Americans are increasingly unlikely to become formal members of churches and other religious congregations, a new Gallup report has found.
The number of U.S. adults who officially belong to a church or other religious institution has plummeted from 70% in 1999 to 50% in 2018, according to the study published on Thursday.
The decline in church membership dovetails with a concurrent decline in weekly church attendance. There has also been a well-documented rise in religious “nones” ― people who describe themselves as atheistic, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The percentage of American adults who say they have no religious preference doubled from 8% in 2000 to about 19% in 2018, according to Gallup.
Even among Americans who say they are part of an organized faith tradition, however, Gallup found that church membership has declined. At the turn of the century, 90% of all U.S. adults were affiliated with a religious group and 73% of those religious people belonged to a church or other faith institution. Currently, about 77 percent of all American adults identify with a religion and only 64 percent of those adults are members of a church or other faith institution. That means roughly 1 out of 4 adults today call themselves religious without being members of a church, synagogue or mosque.
The data suggests to Gallup that Americans’ relationship with organized religion is changing.
“They may not see a need to, or have a desire to, belong to a church and participate in a community of people with similar religious beliefs,” Gallup wrote in its report.
In addition, there’s a significant generational gap in church membership that may continue to persist even as those younger generations grow older. Some 68% of Americans born in 1945 or earlier said they were members of a religious institution, compared to just 42% of millennials. In contrast, 20 years ago, when members of Generation X were around the same age as millennials are today, 62% of them belonged to a religious institution.
Americans’ membership in many types of voluntary organizations has been declining for some time. But R. Marie Griffith, a religion scholar at Washington University in St. Louis who studies American Christianity, said the steep decline in church membership is notable and suggests a “growing disaffection with organized religion, in particular.”
“I think a lot of people do identify loosely with the faith tradition of their youth or their choosing, without feeling as if regular participation in congregational life is necessary,” Griffith told HuffPost in an email. “They might feel ‘culturally Protestant,’ for instance, or tied to the ethical teachings and cultural traditions of a particular religion without wanting to attend services.”
These trends could have an impact on U.S. politics in the future ― since the “nones” tend to hold progressive political views.
The decline in membership could also affect the ability of churches to carry out more practical goals, Griffith said.
“If declining membership translates into declining dollars (as surely it must), then it could have a devastating effect on religious efforts such as ministries to the homeless and other charitable endeavors,” Griffith told HuffPost.
The Gallup report is based on surveys from the past 20 years, some of them aggregated for the periods 1998-2000 and 2016-2018. Most of the surveys gathered responses from at least 2,000 U.S. adults and have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.