US church membership falls below 50 percent first time in 80 years

Here’s a sign of the times: US church membership falls below 50 percent for first time.

It’s intriguing that church membership was so low 80 years ago – that puts thing in perspective a bit.

It’s important to note that some of these statistical drops are a reflection of changes in practice that set in decades earlier. As social pressure to belong to church decreases, the portion of the population that wasn’t practicing anyway is more likely to be honest about that and drop membership.

That isn’t to deny that secularization is rapidly advancing. This part of the story reflects what we all see happening in our church communities:

Among people born before 1946, 66 percent belong to a church with the share of people dropping as the generations progress. 58 percent of baby boomers, 50 percent of Generation X and 36 percent of Millennials report belong to a church.




  1. I think that given the in perpetuum sex scandals, and with religion being identified with the alt-right for a large portion of the population we should be happy that anyone at all shows up for Mass. 36 percent of millennials is pretty good given that many church leaders have worked tirelessly to make the church appear as repugnant as possible.

    1. That’s a great point. Bishop Barron and Co. keep putting the blame on modernism and how our morality is out the window. Instead of blaming other people for the mess, we really should be asking why the Church is pushing people away. I know many people my age who have stopped going to Church because of the sex abuse crisis.

      1. Bishop Barron is an earnest cleric and academic. He is a man of his time (1980s) but he only barely adjusts to the reality of today. He sees evangelization and discipleship as an enhancement to institutional tradition. It’s rather more the reverse

      2. Religious identification is declining across all denominations, liberal and conservative. Sex abuse is pretty much identified with Catholics, so why everyone else is declining? Perhaps, Catholics are taking everyone else out with them? There are also plenty of denominations that ordain women, support gay marriage, etc and they are losing members too. Social justice, while important in the eyes of God, is not that important in eyes of millenials, at least not as much as advocates would hope for.

        I suspect a reason (not the only one) for the decline that + Barron got right is the chasm between science and religion. But I think he has the contours wrong. Most people don’t make decisions by weighing the pros and cons of arguments for and against religion. People just generally value scientists and their profession. And most scientists are atheists, skeptics, or deists. So that adds great weight against organized religious. It doesn’t make people less spiritual per say, but it makes people more skeptical of a deity the intervenes directly in world events, that gives a Law from hands of angels to Moses on Mt. Sinai, that incarnates of a human being in Palestine 2,000 years ago.

        Giving people apologetics will probably only help people at the margins (and praise God for that) but doesn’t solve the problem of modernity.

      3. I’d like to explore this point a bit further. I think people have treated science and scientists with much skepticism over the past 70 years. Maybe in the US in mid-century there was a can-do attitude associated with it. We can cure diseases, tame the atom, go to the moon. Likewise with Vatican II: update the Church, keep young people, stay relevant, recover the old sources.

        As with religion science has been pushed back. Liberals questioned the use of science in war from 1945 through Vietnam. Conservatives questioned what they did not want to confront: climate change, coronavirus vaccines, and even polling numbers. I see at least as much skepticism on science as on religion.

        What I see is the plucky individual in ascendancy. A by-the-bootstraps mentality: we see it all over popular culture. We can’t rely on church, government, families of origin, or communities. It’s a blend of pelagianism and isolationism. Giving people apologetics sort of appeals to that: people can use reason to distinguish between the smart Catholic (themselves) and the unenlightened dummies out there.

    2. Has the alt-right & religious identification really occurred yet, even among millennials? Most millennials, like most Americans don’t pay that much attention to the news. I suspect that Pray Tell folks are among the rare sort ilk that are very much engaged in current events. For example, the reality is that very people know much about Q-Anon, even among Republicans.

      If there is any eventual fall out from a perceived alt-right identification with religion, I suspect it will occur in the future and is not happening now.

