America’s Decline in Church Attendance -- Sightings

Perhaps it's fitting that the Monday after I returned from a brief but immensely helpful Pastor's Conference, where Diana Butler Bass helped us wrestle with the complexities of life in America and the implications of that complexity for the churches, that Martin Marty would proffer a column on the decline of church attendance.  Things aren't as bad in the US as in Europe, but there are plenty of red flags on the field, warning us that things aren't getting better.  My congregation is making some strides, but not quickly.  So, what are the implications?  I think one of the important points made here is that congregations and denominations have an important role in carrying into the future the beliefs, the  practices, the values, the ethics of faith -- and that being "spiritual" can't do that job.  There is a value in institutions, for they alone have the strength to continue bearing the load.  I invite you to read Marty's Sightings column and offer your thoughts. 


Sightings 9/26/2010

America’s Decline in Church Attendance
-- Martin E. Marty

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed grave concern over the decline of church participation in Western Europe. His trip to the UK last week provided opportunities for him to address it. Most commentators in religious and secular communications found almost nothing that he said or did which might help reverse the downward trends. The fact that large crowds appeared at several of his appearances did not impress them; throngs line up for popes as celebrities. I’ve asked after each of Pope John Paul’s travels, which often drew masses of young people: did his Pope-mobiled words and gestures, eloquent though they be, lead any young man to enter the seminary ranks with intention to become ordained? Did mass attendance swell a month or a year later? Maybe the answer is yes, but it’s hard to find evidence.

Observation of the North American scene and data gathered by many polling agencies provide a cause for separating this continent’s milder declines from the plot which defines Europe today. So sudden have been the marked trends showing disaffection that leaders have not internalized the evidence. Exceptions? Yes, for now, Latino/a Roman Catholics sign up enough to keep the Catholic rolls deceptively high, if only relatively. For now, some astute, market-oriented mega-churches keep prospering, though even among them opinion-pollers and people-counters see signs which prompt concern.

Those who do care and who set out to address the issue of decline begin in a state of alarm. I was recently on a panel with an official who knew all about weapons of mass destruction, from nukes to germ-warfare capsules. Someone asked, “Knowing all that, how do you sleep?” He answered, “I sleep like a baby—for fifteen minutes, and then I wake up crying.” But sleeping or crying does not help and will not help people who seek to address the issues signified in the trends.

Some graphs and paragraphs in Lovett H. Weems, Jr.’s Christian Century show that from 1994 to 2000, two of four studied mainline Protestant church bodies showed modest gains and two others saw only modest losses. But from 2001 to 2008 the “growing” United Methodist Church saw the greatest plunge (-17.86%), and its losses were almost matched in the other three. Disconcerting to church-growth experts was Weems’s note that in the earlier decade, greatest growth was among the largest local churches—but that in the more recent decade, the largest among them suffered most decline.

Some readers may wonder why in columns like this, which are to be about “public religion,” we talk about church and synagogue (etc.) attendance and participation--aren’t their institutions part of “private religion?” Emphatically no. They are the bearers of traditions, the living expositors of sacred texts, the tellers of stories, the troop-suppliers for voluntary activities, the shapers of values fought over in the political realms.

Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters. Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences.


Lovett H. Weems, Jr. “No Shows: The Decline in Worship Attendance.” The Christian Century, September 22, 2010.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


John said…
It occurs to me that the reason people have stopped coming to church is that we do not do a very good job of communicating a message of hope.

Instead the people have given up hope and have embraced the idols of commercial culture instead.

All that we have to offer is hope and yet we have failed to bring this message, failed miserably. Ironic that some of the most successful contemporary ministries are delivered by those who teach the prosperity gospel.

Brian said…
Martin Marty sure is great. In this case, I think he falls short.

A) When engaging in critical thinking, always ask if the writer's position is self-serving. For instance, a print journalist writing an op-ed about the dangers of declining print journalism can only be self-serving. Ditto for when a religious professional (Jesus' most frequent foes) express that the decline in religious attendance is bad for society. Regardless of the writer's personal character, it is impossible for such a piece to not be self-serving.

