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TRENDS AMONG CHRISTIANS IN THE U.S.

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Overview

Current religious data shows that Christianity is well established:

bulletChristianity, with a market share of about 34% worldwide, remains the most popular religion globally
bulletThe religious landscape in North American is overwhelmingly Christian: about three in four adults identify themselves as Christian; the next largest organized religious groups are Islam and Judaism at about 1%.  
bulletAlthough the importance of religion has been declining in other developed countries, it has remained strong in the U.S. The United States has a higher level of church attendance than any other country which is "at a comparable level of development.
bullet53% of Americans consider religions to be very important in their lives. This compares with 16% in Britain, 14% in France and 13% in Germany. 

But there are some interesting signs that religion is in a state of rapid flux, both in the U.S. and around the world:

bulletThe percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001. This is an unprecedented drop of almost 1 percentage point per year.
bulletThe percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Protestants dropped below 50% about the year 2005.
bulletConfidence in religious institutions has hit an all-time low.
bulletThere appears to be a major increase in interest in spirituality among North Americans. However, this has not translated into greater church involvement.
bulletMainline denominations have been losing membership for decades in the U.S.; conservative denominations have been growing.
bulletAt the present rates of change, Islam will become the dominant religion in the world before 2050 CE.
bulletAt the present rate of change, most Americans would identify themselves as non-religious or non-Christian by the year 2035 CE.
bulletThe numbers of "unchurched" people has increased rapidly in the U.S. These are individuals who have not attended church in recent months.
bulletAgnosticis, Atheists, secularists. and NOTAs (none of the above) are growing rapidly.
bulletInterest in new religious movements (e.g. New Age, Neopaganism) is growing rapidly. In particular, Wiccans are doubling in numbers about every 30 months.
bulletThe influence of the central, program-based congregation is diminishing as more cell churches are being created.
bulletMany Christians have left congregations and formed house churches - small groups meeting in each other's homes.

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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

Some of their findings are:

bulletAttendance: The average number of people at Protestant church services has been declining:
Year Church attendance
1992 102
1997 100
1998 95
1999 90
2000 90 12
2003 89 13

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 [2001-]November."

bulletOperating 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
bulletPastoral 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
bulletBeliever 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:
bulleta greater acceptance that the Bible contains errors
bullettheir understanding of the nature of God.
bulletRacial 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
bulletName 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 increasingly diversified. 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." 11

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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:

bulletThe rapid expansion of Islam worldwide, due primarily to the disparity between Muslim and Christian birth rates.
bulletA re-energized conservative Christian movement in the U.S.
bulletOngoing 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.
bulletGrowing "pop spirituality" in fiction, films, and the general culture.
bulletChanges 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 Apostlesí 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. Itís 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 will answer.

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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:

bulletThe 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
bulletThe number of diocesan priests declined by 1.4% to 30,940. 7 
bulletEven 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." 8 Another 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.
bulletAccording to the latter source:
bulletOver 2,000 parishes in the U.S. have no resident priest.
bulletThe number of seminarians has dropped from 41,129 in 1960 to 4,587 today.
bulletThere 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
bulletThe number of religious priests declined during 1999 by 2.3% to 15,465. 7
bulletThe number of brothers declined by 4% to 5,736.
bulletThe number of sisters declined 3.4% to 81,161

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Related essays on this site:

bulletTrends among Protestant denominations
bulletReligious identification of Americans
bulletReligious makeup of the United States
bulletReligious makeup of each country in the world
bulletNumbers of adherents and rates of growth of various religions
bulletHow many people go regularly to church, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc?
bulletChurch membership and prejudice
bulletConfidence in religious institutions
bulletU.S. public opinion polls on religion

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Barna Research Online at: http://www.barna.org  
  2. "America's congregations: More money but fewer people," at: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?
  3. "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?
  4. "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?
  5. 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
  6. George Barna, "The index of leading spiritual indicators," Word Books, (1996). Review/order this book
  7. "Number of Catholics in US up; clergy down," EWTN News Brief, 2000-JUN-7
  8. Brian Mershon, "You will know a tree by its fruit: The post-Vatican II vocations crisis," at: http://www.netacc.net/~bbasile/bytheirfruits.htm 
  9. "Current statistics and facts," Celibacy is the Issue (C.I.T.I), at: http://www.rentapriest.com/statistics.htm
  10. 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/
  11. 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/
  12. "Pastors Paid Better, But Attendance Unchanged," The Barna Group, 2001-MAR-29, at: http://www.barna.org/
  13. "Small Churches Struggle to Grow Because Of The People They Attract," The Barna Group, 2003-SEP-02, at: http://www.barna.org/
  14. 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
  15. Kerry Ose, Interview of Tony Campolo, Publishers Weekly, 2006-OCT-18, at: http://www.publishersweekly.com/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2006 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-07
Latest update: 2006-OCT-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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