      1. I’m not a sociologist, but my local experience has been that the anti-science and perceived alt-right identification are very much keeping millennials away from our parish. Our parish is a small rural parish, and the nearest other parish is about 45 minutes away. We have become increasingly conservative in the past 12 years I’ve been here. (In our small town, church affiliation is valued enough that even the atheists go to the Unitarian community, so we haven’t hit the secularization that others have seen in our country.) Here are two examples of how anti-science and alt-right are keeping people away:

        Our parish has not been open to discussing issues of global warming in the years since the Pope’s encyclical. In regards to COVID, anyone at mass who is not wearing a mask and insisting on communion on the tongue is most likely a lay leader in the parish who have the ear of our priest. Masks are seen as religious persecution by these folks.

        Our parish recently hired a DRE who had images of confederate flags and anti-immigrant memes on his public facebook page. He boasted about attending Trump parades where people were shouting “White Power.” For both elections, our priests and deacon told us we were were sinning if we didn’t vote for Trump. Yet, we never prayed for racial reconciliation after Charlottesville or the death of George Floyd. On the Sunday after the capital insurrection, the insurrection was likened to abortion, gay marriage, and trans issues.

        Millennials who show up to our parish are often disappointed to see that this is what the church looks like these days. As a pediatrician, I often see these families when they’re prepping for baptism, and then they fall away from the parish because it seems more Republican than Christian. Many of the people I speak with love Pope Francis, but are disappointed to find a church that seems very different from his pastoral model.

    3. I’m 23 but didn’t receive the sacrament of Confirmation until 21. If I may be so bold, I don’t see it the same way. I appreciate the bishops who are trying to evangelize and reach out to young people, but ultimately I believe that the Gospel will speak for itself. What was most attractive to me was that I had a parish in town that didn’t bend over backwards trying to be “relevant” – if I wanted a relevant church I could’ve walked into the Episcopalian or Methodist ones (but look at where their church membership has gone). Rather, our priest wasn’t afraid to preach the kerygma, the Gospel, and he wasn’t afraid to call me, gently and lovingly, to repentance at the feet of Christ.

      I think that once the bishops and priests of the Church in the United States show that this is a faith worth dying for, by their own preaching of the Gospel and conduct, it will become much more attractive.

  2. I think the sex abuse crisis is the perfect heinous behavior to provide people the excuse to stop going along for the cultural reasons. Elder parents are passing away so there’s no one to keep happy. I think the reason is not materialism or modernism. The church has survived worse. I think the populace has become more educated and has simply outgrown what’s served up at the local parish as spiritual growth. We’re leaving parish work where there is no real engagement for laity apart from priest fan clubs and we are looking elsewhere to find meaningful ways to make a difference. As one parishioner put it, “we’re not uneducated peasants anymore.” Honestly the young priests are too into clericalism and not terribly deep. People are facing a lot of difficult challenges and frankly for many a priest is the last person they are going to go to for advice.

  3. A lot of Relevant Radio is just Republican talk radio. They have some programs that I like, but it was said by a priest on that station that anyone who voted Democrat would “self excommunicate” themselves. I doubt that’s even possible. That’s just one example among many. There are a few programs that I enjoy. But Relevant Radio is essentially a right wing political outlet.

    So, no, I have to disagree with Devin. I think most people are indeed following the news. And a major radio outlet that speaks for Catholicism has aligned itself, not with the alt-right per se, but with a Fox news style sympathy for those positions. It’s often appalling and I can’t listen to it.

  4. I can observe from the comments lists how much easier it is for us to discuss other topics than this one.

    I wish there were layers of data that were more locally grounded, especially for the Catholic Church in the US that has national layer but myriad local layers.

    1. Good point. I don’t think it’s really a liturgy topic, but I’ll venture a few thoughts.

      A friend once commented with skepticism about evangelization. What are we inviting people to? he asked. The premise is that our parish didn’t really have its act together. It was less why-bother and more we’ll scare them away. I didn’t agree, but I saw his point.

