Losin’ Your Religion?

Losin’ Your Religion?

Here’s a story that is of quite stunning importance to our country. As the United States adjusts to an increasingly nonreligious population, thousands of churches are closing every year.

That has probably been accelerated by COVID but not entirely. Far from it.

I’m indebted to Adam Gabatt of The Guardian for some of the primary research cited in this commentary. Churches are closing at rapid numbers here, researchers say, as congregations dwindle and a younger generation of Americans abandons Christianity. At the same time, faith seems to continue to dominate American politics–but then the pretense of belief always remains long after its reality. This trend means some hard decisions for pastors who have to decide whether a dwindling congregation is any longer sustainable—but it’s created a boom market for those wanting to buy churches.

About 4500 Protestant churches closed in 2019 (the last year for which data is available), with about only 3000 new churches opening; that’s according to Lifeway Research, and it was the first time the number of churches in the United States had not grown since the evangelical firm began studying that topic. With the pandemic speeding up a broader trend of Americans turning away from Christianity, researchers say, the closures have only accelerated.

“People breaking the habit of attending church means a lot of churches had to work hard to get people back to attending again,” says Scott McConnell, executive director at Lifeway Research. But during the last three years all signs point to a continued pace of closures similar to 2019 or possibly even higher.

There really is a rapid rise in American individuals who say they’re not religious! (Personally, I find this a sign of incredibly heartening maturation in our population.)

Protestant pastors report that typical church attendance is only 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels, McConnell says, while research by the Survey Center on American Life and the University of Chicago found that in spring of 2022, only 67 percent of Americans reported attending church at least once a year compared with 75 percent before the pandemic. But while COVID may have accelerated the decline, there’s a broader, long-running trend of people moving away from religion in 2017: Lifeway surveyed young adults between age 18 and 22 who had attended church regularly for at least a year during high school, and the firm found that seven out of 10 had stopped attending church regularly. Some of the reasons were “logistical,” McConnell says, as people moved away for college or started jobs that made it difficult for them to attend church. But, he adds, one of the most frequent responses was that church members seemed to be judgmental or hypocritical and the younger generation doesn’t feel like they or some of their choices are being accepted in a church environment. “About a quarter of the young adults who dropped out of church said they disagree with their church’s stand on political and social issues,” McConnell says.

A study by Pew Research found that the number of Americans who identified as Christian was 64 percent in 2020, with 30 percent of the US population classed as religiously unaffiliated. About 6 percent of Americans identified with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. “Since the 1990’s,” Pew reported, “large numbers of Americans have left Christianity to join the growing ranks of US adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular; this accelerating trend is reshaping the US religious landscape.

In 1972, 92 percent of Americans said they were Christian, Pew noted, but by 2070 that number will drop to below 50 percent, and the number of so-called religiously unaffiliated Americans or “nones” will outnumber those adhering to Christianity.

Stephen Bullivant, author of Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America and a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at Saint Mary’s University, says that in the Christian world this had constituted a generational change and in the Catholic Church in particular the sexual abuse scandal drove many people away. Bullivant notes that most other highly developed industrialized countries moved away from religion earlier than the US (I’ll say!). He adds that the US had particular circumstances that slowed things down while other countries changed: “Canada, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries, the ‘nones’ rise much earlier; in the wake of the 1960s and the baby-boom generation, there’s this growing separation of traditional Christian morality. [But] what happens in America that dampens down the rise of the nones is the Cold War, because in America, unlike in Britain, there’s a very explicit kind of Christian America versus ‘godless communism’ framing of things, and to be nonreligious is to be unAmerican. I think that that dampens it down until you get the millennial generation for whom the Cold War is just a vague memory from their early childhood.”

When people leave churches, congregations dwindle, and when that gets to a critical point, churches close. This has led to a flood of ecclesiastical buildings available and a range of opportunities for buying them. Brian Dolehide, managing director of AD Advisors, a real-estate company that specializes in church sales, says the last ten years have seen quite a spike in sales. But selling a church isn’t like selling a house or a business. Frequently the sellers want a buyer who plans to use the church for a good cause. Dolehide says that he recently sold a church in El Paso which is now home to recent immigrants, and a convent in Pittsburgh that will be refitted as affordable housing.

Isn’t that nice! Now that is real faith and works in action, and free of the faith part–unless it’s faith in humanity. That’s merciful and generous. It’s the care in caritas, and it’s practical. I couldn’t applaud it more!

So I say hurrah. I say that as our US citizenry more and more “gets” what our own Constitution has been trying to teach us all along, as we grow more secular and more truly humane, we will have (as all research demonstrates) less domestic violence, less societal violence, less violence in general, and a more peaceable world–because we will not be externalizing our sacredness. We will be internalizing it, where it really belongs.