US Church membership was at 73 percent when the Gallup organization first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70 percent for six decades. When you look at the numbers by age group, the downward trend is even more significant. Sixty-six percent of the Builder generation, those born before 1946, are members of a religious body. Fifty-eight percent of Baby Boomers belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Only 50 percent of Generation X go to church, and 36 percent of Millennials. Gen Z is showing about the same rates as Millennials.
The decline is twice as bad among Catholics. People have had it with the Catholic church’s refusal to deal with clergy abuse, not allowing women into the priesthood, and their opposition to gay marriage. The Catholic Church still has a lot of power, but the decline of its influence is monumental.
As for Protestantism, the problems are varied. For the mainline Protestant church, their style of liturgy is one problem. Excessive layers of denominational hierarchy are another. Not many Americans like formal, liturgical worship. And when it comes to hierarchy, I sometimes wonder if the mainline denominations don’t have a death wish.
Rejection of the LGBTQ+ community is the main area in which the evangelical church has gone wrong. They continue to take a hard stand against us, even though over two-thirds of Americans are supportive of gay rights.
The fact that evangelicals have sold their souls to Donald Trump has damaged them in ways they have yet to realize. Three-quarters of evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2020 election. The majority were Boomers and Builders. Their children and grandchildren do not share their politics, nor in increasing numbers, their religion. Progressive evangelical pastors see the handwriting on the wall, but their money doesn’t. If they come out as LGBTQ affirming, they will lose people and income.
Many evangelical pastors have decided to take a middle path, telling LGBTQ+ people that they welcome them, while going to great lengths to avoid telling them the real truth – that they will never lead a kindergarten class, let alone preach a sermon or be in a leadership position in the church. And to be clear, that is true of the 100 largest evangelical churches in America – every single one of them.
Humans are inherently spiritual. It is baked into our DNA. We want to work out the meaning of life in community. We want to worship. We need communities of faith. Most of the post-evangelical churches I know are growing. Without the encumbrances of right wing politics and LGBTQ+ opposition, these churches are thriving.
The current decline in religious affiliation was inevitable. But it does not mean the end of organized religion. The church will adapt, become more holistic, more responsive to the community, and more redemptive. There is much work to be done, but I believe in the church, and I want to be a part of its renewal.
I love the church I serve, Left Hand Church. Though we are only three years old, I believe we are an example of what the church can become. The majority of our people and staff are Gen X and younger. We embrace the uncertainties of life and faith and make room for people with divergent opinions. We are distinctly Christian, but it’s Jesus we worship, not the book about him.
I feel good about the future of the church, and I’m particularly excited about the future of churches like Left Hand. We look forward to writing the next chapter of religion rising in America. As for the Americans who’ve stopped going to church, I do understand. After I was ostracized from evangelicalism, I stopped attending for a couple of years. But the spiritual journey is best experienced in community. I’m just sayin’.
Easter Sunday might be a good time to give the church a chance. If you’re in the vicinity of Boulder County, we welcome you to join us for an outdoor service at 11:15 on Easter morning at 9th and Francis in Longmont. We’d love to see you. Click on the link below for details: