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Church Culture

Number of Americans Who Belong to a House of Worship Drops to All-Time Low

The percentage of Americans who are members of a house of worship dropped below the 50% mark last year for the first time in eight decades—the amount of time Gallup has measured the metric.

Although Gallup’s latest survey found the United States remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 Americans citing an affiliation with some type of organized religion, just 47% said they belonged to a specific church, synagogue, or mosque.

U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, the organization said. By 2018, the number had dropped to 50%.

The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 21% over the past three years, coupled with a decline in formal church membership among Americans who do have a religious preference, from 73% in 2000 to 60%.

The decline is strongly correlated with age, Gallup found, with 66% of adults born before 1946 belonging to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X, and 36% of millennials.

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The poll noted that part of the decline seen in 2020 could be due to COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdowns and may therefore be temporary but called continued future declines “inevitable” given the “much lower levels of religiosity and church membership” among younger generations.

Among religious groups, Gallup found the decline was higher among Catholics (down 18 points) than Protestants (down nine points), with insufficient data to analyze trends for other religious faiths.

Membership drops were proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults, and college graduates, groups that tend to have among the highest rates of church membership along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults, Gallup said.

Church membership among Hispanic Americans in 2018-2020 was 37%, among the lowest for any major subgroup.

2017 Gallup study found churchgoers say sermon content is the primary reason they attend church. Majorities also said spiritual programs for children and teenagers, community outreach and volunteer opportunities, and dynamic leaders also were factors in their attendance.

Anne Stych

Anne Stych is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.