Christian Trends in the U.S.
Current religious data shows that Christianity remains the largest religion in the world, although is steadily declining in North America and Europe.
But there are some interesting signs that religion is in a state of rapid
flux, both in the U.S. and around the world:
The percentage of U.S, adults who identify themselves as Christian has dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in
2001, to 76.0% in 2008 to 70.6% in 2014, 16 and to 65% in 2019. This is a reduction of 21 percentage points over 29 years: an average slippage of 7.2 percentage points per decade! The long term future of Christianity in the country looks grim.
||The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Protestants
dropped below 50% for the first time since colonial times about the year 2005.
||Confidence in religious institutions has
hit an all-time low.
||There appears to be a major increase in interest in spirituality
among North Americans. However, this has not translated into greater
||Mainline denominations have been losing membership for decades in
the U.S.; conservative denominations were growing but are now declining in numbers.
||At the present rates of change, Islam will become the dominant
religion in the world before 2050 CE.
||At the present rate of change, most Americans would identify themselves as
non-religious or non-Christian
by the year 2035 CE.
||The numbers of "unchurched" people has increased rapidly in the U.S. These are individuals who have not
attended church in recent months.
||Agnosticis, Atheists, secularists. and NOTAs (none of the above) are growing rapidly. Unfortunately, polling data is quite inaccurate for these groups, particularly Atheists. They are often reluctant to admit their Atheism to a stranger over the telephone that claims to be from an anonymous polling agency. However, an innovative polling method has been developed that estimates their numbers without requiring individuals to admit that they are Atheist. That poll found that 26% of U.S. adults are Atheist!
||Interest in new religious movements (e.g. New Age, Neopaganism)
is growing rapidly. In particular, some believe that Wiccans are doubling in numbers
about every 30 months.
||The influence of the central, program-based congregation is
diminishing as more cell churches are being
||Many Christians have left congregations and formed house
churches - small groups meeting in each other's homes.
Some specific trends:
The Barna Research Group of Ventural CA is the leading religious pollsters in
the U.S. Since 1984, they have regularly conducted telephone polls to assess religious trends.
They have a free bi-weekly Emailing of the latest data that is available from
their web site. 1
of their findings are:
|Attendance: The average number of people at Protestant church services has
There has been a great deal of attention paid to megachurches --
those with over 1000 attendees on a typical weekend. But these congregation
only represent 1% "of the Protestant church landscape." 2 From
1992 to 2003, average attendance at a typical church service has dropped by 13% whereas the
population of America has increased by 9%!
"Female attendance levels have been slowly, almost
imperceptibly, declining" during the 1990's." 3 A second factor is more ominous: In the past, church attendance
reaches a minimum for people in their twenties, and then increases
with age. "Busters, though religiously inclined, have
steadfastly resisted the traditional delayed return to the Church." 3 If this trend continues, the future for organized
Christianity in the U.S. would be grim, as older parishioners die off
and are not replaced.
Immediately after the 9/11 attack on the World
Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001-SEP, "church attendance spiked for
several weeks, rising to about half of the adult public attending
religious services during a typical week. That attendance boon proved to
be short-lived, though, as levels were back to normal by
|Operating budgets: The average 1999 operating budget of
Christian churches is 5% greater than in 1998, 34% higher than in 1992
and 59% above that in 1987. Adjusted for inflation, the increase since
1992 is significant: 14% in real dollars. 2|
|Pastoral compensation: The 1999 average compensation package
increased only 1% from 1998. Salary, housing allowance, car allowance
etc total only averaged $35,195. We suspect that this is the lowest
compensation of any profession, other than perhaps teachers. This is less than the cost of living.
On average, pastors "are earning about 12% less today [in
1999], in real
dollars, than they were at the beginning of the decade." 2|
|Believer commitment: The Barna Group has an
interesting approach to the topic of commitment. They evaluate eight
practices (e.g. church attendance, frequency of prayer, etc.) and ten
beliefs (e.g. belief in the inerrancy of the
Bible, whether Satan is a real living
entity, etc.). Any change in belief from a conservative to a
liberal position is regarded as a deterioration in commitment. Thus
they are measuring people's commitment to historical Christian
beliefs, not to religion itself. They have found that only slight
deterioration in "commitment" during the 1990's. The
greatest drop in religious practice was in attendance at services. The
greatest declines (i.e. changes) in belief relate to:
|Racial factors: Massive progress has been made over the past
half century in eradicating racial segregation throughout U.S.
society, in education, housing, employment, etc. In the field of
religion, 51% of clergy
claimed that their church is "multi-cultural" But surveys
show that "in more than 80% of the congregations in America,
at least 90% of the congregants are of the same racial group."
10:30 AM on Sunday morning remains the most racially segregated time
of the week. 4|
|Name changes: There appears to be a
trend among some conservative Protestant congregations to no longer
mention their denominational affiliation in their name. Their motivation
is to play down denominational identities in order to "create broader
appeal in an era in which people church shop." 11 For example, Garfield Avenue Baptist Church in Milwaukee has
become Spring Creek Church; First Assembly of God in the
San Francisco CA area is now Harbor Light. Other congregations
are now named
Three Nails (in Pittsburgh, PA) and the Landing Place in Columbus, OH. |
Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary
in Pasadena, CA, said:
"I think what we are seeing is the detribalizing of
Protestantism, in that if you have a large external constituency, which
would identify culturally or historically with a particular
denomination, then obviously it's a plus factor to have that
identification. "But [that changes] when the community becomes
Probably after Vietnam and Watergate, there was an increasing
distrust of institutions, so that Jesus was still in, but the
institutional church was no longer an attraction. So, I think that the
dropping of the denominational label is to become more generic, less of
a threat, less of a reminder of negative stereotypes if you've walked
away from church."
