Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.

19 thoughts on “Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

  1. Dave, I hear echoes of David Buttrick’s sermon on the sower in this one. I think you’ve nailed it head on. Thanks for always making an old man think

  2. Really enjoyed the analysis here. While, as you state, correlation doesn’t necessarily determine causality, the trends are undeniable. As someone with many friends and family in Methodism, I truly respect your tradition, and especially your individual missional approach in light of the Gospel!

  3. You offer some very valuable insights. I’m involved in a church that has become settled for many reasons. It’s challenging but inspirational work to help them view their church assets and resources not merely as a house of worship but as a resource to plant the seeds of Jesus The Christ’s Gospel in our neighborhood and with folks beyond the church’s walls. Many of our nearby residential neighbors work very hard as they raise children and live out their lives. Maybe we are located in the wrong “place.” I don’t know. I do know that we’ve got to figure out how to make what we offer nourishing and worthwhile to more than just the 80 or so people who have become quite comfortable with the settled status quo.

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  5. Must see- monumental documentary by Kirk Cameron and indoctrination the big yellow bus . The biggest issue with low numbers in church today, it’s the public school system, where people dump their kids off to get indoctrinated by what’s already in the school curriculum, which is atheism, evolutionism or in other words to become atheist or evolutionist by the age of 18. 85% are leaving their faith, never to return to church again and the remainder of the % usually leaves after college. We have to go back to the roots where a parent is constituted to teach their kids or do the effort to put them into a private Christian school. We can’t be losing more disciples than what we are making out of our kids. One way or another, we have to do the great commissioning that God called us to do. Like Heb. 12:1-2 says, we should endure with joy carrying our cross of death, no matter the shame

  6. Read Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” – it’s over a decade old (2001), but it’s still pertinent. Churches are not alone in losing membership – it’s a matter of loss of “social capital” which is no longer seen as valuable or important.

    His follow-up study “Better Together” (2004) predicted a recovery. I think he was too optimistic.

    Both books are available at Amazon.

  7. A good read; a perceptive analysis of today’s churches; “…read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”

  8. According to your argument, I’m one of those Millennials who isn’t supposed to be going to church. I’m single, childless, and now document my moves with a handy chart I made in Google Earth. However, I “go to church” 48-50 Sundays out of the year. I hate being an active member of different parishes for two years at a time, but that’s the way my life works. I’m unusual but not unique.

    I think there’s something to be said about Millennial work and vacation schedules no longer meshing with weekend worship services. I’d recommend any church still in an urban location with Millennials consider holding a Eucharist or even a prayer service on Saturday at 6 PM. Even those who work in bars and restaurants try to get a Saturday night free once in a while.

    With that said, Millennials say to me that they have trouble, “Finding a church they like.” I wish there were some way to shift their orientation to “Finding a church to which they can contribute.” But there isn’t, because evangelical and mainline churches spent a great deal of time compartmentalizing the formation, particularly of teenagers. Their catechesis was infantilized, and they never learned to relate to older people in the church as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than shadowy, powerful adults. So when they become adults and try to connect with God in the church, they have much to dislike and don’t know how to forgive the foibles of their elder brethren.

    I’m weird, because I took my confirmation classes with adults. I ran classes for parents and godparents of soon-to-be baptized infants as a teenager. I served on discernment and liturgy committees.

    My experience as a teenager just makes it easy to walk into churches in the tradition I was raised and try to participate/contribute from Day 1.

    • Thanks for your insight, Caelius! For the record, most of our new church doesn’t fit that description (married with children), either (though I do). I agree with you — I think age-level ministries that simply copy age-segregated industrial education don’t do us any favors in growing disciples formed for Christian community.

  9. If your heart is focused on serving God and doing His will, it won’t matter what your circumstances are. You will make it your priority to worship Him like He commanded you. I know, I’ve been single, unemployed, and homeless and still attended worship services every Sunday. When I was married with no children and times were tough, we both attended worship service every Sunday. Since we’ve had children we’ve moved 12 (!) times, we’ve been homeless and unemployed and we’ve never missed worship service. We’ve taught our children, above all else, worship God, put Him first, and everything else will fall into place. It’s a hear issue. Nothing else.

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