      I think we ask too little of baptized Catholics. They are given the basic initiation (mostly the secular meaning of that word) and are club members. They are ill-equipped for the mission of spreading the faith. The Tridentine model would have them pay a professional class or two (clergy and sisters and maybe missionaries) to spread the faith. They spectated.

      The retrenchment/apologetics model works to achieve its SCGS* model. The Church is only for the chosen few. And the occasional low-hanging fruit (Republican evangelical) who likes Latin and hates socialism. These Catholics also work directly against the remnants of that “professional” class–disparaging sisters and trumping up investigations and earnestly and openly wishing for Vatican II priests to die out.

      I think few Catholics are prepared to talk about their faith. If more were, I think we might be attracting all sorts of people to our parishes. They might not fit the molds of obedience, sex, politics, and all. But it would still be amazing to see hard-core atheists, non-Christians, and other serious skeptics (persecutors like Saul) come into the Church. We could make Fulton Sheen’s fish net look like pet store work. We’re just unprepared, if not afraid.

      I have hope we can turn it around, but I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.

      *Small church getting smaller

      1. Adjacent to your point: the nearly universal fear of engaging spiritual darkness and dryness. It’s not like Catholicism lacks for the tools for this. What’s it like to sense hearing the voice of God powerfully in your spiritual life experience – and never hear it again for decades (5 decades, in the case of St Theresa of Calcutta)? But American Catholicism seems afflicted by assimilation – assimilation to the broader culture’s assumptions that – to deploy older Catholic terms – consolations are the norm, and desolations are aberrations (except as a final abyss before a life of consolations) in the life of a Christian disciple. Those assumptions are the log on which the spores from the fungi of the Prosperity Gospel can grow. What if discipleship and evangelization involve *no* guarantee of consolations in this life? (Note: it does not in fact.) What if freedom from reliance on consolations allows a shift from happiness to a more radical joy? The kind of joy that is profoundly attractive to the tepid and non-believer because it can only come from Someone out of this world yet who abides with us in the world? Coming at profound belief somewhat orthogonally – from the grist of ordinary sensing – one might appropriate the pungent challenge of a non-believer, a challenge that aspires to some kind of belief: “In a sense we are all crashing to death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles no matter the imminent peril, these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so distant from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.” (Vladimir Nabokov)

  5. In the meantime, the Vatican reports growth on every continent, but Europe. Although, I doubt they have any true tally of those who have voluntary left the church, like all but one sibling, not to mention my two children and all of their fourteen cousins. Good decisions cannot be made on bad data. It makes me wonder what will occur in another generation, as the gen-X and millennial cohorts age up to replace those dwindling number of baby boomers who still attend, and the generation above them.

    Bishop Hying, now almost two years in Madison, has started an evangelization program. I suspect this will fail, as Benedicts’s New Evangelization failed, since both come from the top down, lack any true intent to change, and ignore the reasons why so many departed in the first place. The Lutheran Church in my community is heavily comprised of disaffected, former Catholics.

  6. Thank you Karl-Liam Saur for your profound comment. The combination of the insights of traditional spirituality and the insight of Nabokov (the passage is a favorite of mine) spoke to me in a powerful way.

    1. I am touched that it did. Normally, when I offer comments of such temper, silence ensues (which reinforces my sense of the awkwardness of venturing in such a way in a group setting, even virtual). Happy Easter!

  7. A longer perspective may not be out of place: “Finke and Stark conducted a statistical analysis of the official census data after 1850, and Atlas for 1776, to estimate the number of Americans who were adherents to a specific denomination. In 1776 their estimate is 17%. In the late 19th Century, 1850–1890, the rate increased from 34% to 45%. From 1890 –1952, the rate grew from 45% to 59%.”

    1. Could be dependent on the availability of clergy in a largely rural nation and missionary situation. For Protestants, certainly affected by various evangelical movements in the 19th century. But yes, a wider view can help us with perspective.

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