Prediction of future trends:
Douglas Todd is a well respected religion
reporter for the Vancouver Sun newspaper in British Columbia, Canada.
In early 2004, he predicted that five trends will dramatically impact worldwide religious
expression in the near future. He feels that these trends will "affect
the way we do politics, wage wars, entertain ourselves, view sexuality,
interpret scriptures, deal with the gap between rich and poor, view our
next-door neighbour and find inner meaning." The five shifts that he has
focused on are:
||The rapid expansion of Islam worldwide,
due primarily to the disparity between Muslim and Christian birth rates.
||A re-energized conservative Christian
movement in the U.S.
||Ongoing conflict over equal rights for
homosexuals, and related issues of Biblical authority. This has been
particularly noticeable in Canada where same-sex
marriage became available across the country in 2005-MAY.
||Growing "pop spirituality" in
fiction, films, and the general culture.
||Changes within the Catholic Church with
the anticipated selection of a new pope. 10 A new
pope, Benedict XVI was indeed elected during
2005-APR. The long term effects of this transition are not fully known
as of mid 2005.
In an interview of the book "Letters to a Young
Evangelical" 14 by Publishers Weekly, author Tony Campolo said:
"The thing that motivated me was the opportunity to communicate to a new
generation of young people the pitfalls that have been tragic for older
evangelicals. Evangelicalism is in a precarious position. On the one hand,
it is doctrinally strong, affirms the Apostles’ Creed, [and] emphasizes a
personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ,
and scripture as an infallible guide for living.
On the other hand, over the last couple of decades, evangelicalism has been
seduced into the politics of the Religious Right. It’s anti-gay, anti-poor, and anti-environment. Young evangelicals need to
know that this is not the only way, and that there is a positive way to live
out faith that addresses the needs of the poor and the environment and that
is compassionate to gays. ... We are advocating an evangelicalism marked by
compassion and justice, and one that shies away from legalism and political
fascism. We want to transcend fascism on the Left and the Right, and mentor
evangelicals who think deeply, pray intensely and act compassionately." 15
Whether the Religious Right or Campolo's more
progressive teachings succeed is an open question that only the passage of time
Roman Catholic data for the U.S.:
The Roman Catholic church issues an almanac which documents its activities in
the U.S. The year 2000 edition contains membership data collected during 1999:
|The total number of Roman Catholics increased by 0.6% during the
year to a total of 62.4 million. Since the U.S. population itself also
increased by 0.6%, the percentage of Catholics in America remained
stable at 23% 7|
|The number of diocesan priests declined by 1.4% to 30,940. 7 |
|Even more serious than this decline in numbers is the aging of the
clergy. One source states that "the average age of diocesan
Priests in the U.S. was 56 in the mid-1980s. It is expected the
average age will be nearly 73 (well past normal retirement age) as we cross
into the 21st century." 8Another source estimates that the average age of a parish
priest is currently 55. 9 We suspect that correct
value is somewhere between these two values, perhaps about 60.|
|According to the latter source: |
||Over 2,000 parishes in the U.S. have no resident priest.
||The number of seminarians has dropped from 41,129 in 1960 to
||There are about 100 married Roman Catholic priests in the U.S.
Many were Episcopal priests who left their church over the female
ordination question. 9
|The number of religious priests declined during 1999 by 2.3% to
|The number of brothers declined by 4% to 5,736.|
|The number of sisters declined 3.4% to 81,161|
Related essays on this site:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Barna Research Online at: http://www.barna.org
- "America's congregations: More money but fewer people,"
- "Annual survey of America's faith shows no significant changes in
past year," 1999-MAR-8, at: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?
- "An inside look at today's churches reveals current statistics on
Protestant churches," 1997-OCT-30, at: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?
- George Gallup, et. al, "Surveying the religious landscape: Trends
in U.S. Beliefs," Morehouse Publishing, (1999). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- George Barna, "The index of leading spiritual indicators,"
Word Books, (1996). Review/order
- "Number of Catholics in US up; clergy down," EWTN News
- Brian Mershon, "You will know a tree by its fruit: The post-Vatican
II vocations crisis," at: http://www.netacc.net/~bbasile/bytheirfruits.htm
- "Current statistics and facts," Celibacy is the Issue (C.I.T.I),
- Douglas Todd, "Explosive trends for '04 and beyond: Religion faces
five major movements that will affect everything from war to sexuality,"
Vancouver Sun, BC. Reprinted at: http://www.emergence.qc.ca/
- Tom Heinen, "Churches, Just Without the Label. Seeking to Attract
Outsiders, Congregations Drop Denomination -- or More -- From Their Names,"
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2005-AUG-06, Page B09. See: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
- "Pastors Paid Better, But Attendance Unchanged," The Barna Group,
2001-MAR-29, at: http://www.barna.org/
- "Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because Of The People They Attract,"
The Barna Group, 2003-SEP-02, at: http://www.barna.org/
- Tony Campolo, "Letters to a Young Evangelical: The art of mentoring,"
Basic Books, (2006-DEC). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- Kerry Ose, Interview of Tony Campolo, Publishers Weekly, 2006-OCT-18, at: http://www.publishersweekly.com/
"Changing U.S. Religious Landscape" (Chart), Pew Forum, 2015-MAY-12, at: http://www.pewforum.org/
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Copyright © 1999 to 20197 by the Ontario Consultants on
Originally written: 1999-DEC-07
Latest update: 2019-OCT-26
Author: B.A. Robinson
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