The number of Americans who belong to a house of worship has dropped below 50 percent for the first time since polling began, according to a recent study from Gallup.
“Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend,” the polling group discovered. “In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.”
“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference,” Gallup notes in its report. “Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.”
Gallup observed that the United States nevertheless “remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion.”
Gallup attributed the declining churchgoing statistic to the rising number of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated, noting that less than half have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.
Gallup also predicted the declining numbers of the formally religious will continue, given the trends among younger Americans. “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,” they said.
According to the poll, 31% of millennials are religiously unaffiliated, up from 22% just 10 years ago. Among Generation Z that have become adults, 33% have no religious preference.
As Gallup reported:
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. The change has become increasingly apparent in recent decades because millennials and Gen Z are further apart from traditionalists in their church membership rates (about 30 points lower) than baby boomers and Generation X are (eight and 16 points, respectively). Also, each year the younger generations are making up an increasingly larger part of the entire U.S. adult population.
Church membership has declined even among the older generations, however. The study observed that “each generation has seen a decline in church membership among those who do affiliate with a specific religion. These declines have ranged between six and eight points over the past two decades for traditionalists, baby boomers and Generation X who identify with a religious faith.”
Gallup also touched on the rate at which churches are closing, writing, “While precise numbers of church closures are elusive, a conservative estimate is that thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year.”