America’s churches have made little progress in the past ten years in recruiting professing religious believers as members of congregations, a major new survey by the Gallup organization has found.
The $163,000 national study underwritten by a coalition of 22 Roman Catholic and Protestant organizations or denominations found that the number of adults 18 years and older who can be defined as “unchurched” rose slightly to 44 percent of the population this year from 41 percent a decade ago. Though not considered a statistically significant change, it represents, with population growth, roughly 78 million people compared with 61 million unchurched adults ten years ago.
Adults were defined as “unchurched” if they had not taken part in religious worship in the past six months other than for special holidays, weddings, or funerals.
The survey, conducted in May, showed that the public has become more critical of religious institutions, with 59 percent saying most congregations are “too concerned with organizational as opposed to the theological or spiritual issues,” compared with 51 percent in 1978. The group who said most churches are not concerned enough with social justice also grew to 41 percent from 35 percent, and those who said churches are too restrictive on moral teachings rose to 32 percent from 27 percent.
Despite the criticism of organized religious structures, the survey found the segment professing Christian faith has actually grown. The percentage of adults who said Jesus Christ is “God or the Son of God” rose to 84 percent from 78 percent, and the number who said they had made a “commitment to Jesus Christ” rose to 66 percent from 60 percent.
George Gallup, Jr., an active evangelical Episcopal layman, said that while churches have made little progress in incorporating believers into the community of active worshipers, it can also be argued that they have done well to keep membership slippage to a minimum given the nation’s high mobility rate, distractions of modern life, and apparent growing appeal of cults and nontraditional religious movements. Moreover, he said organized religion continues to inspire greater confidence among Americans than any of the other key institutions of society.
The survey, prepared for last month’s “National Festival of Evangelism” (see story, p. 47) in Chicago, found that unchurched Americans even appear to be more religious than they were a decade ago, which suggests some may be ready to become more regular worshipers.
Other key findings:
• There is a significant degree of traditional religious belief among the unchurched, with only 18 percent claiming no affiliation with a religious group. Sixty-three percent say they believe the Bible is the “literal” or else the “inspired” Word of God.
• The number of children receiving religious training has grown to 69 percent from 60 percent in 1978. But Gallup said many professing believers remain woefully ignorant about basic facts of Christianity, and that the U.S. is “really a nation of Biblical illiterates.”
• In the typical weekend, roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population does not attend a church or synagogue.
Gallup said only 10 percent of the population can be considered “highly committed spiritually.” He suggested that churches consider the religiously lukewarm rather than the unchurched as their main targets for the future.
By Richard Walker.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- Editor's PickBecome a Shadow of Your Future SelfManifesting isn’t the answer. Consenting to holiness is.