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Church membership falls below majority in U.S. for the first time

Posted at 6:03 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 19:03:02-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Church membership among Americans is below 50% for the first time, according to a 2020 study by Gallup — down more than 20 points from the turn of the 21st century.

Gallup first asked Americans about church membership in 1937, finding that 73% of people belonged to a place of worship.

“It’s interesting to see the trend line isn’t necessarily saying that people are less active in religion or that they’re less interested in religion, but they’re just less interested in the ‘do’s’ model that has kind of been set out for the past hundred years,” said Rabbi Steven Abraham with Beth El Synagogue.

Abraham said the study doesn’t mean people are losing faith in their religion — people just might be worshiping in a different way.

“Some folks are looking for ritual, right, and that consistency of, you know, in Judaism we pray three times a day, having that as an aspect for them that means something. Other people want to find meaning or spirituality in other places — they feel that when they go for a hike, or they go for a lecture, or they do other things,” said Abraham.

The study said the decrease in membership is tied to an increase in Americans having no religious affiliation along with generational differences.

“I don’t think that existed the same way, that freedom perhaps, 30, 40, 50 years ago. So, therefore, that generation that’s now synagogue members or church members, or what have you, it’s just commonplace for them to pay into the system. Whereas perhaps my generation is saying, well, wait a second, I can do some of this on my own,” said Abraham.

“We’ll continue to be online, I imagine forever at this point,” said Steven King, Priest in Charge with Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Gallup said it’s possible that part of the decline in membership seen last year could have been temporary and related to the pandemic, which changed things for every religion.

King said some of the changes were beneficial.

“It's kind of a neat deal in lots of ways because you can visit 12 churches on a Sunday morning or whatever you want to do across the world and get different experiences, and I think that has some advantages,” said King.

It's hard to estimate how many people have decided to stick to virtual worship despite churches being open again, which would affect membership numbers.

But King said the experience of sitting in the pews, surrounded by people who share your faith, isn’t something that can be replicated online.

“Being a part of a local community that’s serving its local community and connected to its neighbors and knowing who they are and helping address the needs that they have is critical to a church’s life,” said King.

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