217. The Decline of Christianity in America – Part One

Part One: This week we’ll look at the depressing facts. The decline is unarguable. I don’t really intend to drive you crazy with charts and graphs and statistics, but we Orthodox need to know these things. Obviously we must go for Truth, not growth, but it is helpful to see what is not working lest we be tempted.

Part Two: Next week I’ll share what I’ve seen and experienced in my eighty two years, and give my best guesses as to why most (not all) of American Christianity and religion is declining.

The Statistics

I was tempted to title this Post “The Decline and Fall of Christianity in America”. We don’t know that, of course, because no one can see what the future will bring. But it certainly looks like we could be following the pattern of Christianity in western Europe.

This is from the heart of former Christendom:

DeutscheWelle, March 2018: In Germany “only 10 percent of registered Catholics attend church on Sundays. Among Protestants, it’s 3 percent.”

The Guardian in 2016: “The number of people attending Church of England services each week has for the first time dropped below 1 million – accounting for less than 2% of the population.” If you fly over hoping to find “merrie olde England” – sorry, folks, it’s not there anymore.

The Scandinavian countries are even worse. I’ll spare you the gory details.

From Statista, July 3, 2020: “Every year the number of Italian believers attending religious services becomes lower and lower. In 2018, there were about 14.3 million citizens attending house of prayer at least once every week, around four million worshippers less in comparison with the figures from a decade earlier.” This in a country with a population of about 60 million. At least it’s better than northern Europe.

How about Russia? Get ready for a shock, you Orthodox. Pew Research survey, 2014: 72% of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, but how many attend church as often as monthlySeven percent! in supposedly “super-Orthodox” Russia. (Some surveys say it’s even fewer.) This may or may not explain some things.

In Greece? In February 2017 Pew Research reported that “more than half say that religion is essential to their national identity. That’s 20 percentage points higher than any other European country.” I’ve read that church attendance is decreasing, but can’t find statistics. All I know from my very limited experience is that of the approximately 25 Liturgies I attended randomly in Greece (not counting Mount Athos) all but two churches were nearly full, and some were overflowing. One Sunday in 2012, I “church hopped” on Crete trying to find an empty church. All were full.

Just in passing, according to Pew Research in 2009, among Orthodox countries overseas which had the highest weekly attendance? Ethiopia with about 78%.

What is happening in America?

The United States is well known as one of the most churchgoing of countries. But here I am more interested in the trends.

Orthodox Christianity is so small in America that we rarely show up in national religious statistics. We’ll look at ourselves next week.

In what follows I haven’t been selective about the sources, since I find all tell the same story. So I’ve chosen charts that are more readable. (Or maybe it’s just my old eyes?) I’ll try to keep this as simple as I can.

1. This chart is a few years old, but it’s the clearest I’ve found to illustrate what’s happening. This shows not membership but percent of population. In that regard note that even “Evangelical Protestants” are not keeping up. Above all, note who are growing rapidly. Project current trends ahead for a few decades, and you can see…

2. Here is a chart of other religions. Islam and Hinduism are growing but still very small. Judaism is declining.

3. This meaures general “religiosity” based, it says, on “scientific surveys on worship service attendance, membership in congregations, prayer, and feelings toward religion [using] a computer algorithm to track over 400 survey results over the past 60 years”  – 1952 till 2012.

4. Weekly church attendance is likewise decreasing.

This chart shows that between 1993 and 2009 weekly attendance declined from 35% to 24%, while those who never attend has increased from under 10% to just over 25%.

 

5. The chart below is, I know, almost unreadable, but it’s significant. Taking a long term view, it compares Protestant and “Catholic” attendance since 1955. Protestant attendance has held steady at about 40%. (This, I presume, is because the rapid decline of mainline Protestantism has been compensated for by the rise of fundamentalist Protestantism.) However, weekly Roman Catholic attendance plummeted from 75% in 1955 to 33% in 2017!

4. 

