The Future of the American Church: A Typo for Further Reflection

A dear friend of mine, a congenital Christian activist, Dave Gagne, now of Minneapolis, who has long been a keen observer of American church life as well as of American life in general, happened to see some statistics about the continuing decline in church membership in the U.S. and he emailed me about it.* I was, of course, immediately interested, as one who has invested my whole vocational life in the church, globally, to be sure, but all the more so on the ground, in my own American world, in academic, inner city, and metropolitan settings.

Dave wanted to know what I thought about the findings of this study. I want to tell you here how I responded to his question. First, I’ll share his summary of the study itself; then, I’ll add a few comments. Brace yourself: it was a typo of my own in an email to Dave about his email to me that set me thinking intensely about all this.

Here is Dave’s email to me, edited and shortened, with his approval.

“The study covered Christianity in the U.S., between 2010 and 2020. Sad news for Christianity in general and for mainline Protestants in particular. In 1972, 90% of Americans called themselves Christians. In 2020, 64% of Americans claimed to be Christians. In 2014, 3,700 Protestant churches closed.  In 2019, 4,500 Protestant churches closed. Evangelicals lost members, but fewer than mainline Protestant churches; and they have the largest number of U.S. adults ‘converting’ to their practices. Still, even the Southern Baptists are declining in numbers. Catholics did gain 5% (based on not always reliable, self-reported numbers). But the Catholic hierarchy has in recent years closed over 1000 parishes in the US (perhaps the result of decreased numbers in the pews, the lack of priests to serve numerous parishes, or, of course, sex-abuse scandals). The archdiocese of St. Paul, which I know fairly well, is combining a number of different local parishes into one mega-parish, primarily due to the lack of priests and the costs of maintaining separate facilities.

“Why is all this happening? One major answer is the aging Christian population. We are dying off (thus not showing up in the pews!). The majority of mainline Christians are over 50; and half of us are over 65. Another possible explanation:  over a third of people who reported being raised Christian in the U.S. no longer practice their faith. These are so-called unconversions, when Christians either abandon religious practice of any kind, sometimes just quietly, sometimes publicly in response to various scandals, or adopt some other religious tradition or set of practices. Meanwhile, only twenty percent or less of younger U.S. generations, who were not raised as Christian, have converted to Christianity, ‘making for more leaving than joining,’ as the study said.

“On the basis of these trends, Pew Research estimates that America will become predominantly non-religious by 2055. The researchers also say that this will mean that the numbers of clergy in mainline Protestant churches will keep declining as positions disappear and as seminary training becomes less appealing to potential candidates.

“There you have it. More and more Christian church buildings of all denominational identities will become social service centers, schools, apartment buildings, condominiums, restaurants, mosques, or perhaps even synagogues. So, of course, I want to know what you think about all this.”

This is what I told Dave. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I think of this church “decline” as great news – losing some of the American church’s worldly fat, so that we can have a more biblical, muscular American Christianity, with many congregations that are like the apostolic kind of church that Dietrich Bonhoeffer envisioned in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.

In contrast, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I think of this decline as bad news: as the inevitable outcome of longstanding trends of secularization in the West – and I conclude that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ve been whistling in the dark. The American church is in trouble, perhaps serious trouble. Isn’t that obvious?

On Sunday, I don’t think about such stuff that much. I just allow myself to be swept along by the Spirit of the good Liturgy at the church where I worship. I often literally applaud the sermons (an old guy can get away with stuff like that). I am especially uplifted by the prayers, when I always hear words in behalf of the church around the world, as well as for the world itself, and think, with some regularity, how Christian discipleship is flourishing almost everywhere in the global south, as well as in some – perhaps more than a few – American congregations like mine.

Then this. Our congregation hosted an undocumented family for many years in our building and has sponsored a shelter for the homeless for decades, also in our building. And it is a Reconciling in Christ community, enthusiastically welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. My impression is that if you have eyes to see, in most regions where you travel in the U.S., you can find congregations like mine.

All of which is to say that although the overall news about the prospects for the American church’s future is mixed – perhaps as they always have been – I remain perhaps stubbornly hopeful about Christianity in the U.S., whatever day of the week it might be.

I conclude with some observations about the typo, to which I referred at the outset, for further reflection.  As I was trying to be honest with myself, when I was responding to Dave’s original communique about church decline in the U.S., and as I nevertheless kept finding myself hopeful about the church today, I asked him, in one of my emails:  “Am I really whistling in the ark?” Before I corrected that typo, I decided that, regarding things ecclesial, I have been whistling in the ark for a long time. Just call me Noah. Now let me show you the rainbow.

 

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*From a recent study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, quoted in The Economist, April 22, 2023, page 25:  “Counting Christians:  American Religion is Becoming Less Exceptional.