Church attendance in the U.S. is still dropping (and it's not COVID's fault)
If you weren't attending church before, why on earth would you go now?
This newsletter is free, but it’s only able to sustain itself due to the support I receive from a small percentage of regular readers. Would you please consider becoming one of those supporters? You can use the button below to subscribe to Substack or use my usual Patreon page!
The pandemic made it next to impossible for groups to gather in person, but a recent survey from Gallup shows that COVID alone can’t be blamed for the recent decline in church attendance even if it was a factor. Despite a recent bump, the vast majority of Americans are still choosing to stay at home on Sunday mornings. More importantly: the numbers have not jumped back to pre-pandemic levels.
Gallup found that only 31% of Americans say they’ve attended a religious service in person in the past week, a drop from the 34% who said they did between 2016-2019. And all of that stands in stark contrast to the late 1950s when nearly 50% of Americans made religion part of their weekly routine.
It is not clear if the pandemic is the cause of the reduced attendance or if the decline is a continuation of trends that were already in motion. However, the temporary closure of churches and ongoing COVID-19 avoidance activities did get many Americans out of the habit of attending religious services weekly.
Attendance rates since 2020 are lower among nearly every major subgroup…
Obviously, there are many believers who attended services virtually during the pandemic. While many of them have since shifted back to in-person gatherings, it doesn’t make up for the people who have decided to ditch services entirely.
The big takeaway here is that there’s no reason to think Americans, as a whole, will be returning to church anytime soon. Some denominations may see an increase in attendance, but the overall trend is going in the wrong direction for church leaders. If they believed the pandemic was the biggest obstacle they faced when it came to getting bodies in the seats, they miscalculated. (By the way, while the survey includes attendance at mosques and synagogues, it feels safe to assume most respondents are some form of Christian.)
The question now is what church leaders plan to do to reverse the trend.
If churches are treated as nothing more than an arm of the GOP, and pastors go all in on culture war battles, and leaders continue building their faith on a foundation of bigotry, they may appeal to a handful of older conservatives, but they’re bound to miss out on a large swath of younger people who have no desire to use faith to perpetuate inequality and hate. At some point, churches need new blood.
But as many younger people could tell you, there are better (and easier) ways to find community and meaning than spending hours of your weekend surrounded by people who use the cloak of religion to go after the most marginalized people in the country. Mission trips and youth groups have plenty of downsides. There are more exvangelicals and survivors of faith-based abuse speaking out about how their churches harmed them. And the most powerful voices in Christianity are typically heard embracing MAGA talking points or debating whether women should be silent or submissive. All of that is in addition to the slew of sexual abuse cases enveloping the largest Christian groups in the country.
While it’s all red meat for conservatives, none of it is going to bring more people to church. The trend isn’t going to change until Christian leaders decide to change, and Christian leaders aren’t known for their embrace of change.
Send them your thoughts and prayers. It’s not like anything else is going to help.
If you appreciated this article, please subscribe to my newsletter for free (!) or share this post on Reddit, Facebook, or the godawful Bird app.