In an article in Atlantic magazine[i], author Jonathan Merritt notes that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches “die” each year. His comment suggests that churches are living entities, but what he really means is that they go out of business, because churches are businesses in every sense. They consist of a physical facility with employees, they have a budget that defines income and operating expenses, and they pay taxes…whoops, no they don’t. That is one big difference between a secular business and a church. They are exempt from taxes.
The article goes on to describe how a number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park. I haven’t heard of any being converted into brothels, but given their preoccupation with the sexual affairs of society…LGBTQ, gay marriage, celibacy, abstinence, and adultery…it would be natural for some of their abandoned buildings to be in that business too.
Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population.
Thom S. Rainer disagrees.[ii] Yes, churches are closing, but new churches are opening, so the net loss in churches is less than 1% a year, he says. And furthermore, it is not the growth in nonbelievers who are causing the loss. It’s the believers themselves who aren’t devout enough. They do too much non-church stuff, he says. I certainly agree with that. It would be really nice if they would stay out of politics. Rainer is a prominent Christian apologist, author of bestselling Christian books and President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Here’s another not exactly unbiased view, which claims that the dying churches are being replaced by nondenominational churches…they say the “nons” are more important than the “nones.”[iii]
Both of the articles referenced above seem to be whistling past the graveyard of all those dead, decaying and deserted churches. So, who is right here? Is organized religion declining precipitously in the US, or is it alive and well as it adapts to our increasingly diverse and skeptical younger generations?
According to a recent (2017) Gallup Poll[iv] the US population is divided into three approximately equal cohorts when it comes to religious belief:
37% are highly religious
30% are moderately religious
33% are not religious
These numbers are essentially unchanged from a similar poll taken a year earlier, suggesting that religious belief has stabilized in this country, but this ABC News/Washington Post poll[v] has some quite different numbers, although it is looking at a longer time frame:
On average last year, 36 percent of Americans in ABC News/Washington Post polls identified themselves as members of a Protestant faith, extending a gradual trend down from 50 percent in 2003. That includes an 8-point drop in the number of evangelical white Protestants, an important political group.
Reflecting the change among Protestants, the share of Christians overall has declined from 83 percent of the adult population in 2003 to 72 percent on average last year. In the same time, the number of Americans who say they have no religion has nearly doubled, to 21 percent.
Catholic self-identification (22 percent) has held steady during this time. The share of adults who identify with another form of Christianity – including Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons and Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example – has risen modestly, from 11 to 14 percent.
The ABC poll also shows that the decline in religious belief is much steeper among young adults.
Having no religious affiliation is most prevalent among 18- to 29-year-olds, at 35 percent, vs. 13 percent among those age 50 and older. It’s also higher among men than women (25 vs. 17 percent), among college graduates vs. those without a degree (25 vs. 20 percent), and among whites and Hispanics than among blacks (22 and 20 percent vs. 15 percent).
So what does it all mean? Whether the number of churches is declining precipitously or gradually or not at all, is only relevant politically if it results in a diminishing influence on government by religious groups. It is not clear whether a corresponding shift in voter attitudes has resulted. The growth in the percentage of nonbelievers among younger generations is encouraging, giving hope that in the future we may truly evolve into the secular government that the Founders envisioned.
Here is one mildly optimistic projection that says Christianity in the US will decline over the next thirty years from 76% to 66% of the population, while secularism will increase from 18% to 26%.[vi] That still leaves the religionists in the majority for a long time, so bigotry against gays, opposition to any attempts to control population growth, and religiously motivated wars will continue.
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