

    I concur with your skeptical attitude towards such surveys. I think Baylor has done some good work at improving religion surveys in light of similar worries. One thing I notice is that most of my students (in the religion courses I teach) have religious views that are clearly Christian in character and origin but only a small portion of my students attends church. Most of those who attend go to one of two non-denominational churches here in town–including an Acts 29 church.

  • JD

    A similar survey was conducted in Britian last year. Numbers who identified as Christian went down and numbers who identify as ‘no religion’ went up. But I have always been very sceptical…Even though numbers of ‘Christians’ have gone down 59% still identified as Christian. 59%???! Imagine how radically we could change the country if over half were committed disciples of Christ!!!

  • Steve Rogers

    I am a none. I do attend an unaffiliated local church. But, it would seem odd to answer a survey of religious affiliation with “ReChurch”.

    • rogereolson

      My point exactly.

  • Ben

    Other than Pew surveys, what are other markers/criteria that you would use to gauge religion in America?

  • “Denominational membership was once a badge of honor to most Christians, but nowadays identification with a particular denomination is not all that important. In fact, the average person on the street could care less about denominational affiliation; many don’t even know what a church denomination is. Consequently, many churches are now electing to adopt new generic non-denominational names in an effort to attract a demographically diverse population.”
    (An excerpt from a new ‘5-Star’ book, Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace, by Ivan A. Rogers. Available from, also on iPad, iPhone, and Kindle).

  • Terry James

    I think a more interesting survey question would be: How does Christianity effect the popular culture now compared to 15, 25, 50 years ago? Better/worse? I’m not sure what criteria one would use, but I would find that a more telling study with respect to Christian authenticity.
    Though a curiosity, I don’t know that church affiliation makes much difference in the scheme of things.

    • rogereolson

      I assume you mean “in the greater scheme of things.” Well, it used to make a lot of difference. The question is why it doesn’t to you and to many people now? Is it because we don’t take beliefs seriously?

  • NST

    “In fact, the average person on the street could care less …”

    I think you mean “couldn’t care less”.

    • rogereolson

      Just using the average person on the street’s language. 🙂

  • Rene

    “Is it because we don’t take beliefs seriously?” I think it is more that we don’t even know what our beliefs are. I do believe the polls that reveal a rampant biblical illiteracy among church goers simply because I have been reading about them for thirty years.

    A belief has to have some kind of intellectual content before we can take it seriously. And even then, there is no guarantee that we will commit to it for ‘even the demons believe and shudder.’

    • rogereolson

      Recently I attended a Baptist church that used (in the worship service) a litany drawn from Psalm 51. The translation used (a fairly obscure one) says (in verse 5) that he (the Psalmist) was born guilty. (Nothing in the Hebrew requires that translation.) I was shocked as that is not Baptist theology. I am often surprised and shocked and dismayed when I attend worship services in all kinds of denominations’ churches. So often they sing a song or use a biblical translation or do/say something that is so contrary to what they say they believe (in their official or unofficial statements of belief). One example is the common use of the hymn “We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations” which is explicitly postmillennial. Few churches that sing that hymn are postmillennial. And then there are the Calvinist churches (I experienced this) that sing Charles Wesley’s great Arminian hymn “And Can It Be?” and Arminian churches that sing “Day By Day [And with Each Passing Moment].” It’s a pet peeve of mine that people who plan worship so seldom think about the theology of the hymns they choose, of the Bible translations they use, etc.

  • Rene

    Interesting thoughts, Roger. I’ve often thought that the hymns we sing could be an excellent way to teach the Bible (of course, the devil would be in the details). I too am from MN and grew up on those same hymns. They always bring back the ‘warm and fuzzies’ but I’m not sure that’s why we should sing them.

    I’ve recently been attending a Church of Christ that does not use any musical instruments. And since I am not a musician (I love music, I listen to it constantly, I just don’t do it well), the music part of the worship service is almost painful. I would love to hear thoughts from others (especially men) on music. Do they enjoy it? Do they learn from it? Why do they do it? Why do they think it is important or necessary for corporate worship. This is beside the point of your post but maybe some time in the future…..?

    Spring is finally here in MN and at least the birds are singing.

    • rogereolson

      I often said that in Minnesota Spring is two weeks between winter and summer–all too brief even if beautiful.

    • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

      Well, since you invited comments from “men” —

      I wasn’t raised in a “church-going” home, so some of my most formative Christian experiences took place in and shortly after college, in the early ’80s. That meant campus fellowships and “contemporary” style worship (where “worship” means “music,” according to the vernacular). So, despite the fact that I’m “old” (by the definition of qualifying for AARP), I prefer what I like to call “Psa. 149-150” style music — on the loud side, celebratory, with a wide variety of instruments, and inviting such participation as dancing in the aisles (even though I personally am not particularly emotive).

      Col. 3:16 confirms that songs certainly can have a useful teaching function, i.e. one can indeed “learn from it.” Personally, that aspect is only sort of “half-important” to me, so to speak. That is, I’m not real concerned that the songs be a major source of teaching “right” stuff, as long as they don’t teach “wrong” stuff. One that always comes quickly to mind in that regard is “Blow the Trumpet in Zion.” It has the sound of a joyfully rousing “battle hymn” for the Church, the army of God… until one happens to accidentally read Joel 2. Then you see that it’s actually a warning of impending judgment.

  • JC Prescott

    As a member and youth pastor in one of the myriad of Churches of God, I’m finding that with the rise of the non-denominational local congregation, many churches that do belong to denominations are “hiding” their membership/affiliation (at least in my corner the SE US). They still maintain the relationship with state/regional offices, but do not advertise that fact. Is this a trend in other parts of the nation? Do other denominations “hide” their affiliation?

    • rogereolson

      Yes; I have blogged about this phenomenon and decried it. I think it is dishonest for a congregation to hide its denominational affiliation. If it’s ashamed of it, it should separate, go independent. But all over the country churches are doing this–much to their discredit IMHO.