6. Another indication of serious decline in the Roman Catholic Church: the number of nuns and priests.

7. Why are more people unaffiliated today? I doubt you can read this one (I barely can). On it Gallup shows how public confidence in organized religion declined from 65% in 1974 to 36% in 2018.

This is part of the general American loss of trust in most of our national institutions. However, once organized religion was at the head of the pack, the most trusted of institutions.

Now, however, here is Gallup’s latest list:  Organized Religion at 36% is running behind Small Business (75%), the Military (72%), the Medical System (51%), the Police (48%), the Supreme Court (46%), and Public Schools (41%). +  We’re about even with the Banks (38%).  +  We are still ahead of Technology Companies (32%), Organized Labor (31%), the Presidency (29%), Newspapers (24%), the Criminal Justice system (24%), Health Maintenance Organizations (19%), Big Business (19%), Television News (18%, down from 46% in 1993), and, um, Congress (13%).

8. Why are so many “nones” now unaffilliated with religion?  Pew Research asked them. They give a variety of answers. In case you can’t read what’s below: 60% say they question religious teachings, 49% don’t like the social/political positions of their churches, 43% dislike religious organizations, 37% don’t believe in God, 36% find religion irrelevant, 34% don’t like religious leaders.

9. Who specifically are dropping out? This is especially worrisome. Younger people. The younger they are, the less formally religious they are. With “Millenials” (born 1980-2000) 29% claim no specific religion.

By now, if you are still with us, your head is probably spinning from trying to focus on charts. You should see all the stuff I omitted!

There are many more points that could be made, but this is sufficient to make the chief one: Overall, Christianity in America is declining rapidly, especially among the young.

Next Week: Part Two – 1. The decline as I’ve seen and experienced it. 2. My guesses as to why. 3. What about the Orthodox Church?

Week after next: the Prayers nobody pays attention to

 

5 thoughts on “217. The Decline of Christianity in America – Part One

  1. From Father Bill: This is for the first 250 or so of you who read this post. I just went back and realized that I had slightly misread a couple of the charts. I’ve gone back and corrected my descriptions. Sorry

  2. Fr. Bill,

    This was very informative. I’d love to see the breakdown of the generations as to who is church going these days.

    Also do you ever post Your sermons anywhere for followers to listen?

    1. 1) Here’s an AARP summary of Pew Research: When broken down by age, results from the multiple surveys show:

      The Silent Generation (born before 1946) — are 84 percent Christian.
      Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) 76 percent;
      Generation X (born 1965 to 1980) 67 percent;
      Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) 49 percent.

      Declines since 2009 in the proportion who identify as Christian by age group:
      Silent Generation: down 2 percentage points;
      Boomers: down 6;
      Generation X: down 8;
      Millennials: down 16.

      This is not good news.

      For rest of the short AARP summary: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2019/religious-affiliation-poll.html

      2) How kind of you. I’m not preaching anymore. Some of my Blogposts are based on old sermons. There is a book of some of my sermons titled “A Modern American Orthodox Pastor”. If you don’t want to wait for them to make a movie of it (no offers thus far!) you can get it from Amazon and other book stores.

      1. Other bookstores? Amazon? How about Eighth Day Books, an Orthodox institution without compare. The best bookstore in the world. Get Millenials there and many will repent and join the Church. Plus it has spun off Eighth Day Symposia.
        Reading the log of visitors they have is a wonder in itself. People have literally come from the ends of the earth including His Grace Bp Kallistos Ware who was ecstatic. He took home a bunch of books he couldn’t get in the UK. Literature, history, the arts, as well as theology(Orthodox, RC, Protestant. Fine prayer ropes and icons as well. Plus “The Hobbit Hole” for fine children’s books.

        It is a joy just to go and sit in a chair and watch and listen. The conversations.

        Try their first before using Amazon. https://www.eighthdaybooks.com/

        1. Thanks, Michael. I had forgotten about Eighth Day Books – hadn’t heard of them in years. They’re located in Wichita, Kansas.

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