That Gallup Church-Membership Survey: More Devastating Than It Seems

That Gallup Church-Membership Survey: More Devastating Than It Seems April 1, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Recently, Gallup released a new survey they did. In it, they asked Americans about their religious affiliations. And oh dear, Gallup got back some bad news for Christians! For the first time ever, fewer than 50% of Americans claimed membership in any churches! Today, let me show you this survey — and we’ll see why it’s much worse news for Christians than it even seems at first glance.

the uk is way ahead of americans on the gallup curve
(Lee Scarratt.) An abandoned church in London: Christian America’s future.

Gallup: Survey SEZ…!

Gallup is a venerable old survey house. They run popular polls on a variety of topics. 538’s Harry Enten likes them quite a lot, and he expressed sadness at their decision in 2015 to stop doing election polling. Now, Gallup wants to focus on “issues.” And religion definitely counts, I suppose. (Well, sure think it’s an issue.)

This survey’s a doozy, that’s for sure. For the past 80ish years, Gallup has been asking Americans a whole bunch of questions, including a lot of stuff about religious leanings.

For a long time, Americans’ reported church membership hovered in the mid-70% range. Then, around the 1980s, it began to fluctuate. In the 2000s and 2010s, church membership began its nosedive — and it has not recovered at all from that nosedive yet. It’s only trended downward since then.

With this latest survey, only 47% of US adults said they belonged to any house of worship (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever). That is the first time Gallup has ever, ever gotten back such a low number.

Gallup graph whoa nelly this is bad
(Source. Presented as fair use in discussion.)

Just look at that sharp lil decline at the end! Like the thwappy tail of a grumpy cat!

The usual trends seem to be holding strong, as well. Catholics are in a worse reported decline than Protestants. Conservatives/Republicans aren’t opting out of church membership quite as often as liberals/Democrats.

And there’s no indication whatsoever that church membership will be increasing — or even bottoming out — any time soon.

Why Gallup Thinks Reported Church Membership is Declining.

Over on Gallup’s writeup, their people think reported church membership is dropping like a stone for two reasons:

  1. More adults lack religious preferences (“nones”) than ever before
  2. More religious believers lack a home church than ever before

And both trends seem to have a generational component. The younger the generation, the more likely these factors are to be present in them.

So in the age cohort born before 1945 (called “traditionalists” by Gallup), those folks jumped from 4% Nones to 7% in the past 20 years. But then we get up to Millennials, and — whass this now? — they’ve jumped from 22% Nones to 31% since 2008ish. It’s a bit early to tell what Gen Z is going to do, but so far Gallup thinks that the ones who’ve hit adulthood are 33% None. Who even knows where they’ll end up as more of them mature into adulthood?

Gallup sees the same trend in church-less believers. Their numbers keep increasing by generation. All age groups of believers reported declining church membership numbers, and the effects held to that same generational curve.

And Now, Why This Gallup Poll is Absolutely Catastrophic.

Have you noticed that I use words like “reported” and “claimed” a lot in this post? There’s a reason for it.

I’m not saying this to slam Gallup. I’m just saying that all they do is ask survey respondents questions and write down their answers. Nobody at Gallup verifies anything their respondents say. They ain’t driving to these respondents’ homes to see where they go of a Sunday morning.

And the simple facts are these: People lie and distort the truth even in completely anonymous survey situations.

Self-reports are not gospel truth (haha, SWIDT?). All they tell us is that this respondent gave that answer. And that’s not useless or anything, just we need to understand the limitations of this methodology.

When it comes to religious surveys, Americans tend even more to present themselves dishonestly. They do it for a variety of reasons. My suspicion here is that their local communities or social groups still exert a great deal of religious coercion in these respondents’ daily lives. Thus, respondents may fear being found out regarding their apostasy or lack of faithfulness in devotions. Or perhaps they really feel bad about their truths, and these answers are the first climb back onto the Jesus wagon for them.

(That’s why Gallup’s questions about church attendance in particular tend to get such ridiculously inflated responses, while the reality of church attendance may be less than half of what Christians regularly offer pollsters.)

So what we have here is a survey where more than half of respondents felt comfortable saying they’re Nones or don’t belong to a church.

Just as we see in church attendance, the reality of Americans’ church membership almost certainly looks even starker than this new Gallup poll indicates. But more than half of respondents felt comfortable enough to answer this way.

This whole story just takes my breath away!

Don’t Worry, Christians! They’ve Got Suggestions!

Gallup’s takeaway: Church leaders won’t be recruiting Nones any time soon, so they should concentrate on coaxing churchless believers into their sheepfolds.

Yes. That will totally work.

matrix white rabbit girl
For sure.

The Gallup writer points to a 2017 study they did that indicated that people went to church for good sermons, “dynamic leaders,” the chance to do charity in the community, and access to programs/amenities, so I’m guessing they’re suggesting that church leaders should try this stuff.

Who knows? It might work.

Churches totally haven’t ever tried any of that stuff yet, after all —

oh wait.

NEXT UP: As Christian leaders look forward to one of their few remaining mortgage-lifter weekends, we check out the Christians who believe very firmly, yet don’t belong to any churches. On Sunday, we celebrate the Great Jewish Zombie Uprising! At some point we’ll talk about exactly how religious-survey questions get asked, because that matters a lot. Lots on our schedule — see you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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