Is Christianity in the United States dying?

DR. GINA A. ZURLO

Co-Director, Center for the Study of Global Christianity


They say there are three things that aren’t polite conversation topics with strangers: politics, money, and religion. This always strikes me as odd because everyone I know loves to talk about politics, money, and religion. Americans relish in talking about religion! The separation of church and state, the “Evangelical vote,” how Buddhism “isn’t a religion,” whatever thing the media is saying about Muslims, disagreements over support for the Jewish state of Israel, and the list goes on. One thing Americans are talking a lot about right now is the decline of Christianity in our country. But how true is it?

The Pew Research Center said Christianity is declining in the USA (78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014) mostly because mainline Protestants and Catholics are leaving their churches. It’s very complicated. It’s true that the United States has seen a rise in its non-religious (atheist and agnostic) population, from just 1.3% of the population in 1900 to 20% in 2020. Over the same period, Christians dropped from 97% to 73.7% (Word Christian Encyclopedia). In terms of raw numbers, Christians are still the majority, with huge potential for growth due to immigration from the global South, in particular, Latin America. Documented and undocumented immigrants from Latin America have helped to keep the United States as the country in the world with the most Christians (244 million in 2020), and I anticipate this will remain true well into the future. It also means Christianity in “browning” in America – but more on that in another blog post.

The United States is an interesting case because it also has a lot of what we call “unaffiliated Christians” (not to be confused with the category of “unaffiliated”, which means people who check atheist, agnostic, and “nothing in particular” in surveys). Unaffiliated Christians are Christians who aren’t affiliated to – that is, aren’t members of or generally participate in – congregations. They’re people who “do Christianity on their own,” perhaps a Christian version of “spiritual but not religious.”

Check out this table of the largest denominations in the USA:

Denomination Adherents 2015 % of USA pop. 2015
Catholic Church 72,797,730 22.7%
Unaffiliated 43,100,300 13.5%
Southern Baptist Convention 18,836,000 5.8%
National Baptist Convention, USA 9,200,000 2.8%
Church of God in Christ 8,046,000 2.5%
United Methodist Church 7,067,000 2.2%
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 6,641,800 2.0%
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 4,300,000 1.3%
National Baptist Convention of America 4,250,000 1.3%
Assemblies of God 3,522,200 1.1%
Data source: Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds.World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed August 2019).

 

According to our analysis, unaffiliated Christians are the second-largest “denomination” in the country. There are more unaffiliated Christians in the United States than Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Many of the unaffiliated are also younger, meaning they will be around for longer and have the potential to have kids who are also unaffiliated. Studies from a decade ago showed that after people start having kids they go back to church, but this really isn’t true anymore. Millennials are staying out of the churches, with or without kids.

I think the increase and substantial number of unaffiliated Christians points to a country where Christianity isn’t so much dying, but changing. More and more people want to disaffiliate themselves from institutionalized Christianity and experience God and Jesus on their own, in their own way. This is, in fact, a very American way of understanding religion, and a common theme throughout American religious history: If you can’t find something that works for you, start your own. The only difference now is that people aren’t starting new denominations as much as having a denomination of one.

 

PS: I’m not only one who think this way. Check out these books for more:

Barna, George, and David Kinnaman. Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connected with Them. San Diego: Tyndale Momentum, 2014.

Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Kinnaman, David. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011.

Packard, Josh, and Ashleigh Hope.Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are Done with Church but Not Their Faith. Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2015.

Setzer, Ed, Richie Stanley, and Jason Hayes. Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them. Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2009.