Which Are You Talking About?

TMC Digging A Deeper Well

Exactly one month ago today, Gallup published significant data on church membership in a report bluntly titled U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.

Highlights from Gallup’s polling include the following:

  • 47% of Americans report that they belong to a house of worship (a category that includes churches, synagogues, and mosques). Gallup has tracked this data for over eighty years, and 2020 was the first year in which membership dropped below 50%.
  • By contrast, in the year 2000 approximately 70% of Americans reported membership in houses of worship, underscoring the rapidity of change in the twenty-first century.
  • The decline in membership correlates with declines in religious affiliation. About one in five Americans do not identify with a religion today, compared to less than one in ten Americans in 1998-2000.
  • The decline in membership also correlates with generational change. 50% of Generation X, but just 36% of millennials, report belonging to a church.

Gallup’s data has been widely reported, and there’s a good chance that some, or maybe all, of your church board members have heard that 47% membership statistic by now.  Beyond the buzz, though, what is interesting is how the data has been mis-interpreted.  In the last few weeks, more than a half dozen pastors have reported to us that the response from those in their congregation was something like this:   Did you hear about the survey that says less than half the country holds Christian faith now?

First, the data is about membership, not belief.  (And the whole category of what “being a member” means is an overdue conversation in most faith communities.). Also, it is encompassing congregations and synagogues and mosques – not just Christian groups.

This is a highly relevant survey, but the chief focus is on the large disinvestment citizens are having with organized religion, which closely tracks with similar disinvestment in cultural institutions more generally.  It is also significant that this disinvestment increases with each new generation.

At the same time, this is not data that points to a lack of belief.  Or spiritual seeking.  Or searching for meaning in life.  Or the need for connection and community.  These needs and values are still very much alive in our society . . . as another remarkable (and much less talked-about) study reveals.

In its Fall 2020 report titled “What Does Spirituality Mean to Us?,” the Fetzer Institute offers a nuanced and interconnected view of American spiritual and religious identity that should be read by every church board alongside those galloping Gallup numbers.

Some highlights from the Fetzer study include the following:

  • Nearly half of people say they are members of a house of worship or religious community. (Same glass of water, different point of view.)
  • Furthermore, respondents “expressed a yearning or appreciation for the sense of belonging, relationship, or guidance a spiritual or religious community provides.”
  • 88% engage in religious or spiritual activities at least once a week.
  • 86 % identify as spiritual. “Nearly nine in ten people identified as spiritual to some extent, three in four considered themselves religious to some extent, and seven in ten people answered affirmatively to both.”
  • 61% aspire to be more spiritual.
  • Spirituality is connected with civic engagement. “People who identify as highly spiritual are more likely to say it is important to make a difference in their communities and contribute to greater good in the world. They are also more likely to be politically engaged.”

This spring, as your church grapples with how to reintroduce itself to a changed and hurting world, which of the two studies listed above are you talking about? What is the conversation you are having? What conversation could you be having instead?

What does your church board make of the Gallup report? Which findings stand out to church board members as especially meaningful for your congregation’s life and future?


What does your church board make of the Fetzer report? Which findings stand out to church board members as especially meaningful for your congregation’s life and future?


How would you relate Gallup’s and Fetzer’s findings? What do they say when put in conversation with each other?


What is the conversation you are having on your church board about membership?


What is the conversation you are having on your church board about spiritual longing and meaning?


How will you re-introduce your church to the world that is awakening today?

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