Church memberships are down, but people are still doing religious things

Church memberships are down, but people are still doing religious things
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The percentage of Americans who belong to a church, synagogue or mosque is at an all-time low. Among respondents to a recent Gallup poll, only 50 percent identified themselves as attending a congregation, representing a dramatic 20-percentage-point reduction since the turn of the century.

Institutional religion in America is struggling —  especially with young people. A third of millennials now identify as “unaffiliated,” meaning they don’t claim any religious identity.


And even among those younger adults who do claim a religion, only 42 percent are members of a congregation. The impact of these changes on our civic and community landscape is drastic. Mark Chaves at Duke University estimates that 3,500 churches close every year, for example.

But these trends don’t signal the end of religion. Instead, they signal that the way people are doing religious things is changing.  

Despite decline in institutional affiliation, the human hunger for belonging and becoming persists and young adults are finding other ways outside of church to connect to what matters most.

Our research at Harvard Divinity School suggests that greater numbers of people are doing "religious" things in secular spaces like MeetUp groups, CrossFit gyms and healing circles. Rather than seeking the solace of a worship service after the death of a loved one, younger people turn to groups like The Dinner Party that brings people with similar experiences together over a meal to talk honestly about life after loss.

Profoundly religious perspectives and behaviors continue, even outside the church. For example, even among the unaffiliated, two in three still believe in a God or higher power and nearly one-in-five pray every day. 

For most young people, rejecting religious institutions has less to do with abandoning spiritual practices or even a belief in something bigger than oneself. Instead, the most common refrain among the unaffiliated is that they are frustrated with institutional hypocrisy and greed, judgmentalism and sexual abuse, anti-scientific ignorance and homophobia.

Other reasons include wanting to leave behind a formulaic worship experience and that religious affiliation tends to "overwrite self-identity in ways that seem to compromise personal integrity and authenticity," as Santa Clara University’s Elizabeth Drescher explains. 

There’s a deep suspicion of anything that tries to pin down, mediate, or transmit identity. Just as society challenges binaries in gender, so too there’s a growing number of people hybridizing their spiritual lives by unbundling elements of different traditions and remixing them to build a more personalized set of rituals, practices and even community connections.

To explain unbundling: think of a local newspaper. Whereas 50 years ago it provided classifieds, personals ads, letters to the editor, a puzzle for your commute and, of course, the actual news, today its competitors have surpassed it in each of these, making the broadsheet all but obsolete. Craigslist, Tinder, Facebook, Candy Crush and cable news offer more personalization, deeper engagement and perfect immediacy. The newspaper has been unbundled and end users mix together their own preferred set of services. 

The same is true for religion. Fifty years ago, most people in the United States relied on a single religious community to conduct spiritual practices, ritualize life moments, foster healing, connect to lineage, inspire morality, house transcendent experience, mark holidays, support family, serve the needy, work for justice and — through art, song, text and speech — tell and retell a common story to bind them together. Now, Millennials might rely on the Insight Meditation Timer, mountain hikes, Afro-Flow Yoga, Instagram hashtags, Friday shabbatlucks, Beyoncé anthem and protesting the "Muslim Ban." 

But this picture of brunching Millennials choosing massive amounts of avocado over Mass is demographically incomplete. Boston University’s Nancy Ammerman reminds us that only a third of unaffiliated people fit into our popular image of highly-educated, high-income liberals.

Nearly just as many are low-income, politically conservative and — most importantly — much more alienated from society in general. Without a car, for example, it is near impossible to be part of a congregation in much of the country. Working ever-moving shifts makes regular commitments nearly impossible to maintain.

And just as importantly, this emerging landscape of fitness, creative and justice groups is still far off meeting the widespread hunger for community that is so evident through the rising rates of social isolation and continued need for meaning-making. If religious congregations are unable to attract nearly a third of the population, to what might they turn for belonging and becoming?

This is a call to creativity for each one of us. Where are we cultivating relationships where we are truly known and deeply loved? With whom and how, do we try and make the world a better place? Where do we get to sing, play and be creative? How do we remember that we are just a small piece in the universe and yet profoundly important at the same time?

Casper ter Kuile is a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School and the co-author of "How We Gather," a cultural map of America's changing religious landscape. Follow him on Twitter: @caspertk