Church membership in the United States is at an all-time low. In fact, the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a church has dropped significantly over the last 20 years.
What was at one time a defining characteristic of American culture, the habit of officially joining a church as an act of commitment and devotion has become almost passé and obsolete.
According to one source, church membership statistics remained “relatively stable in America” for approximately 60 years.
However, the statistical trends are currently headed lower and lower. It’s no secret that membership in religious institutions is in a sharp decline.
Recent observations of involvement in the church have revealed five significant reasons why Americans no longer value church membership as highly as they once did.
1. Generational Priorities
Current trends show that younger generations are less likely to be church members than previous age groups. According to one poll, almost 60% of Baby Boomers were members of local churches, while that number drops to just over 40% for Millennials.
Within the span of just two generations, the average number of people expressing their dedication to the church by becoming members has dropped by approximately 20%. Younger generations are less inclined to add their names to the membership rolls of a church than prior age groups.
2. Commitment Issues
Most social researchers agree that Millennials and members of Generation Z are less likely to commit to any institution than are older generations. In fact, one source defines the word “commitment” in this way, “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action.”
According to The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation, Millennials are notoriously prone to delay serious personal relationships, marriage, and career choices until later in life.
Likewise, according to Generation Z: A Century in the Making, Generation Z is exhibiting a similar lack of commitment to established institutions. It’s no wonder that young generations than are deciding not to become church members. They are staying away from other institutions as well.
3. The United States Is Growing Away from Religion
The use of a new descriptive term has been used recently to identify a growing religious tendency within younger generations. Over the last several years the word “Nones” has become a major topic of discussion by those who pay attention to religious trends.
According to researchers, there has been a sharp increase among the youngest generations in the United States of people who do not identify with any specific religion. This trend is displayed by a growing number of younger people who do not claim any specific religion or religious affiliation, plus it refers to a growing percentage of the population of the newest generations who are not prone to join any specific church. This national trend is definitely a significant part of the reason why there is a decline in church membership.
4. Post-Christian Mindset of America
Religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s Western culture. There was once a time when Christianity dominated American society. Regular attendance and participation in the church was a priority and a benefit, and most of this country’s citizens looked at life from a Christian perspective. That is no longer the case. It seems as if the majority of people no longer accept a Christian worldview.
That is exactly why some authors, including David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, and Drew Dyck have labeled America’s youngest generations as “un-Christians” and “ex-Christians.” This post-Christian way of thinking means that no longer will most Americans see the church as important in their own personal lives.
This attitude is compounded by the opinion that today’s church is often judgmental, hypocritical, and unnecessary. This approach has been popularized by contemporary writers and speakers by their use of phrases such as, “They like Jesus, but not the church”, and “spiritual, but not religious.”
The current American culture most likely does not see the church as an important part of their lives and in fact, probably looks at the church in a negative light. It’s no wonder church membership is declining.
5. Spectatorship in the Church
Most would agree that there has been a growing emphasis in the church to attract spectators instead of participants. Perhaps the exponential rise of the “mega-church” movement in America has led to an increased emphasis on church programming. As churches and youth groups have grown, so has the desire and need for quality programming increased.
Maybe it’s time for churches to rethink the importance of participation in the church rather than encouraging people to show up on weekends for a professional “show.” As generations change, it could be that today’s young people don’t need or want the church to be overly programmed, but instead, want to be more involved in what the church is doing.
The unintended pendulum swing may result in less church attendance because they are not personally involved in the ministry. Millennials and members of Generation Z do not need the church to put on a show for them — instead, they crave being actively engaged in what the church is doing.
Why Does This Matter?
Membership in the church may be declining in America right now, but it doesn’t have to be that way and doesn’t necessarily mean people are not attending church. Perhaps today’s younger generations are looking for the church to be the church — to be actively and intentionally implementing biblical imperatives, such as Matthew 28:19-20 and Ephesians 4:11-16.
Humanly speaking, the church may experience some ups and downs of culture, but from a biblical point of view, the church is still God’s work in the world today and will accomplish God’s eternal mission (Matthew 16:18).
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 13 books on various aspects of youth ministry, including Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.