Empty Pews

Empty Pews November 9, 2020

In popular imagination an evangelical church is a growing mega-enterprise. It is located in exurbia with such high traffic volume that parking attendant is a major ministry. However, this picture is not normative nor has it been for several years.

Diana Butler Bass, a historian of U.S. Christianity, has a blog titled The Cottage (www.substack.com). Her October 13th entry summarizes the stats. White evangelicals are now about 15% of the U.S. population. Among Christians, their percentage has declined the sharpest since 2008. The mainline Protestant churches are also in decline, though they had a modest uptick in the past three years. The mainline (like Episcopal, many Presbyterian, most Lutheran, Methodist) now accounts for 15% of the U.S. population. Catholic churches have been declining since 1968 and the total of white Catholics is down from 16% of U.S. population in 2008 to 12% today. Those Catholic churches with steady or growing congregations are predominately Mexican-American or Dominican-American. Those parishes can perhaps claim another 12% of the U.S. population total, putting the Catholic total at about 24%. Many non-white evangelical churches (Black or Latinx, maybe Korean-American depending on categories) show steady or growing numbers and they constitute 5% to 10% of the total population.

Some holes in this summary should be evident. The big factor, says Bass, is “religious disaffection” across the board. In the 1950s nearly everyone in this country provided an answer when asked their religion, including those who rarely worshipped. Today anywhere from 25% to 40% say “no religion.” Some of them were baptized but have lost all interest. Many have no religion in their background and are not seeking any.

The “rarely worship” factor is also significant. Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have long been aware of a twice-yearly influx of worshippers—Christmas and Easter. There is a new wrinkle. The number of those who say they “worship regularly” but come around once or twice a month is substantial. It is hard to establish a precise percentage because these people come randomly—the first Sunday one month, the third Sunday the next, maybe not at all in the summer. By one estimate the percentage of hit-and-miss worshippers approaches 40% of a church’s total.

This “rarely worship” factor is more pronounced among evangelicals. In fact, a major theme in the evangelical appropriation of Christianity allows for not going to church. Billy Sunday (1862-1935), the best-known evangelical preacher of his day, said: “Going to church doesn’t make a man a Christian, any more than going to a garage makes him an automobile.” In one sense this saying is a timeless warning against hypocrisy. But Billy Sunday’s saying can lead to another that is used by several evangelicals: “Nothing is to come between a Christian and God, not even a church.” This saying can be interpreted to mean: Belonging to a congregation is not necessary. The consequent behavior strengthens the point that evangelical Christianity is not growing by a measurement of church affiliation.

Timothy Carney in his insightful Alienated America (Harper Collins, 2019) finds that many evangelicals who assert that “religion is very important” are the least likely to go to church. Some commentators conclude that the term evangelical is no longer a religious designation, but instead refers to a cultural and political bloc. (About 80% of those who identify as evangelical voted for Donald Trump in November 2020, reports National Opinion Research Center.)

Will social capital in the U.S. make a comeback? Will churches be part of that revival? To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Browse Our Archives