This is true whether the writer is me, Dr. Marty, or the Pope. The one exception being His High Holiness Clark M. Williamson.

B) I see nowhere in this piece where Dr. Marty makes his case. Indeed, he seems to end with his thesis statement. The last sentence states, "Their (professional religious organizations) disappearance has consequences".

What are these consequences Dr. Marty?

C. He made the choice to ridicule those I am proud to call my friends, those who find the most accurate label for themselves to be "spiritual but not religious". He stated the "spiritual" will not meet the needs that he vaguely lists. (Some of those needs can be met by a secular society.)

What is the beef with "spiritual"? I refer the gentle reader to point A. The powers that be cannot control "spiritual", but they have for thousands of years controlled "religious". Also, it makes it harder to manipulate people for money if they are not attending worship services.


Let me be clear. My life is dedicated to Christ and serving in that name by supporting the denomination that has supported me. BUT....I'm not being faithful if I don't communicate what I believe to be accurate.

Humankind is evolving, in my opinion, toward a new secular age. (Nothing new in this.) It stands to reason that leaders of organized religion (including this writer) will fight this. While a leader may honestly believe that the motivation is pure, I challenge all readers and critical thinkers to remember that any time a religious leader sounds the alarm for declining worship attendance, simple reason dictates that they are being self-serving.
John said…

I think you make too much of the self-serving angle. Your critique logically leads to the conclusion that religious leaders cannot bring the matter up at all - a preposterous position which would preclude the internal assessment of causes and the development of curative approaches (if such exist).

I thought that the thesis was something like notwithstanding the crowds appearing to support the Pope in the UK, the decline of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Christian churches in general, continues unabated. The growth of the group calling itself "spiritual and not religious does not suggest the notion that there is a counter-trend. And yes, there will be real consequences in store for the church as an institution and humanity in general if the trend is not reversed.

But I do agree that Marty offers no serious analyses as to roots causes nor any valuable suggestions as curative approaches - topics which would be far more valuable than hand-wringing.

As for your 'spiritual and not religious' friends, the question has to be asked, in what way has the church failed these people? You suggest that a natural evolution is taking place in the course of human spirituality, but I can't agree. I don't think evolution per se happens so quickly.

I see that the church (and organized religion in general) is an institution which has, through the millennia, delivered a vital service to humanity, (reconciling God and humanity) and which has lost its way. I think this is due in part to the happening of world-shattering tragedy (WW II and the Holocaust) coupled in a perfect storm with the unprecedented universal increase in prosperity, and the equally unprecedented explosion in media and its penetration into everyone's personal life. The name of that storm is "post-modernism".

Human needs though, have not change - thus humans have not become a species of atheists, but spiritualists - highlighting the apparent truth that humans still have profound spiritual needs.

Religious institutions have failed to keep pace, being caught in a 'pre-post-modern' revolving door through which they cannot seem to emerge - yet.

All of this analysis is not meant to exclude the place of God. My belief is that the church was established by God (perhaps in conjunction, if not union, with other faith traditions) as the anointed Body, present in this world to act as medium and mid-wife for the reconciliation of humanity with God. The church then in this time of failure, has a responsibility to re-examine its role, its strategy, and its tactics in light of the changes in human society.

And just so the point is not lost, I don't think reconciliation with God means restoration of a status along the lines of medieval or ancient king/subjects, master/servants, etc. Instead, I think that what is desired by, and offered by God is something far more generative and far more sustaining for humanity.

Perhaps the church needs to reach a clearer understand God's creative objectives for humanity before going much further in its efforts at reconciliation.

Brian said…

I found your reply to be engaging, thoughtful, and clear.

I look forward to responding in kind. Right now I have a service to attend to.

Brian said…
I fear my response may lack discipline as I seem to have a case of diarrhea of the pencil. That said, I must move on to other matters. Below is my response to John's post in 3 sections. (Sorry for the lack of discipline. Don't have time to reduce it at the present.)

Your post is so wonderfully rich that my challenge is to provide a disciplined and focused response. I will attempt to respond with the honor your post deserves.

