Why the Decline in U.S. Church Membership?

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church in Sterling, KY. He recently wrote an article for the Lexington Herald Leader in which he detailed the reasons he believes U.S. church membership is at a new low, and is continuing to fall. He noted that Gallup polling indicates that membership in churches has dropped below 50% of the population for the first time since they began polling on this question in 1937. Gallup noted that membership has declined across all religious, demographic, political, and geographic categories. Prather then went on to list why he believes this is happening.

  1. The rise of the internet has made it easy for people to pick and choose beliefs from around the planet.
  2. Younger Americans are distrustful of all types of institutions – including churches.
  3. Skepticism and Atheism have become more acceptable.
  4. Roman Catholic child abuse scandals have shaken people’s trust in organized religion.
  5. The bad behavior of high profile Protestant (and Evangelical) leaders has also shaken people’s trust in organized religion.
  6. The alliance of white evangelical Christianity with right-wing politics has turned some people off from church.
  7. Many liberal churches have become so caught up in social justice and “wokeism” that they’ve become indistinguishable from secular organizations.
  8. Sundays are no longer considered sacred.
  9. A lot of churchgoers were never that serious about their faith to begin with.

And in light of recent events, I would add a 10th item. The COVID pandemic has created a new dynamic where people were encouraged to not come to church, but to participate online. This has broken the “habit” of churchgoing for many who will likely not return.

The truth is, American society has radically changed in numerous ways because of many anti-Christian influences. The changes have exposed a couple of things.

First, they have exposed a level of profound spiritual superficiality in the Christian community. As long as church membership was a socially profitable idea, people just attended because it was comfortable. It is not that most of these people were not actual believers, but they put so little effort into spiritual growth that when the going got tough, they did not have the personal spiritual resources to stand strong.

The second thing society’s anti-Christian influences have exposed is a profound lack of knowledge and understanding about the Christian faith among self-identified Christians. If you were to ask most church goers to explain the essential basics of the Christian faith, to share the gospel message with someone, or to mount a defense of the faith against an Atheist attack, they would simply be at a loss. There is very little effort in most churches to equip their members to stand strong in their faith in our increasingly anti-Christian society.

There is a simple solution to this problem, but simple doesn’t mean easy. It will require completely reimagining how to think about and practice church. This does not mean de-emphasizing worship and Bible study, but it does mean putting a greater emphasis on discipleship training. On the church organization side, that means creating new, imaginative opportunities for church members to get training in the vital essential areas of the Christian faith. But this is not just a problem for the church organization. The main reason most churches don’t do that kind of training is that the members don’t support it. Why waste time, effort, and money on programs that people will not participate in? No, the most important part of the solution will require a new commitment on the part of rank and file Christians to recognize their shortcomings and to demand spiritual growth opportunities.

There is no doubt that there is a downward spiral in church participation in the U.S. And while this is certainly a discouraging phenomenon, a solution is absolutely not out of the question. That said, it will take effort and a new commitment to grow by those who remain in the church.




Freddy Davis is the president of MarketFaith Ministries. He is the author of numerous books and has a background as an international missionary, pastor, radio host, worldview trainer, and entrepreneur. Freddy is a graduate of Florida State University with a BS in Communication, and holds MDiv and DMin degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker, particularly on the topic of worldview and its practical implications for the Christian life. He lives in Tallahassee, FL, with his wife Deborah.

You may also contact Freddy at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule him for speaking or leadership engagements.

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