The bottom fell out of church membership between 1999 and 2018, spelling serious trouble for the well-being of Christendom in the decades down the road.
According to a comprehensive poll taken by the very creditable Gallup organization, in 1999 70% of Americans were church members. This dropped to 50% by 2018.
The drop impacted all Christian religions. Between the periods of 1998-2000 and 2016-18, church membership among adults dropped from 69% to 52%. Catholics lost 13% and Protestants dropped 6%.
The 18-29 age groups lost 22% while the oldest group lost 15%. Younger people are also less likely to belong to churches. These figures are a warning for church planners. When the younger group moves up to replace the older group, they will bring even less religion with them. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.
This precipitous drop for the church in a 20-year period is incredible for an institution that has been around in various denominations and forms for 2,000 years. There is no doubt that churches are collapsing.
Since institutions tend to reshape themselves to conform to the dominating forces in society, the dramatic changes in economics, society, cyber space and social interaction have been reshaping Christian values and priorities.
The church has made an unholy alliance with the capitalism of the secular world, accepting it lock, stock and barrel with its value system. Opportunities to exploit are very attractive and believers on Christians-lite have just merged into the system without regard to church ethics.
Since there is very little difference between secular economic values and Christian values, there is no need for churches to promote a value system that parallels the Kingdom of the World, to quote Martin Luther.
In a different dimension, our economic system has created more disposable income and prosperity than any time in history. Even the poorest of Americans have more than the poverty-stricken Third World, where 2.5 million children are certain to starve each year.
With cash in the bank, our materialism wants in hand, we no longer need the spiritual support of churches. According to the increasing number of religious dropouts, churches just want to take our money for larger staffs.
As we should expect, religious giving has declined along with membership. In another poll, Gallup found that 64% donated to religion in 2005. This dropped to 52% by 2017. This decline is critical when we remember that many churches are just eking by. Many churches use “tithing” (10% of income) as the goal but few churches see 5 percent.
While churches are taking a beating, donations to secular charitable organization have remained steady at 75%.
Another possible explanation for the decline in membership is disenchantment with church leadership. Megan Brenan of Gallup compiled a ranking of the honesty and ethics of 22 occupations. Clergy rank a pitiful ninth, behind teachers, doctors, police officers and day-care providers and several others.
The behavior of some clergy has undermined the confidence of the people. Catholics lost the largest number because they have been dealing with the biggest scandal. However, Jimmy Swaggart and the prosperity preachers have done little to improve the reputation of Protestant churches.
We have only scratched the surface of this issue. Church laypersons could scour up another dozen without trying. However, we need to keep in mind that all of this negativism is not the whole picture.
Churches are serving many valuable community services - shelter for the homeless, faith for the nonbelievers, food for the hungry, fellowship for the lonely and scores of other comforts that help people on the edge. But, in the face of declining vigor, churches will have to prove their worth to survive as institutions.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former professor at UND and state lieutenant governor.