A) You state, “I think you make too much of the self-serving angle. Your critique logically leads to the conclusion that religious leaders cannot bring the matter up at all – a preposterous position which would preclude the internal assessment of causes and the development of curative approaches (if such exist).”

My response:
1) It is entirely possible that I am making too much of the self-serving angle. This is one of my reasons for engaging in dialogue with the movement through the internet. I am capable of being wrong. That said, I do not believe I am in this regard. I believe this will be supported by my next line of thought.
2) You state, “Your critique logically leads to the conclusion that religious leaders cannot bring the matter up at all….”.
I disagree that my critique logically leads to this. Such would imply that self-serving is bad behavior. As Director of Spiritual Care, I inform administration that my department would be better served by adding more staff. It is impossible for my request not to be self-serving. However, this in no way implies that the hospital, and community, would not be better served with more staff. It is simply my responsibility to make this argument persuasive. I see nothing in Marty’s piece that makes the case that society is better off with increased worship attendance.
I fully expect religious professionals to rally for increased worship attendance. I’m all for it, but my purpose in my original critique is for educating/empowering laity to always think critically. When analyzing politics or business, it is one’s responsibility to consider who benefits if a path is followed. One would be irresponsible to not take note if someone is arguing for a course of action that is in their best interest.(Again, not a bad thing, but important to note.) As was said in Watergate, “follow the money”. This remains true when the matter turns to Church.

B) You state, “As for your ‘spiritual and not religious’ friends, the question has to be asked, in what way has the church failed these people?”

My response:
I could not disagree more. This assumes that they are somehow defective. Cannot a person make an informed decision that they prefer life without church? Of course they can. They do it every day. I believe it is a false assumption if someone is not going to church that we have failed them. If people want to find a church that meets their needs, they most likely will. Churches are falling all over themselves to bring in more money, er, uh, I mean people. ;-)
Brian said…
C) You state, “You suggest that a natural evolution is taking place in the course of human spirituality, but I can’t agree. I don’t think evolution per se happens so quickly.”

My response:
If I gave the impression that this evolution is best measured through the natural sciences, then I communicated poorly. I do, however, see an on-going evolution throughout human history. I think the current situation we find ourselves in has roots in the Enlightenment more-so than the past 50 years.

I see the monotheism that developed out of ancient Israelite religion as a step toward less supernaturalism and more toward what we’d call secular or humanistic. I then see Christianity carrying this further. I definitely see the momentum gaining speed with the advent of the printing press and Protestant Reformation (which I choose to see as one event). The past 200 years has seen great growth away from supernaturalism and toward a more humanistic understanding of God and religion. Disciples can be especially proud of our work through the University of Chicago. One hundred years ago we were going in (what I feel was) the right direction. I’ll write more about Edward Scribner Ames later. The humanism and pragmatism is something that resonates with me. I am confident that it will resonate with others.

SPECULATION: I suspect that religiosity is more genetically determined than we currently know. Time will tell if I’m right about that. If I am, it means that grace wins again. I say this because we will be less inclined to judge others for their beliefs and to love them just as they are.
Brian said…
What puzzles me most about Marty’s piece is that I’m unclear as to his intentions. Who is he intending to reach? What is he actually trying to communicate?

