In the wake of the second consecutive Easter in the age of COVID-19, a major polling firm has found that, for the first time in more than seven decades, U.S. church memberships have fallen below the majority.
The 2020 survey found only 47 percent of American adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999.
“U.S. church membership was 73 percent when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70 percent for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century,” wrote Gallup.
“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference.”
“Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from eight percent in 1998-2000 to 13 percent in 2008-2010 and 21 percent over the past three years.”
Gallup says the remainder of the drop can be attributed to a decline in formal church membership among Americans who do have a religious preference.
Between 1998 and 2000, an average of 73 percent of religious Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Over the past three years, the average has fallen to 60 percent.
Generation differences were also highlighted in the report. Gallup finds that church membership strongly correlates with age.
Sixty-six percent of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58 percent of baby boomers, 50 percent of those in Generation X and 36 percent of millennials.
“The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong,” wrote Gallup.
“Also, each year the younger generations are making up an increasingly larger part of the entire U.S. adult population. Still, population replacement doesn’t fully explain the decline in church membership, as adults in the older generations have shown roughly double-digit decreases from two decades ago.”
Gallup finds that each generation has seen a decline in church membership among those who do affiliate with a specific religion.
Among subgroups the decline in membership is highest among Catholics down 18 points, from 76 percent to 58 percent versus protestants down nine points, from 73 percent to 64 percent.
Despite trends, Gallup finds that the U.S. is still a religious nation with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion.
“While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults,” Gallup wrote.