Declines spell trouble for church membership
By Norris Burkes
One recent Sunday morning, my wife and I pulled up to a stoplight near our home and spotted our neighbors alongside us. We exchanged the requisite fun faces of surprise before the green light signaled our Subarus to resume highway speed.
For the next 10 minutes, we passed each other back and forth along a 10-mile, four-lane highway in the foothills.
Coincidently, we both turned off at the next stoplight.
“It would be fun if they were joining us this morning,” I said to my wife.
Three stoplights later, I drove into our church parking lot and glanced back to see the neighbors blur past as they continued into the Gold Country hills.
I can’t say where they were headed, but according to a recent Gallop poll, they were probably like most Americans. They were not going to church.
The poll brings startling news for the faithful. America’s membership in a church, synagogue or mosque has declined at least 1 percent each year—dropping from 70 percent in 1998 to an all-time low of 47 percent by 2020.
Before 1998, church membership had remained steady as far back as 1937. In just 22 years, we had a whopping 23 percent decline—the sharpest in American history.
Take a moment to consider that polling word “membership.”
As a young man, I considered myself privileged to pastor a 200-member church. However, I rarely preached to more than 70 people. I quickly learned that membership doesn’t equal commitment, attendance or activity level.
In a not-so-subtle effort to resolve that discrepancy and boost our attendance, I would sometimes ask neighbors, “If you went to church tomorrow, where would you go?”
They would pause a moment before naming their preference: “Either the church I grew up in or the one down the street.”
According to Gallop, the majority of people today would say, “I wouldn’t. I just wouldn’t.”
With more than 100 churches in the U.S. closing every week, where has our religion gone?
Besides the usual suspects of yard sales, the mall and sporting events, Shadi Hamid suggests a more disturbing answer in a March 10 article in The Atlantic titled, “America Without God.” Hamid is a contributing writer for the literary and cultural magazine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
His Atlantic article argues there is a suspicious connection between the decline in religious faith and today’s rising ideological intensity.
He suggests our faith is a limited quantity. As we’ve invested more energy into our political ideals, we’ve become less faithful to our places of worship.
If that’s true, we may have to consider faith as something we must budget. And if that’s the case, we are confronted with the question, “Where do we spend it?”
We seem to be expending our faith coins on Red vs. Blue. Fascism vs. socialism. Pro-gun vs. gun control. Fox News vs. CNN. Trump vs. Biden.
The Bible identifies our misspent faith in the very first commandment regarding idolatry. Exodus 20:3 says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Put simply, God should be the No. 1 item in our faith budget. (Not to be followed by country.)
My working definition of idolatry is: “Excessive devotion to or reverence for some person or thing.”
I’m as guilty of squandering my faith as you are. Consider the amount of time we’ve spent advocating for our pet issues on social media versus time spent volunteering at church or in prayer. No wonder Americans find their faith nearly bankrupt.
In the meantime, the faithful are left to ask, “What do we do to save our churches?”
I believe it’s possible to restore our faith and recover our devotion to church. We simply have to reintroduce the priorities of passion and relevance. I’ll share some thoughts on that next time.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be guest speaker at Elk Grove Presbyterian Church for the 10 a.m. service Sunday, July 11, at 8153 Elk Grove Blvd. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.