For the sake of clarity, I will state my intentions for writing on these boards.
a) Spiritual discipline of engaging with my fellow Disciples: I yearn for this. Due to scheduling conflicts, I am unable to meet our regional ministerial group. This is the most efficient way for me to have fellowship with other Disciples.
b) To build others up: I support my colleagues by participating on their boards. As the code of ethics states, we are honor-bound to support each other by, “…engaging in covenant relationships with colleagues which involve nurture, discipline, family support, vigorous dialogue, mutual teaching and learning, and spiritual formation”.
c) To be held accountable: It is my obligation to be transparent with my ministry. I often write things that make me uncomfortable (as I was trained to do). Sometimes I fear I may go too far. This is where faith in the church and my colleagues comes into play. I am confident that if I write something that is a concern, that the church would work with me toward a better way. Example, sometimes I have a concern or suggestion for someone in our conversations. In such cases I send a private message so as to not embarrass. Or, if it is simply a difference of opinion, I’ll discuss it openly online. For instance, I completely disagree with Doug’s propositional theology. I state so clearly. My goal, is to honor Doug by engaging him. If my goal were to dishonor Doug (a bizarre goal ) I would ignore him or share my concerns with others. I trust that my colleagues and the church love me enough to correct me if they feel I’m in error.
d) To reach out to the Church and the world: I try to write in a way that all people, regardless of educational and life opportunities, can understand what I’m saying. I try to write things that are of interest and helpful. For instance, I often write about the new atheism because it is absolutely fascinating. I write with a very specific goal, that teenagers and young adults from Disciples (and other) congregations will read what I write. Many teens will go on to college. They will engage these ideas in Intro to Philosophy. My goal is to role model good behavior for critical thinking in the new age. I hope they see an ordained member of the clergy who embraces the new atheists and is in no way defensive about their claims. (Always deduct credibility points for defensiveness.)

Thanks for taking time to engage me in dialogue. I feel loved and respected.

John said…
I accept the proposition that faith is experienced most fully when experienced in community, even in a community of two, but I honestly believe that a larger community allows a greater opportunity to experience faith more fully. So when I suggest that the church has failed those who resist membership in a religious community, I am not suggesting that the "spiritual but not religious" are defective, only that by their absense from a religious community they are missing out on a greater opportunity to explore and experience their faithlife.

While I am certain there are many churches which spend an overly large amount of time on raising money, I think it unfair to paint all faith communities with that brush. Stewardship of the community's resources, financial and otherwise, is always a concern and it should be, but it is not what church is about, at least not the congregations that I am acquainted with. For my part, when I deliver the invitation to give, I focus my words on giving as a spiritual discipline, a way of self sacrifice, a way to express gratitude, a way to express a willingness to rely on the provision of the lord, and a way to act in solidarity with Christ. It rings a discordant bell within me when my fellow elders speak of the needs of the church or the needs of the poor as the basis of giving, even though that is true. I t just seems to me that since the giving tales place in the context of worship, we ought to teach how giving is a species of worship, and not a communal obligation.

I agree that we are genetically hard-wired to reach out for God. I also see that our genetic predisposition to live in community is also part of the human identity as a religious species,

The task at hand, as suggested by both of our responses to the Marty article is to develop a vision for the church as an institution which is engaged with and responsive to the world as it is today, and not as it was yesterday. Until we move forward on this we will continue to see both a decline in numbers and a deviant trend in religious institutions, a trend which will see them either becoming more reactionary and exclusive, and/or more oriented toward promoting a gospel focused on commercial idols of prosperity and consumerism.

David said…
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David said…
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Brian said…
Thanks David. I feel good about the conversation that took place yesterday.

The internet provides a participant-observation case study that never ends. We get choose how we want to represent the risen Christ with each post. It is my opinion that this little group does it pretty well. Let's face it, compared to what's out there, one could do a lot worse!
David said…
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John said…
Is it appropriate to see this kind of engagement as a devotional practice, a spiritual discipline?

Brian said…
I think it is John. I remember Clark Williamson teaching that study is a spiritual discipline. Study is prayer. Rabbis sit around and discuss Torah. This is our tradition. This is our home.

That said, I don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach. God has made us each unique and beautiful. To counter Saint Paul, Do not immitate me.

I see the Church as a quilt. Each person and culture brings their special beauty to it. When it is together, it is can warm a sick child or add beauty to a wall.
David said…
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Brian said…
That's funny David. It is interesting how different people can read the same thing and see different things. I didn't see hedonism at all. (That doesn't mean you're wrong.)

What I experienced was people who love each other supporting and nurturing one another. I also experienced people choosing very carefully only words that are uplifting to the Church. (Along with some humor of course!)

My greatest hope is that older children and teens are reading so that they can see good examples of Christian love at work. I know that is what I was doing/am doing. I have the utmost faith in John that he was/is doing the same. What I saw was James 3 in action!

Of course, others may see things differently. Perception is very diverse.
David said…
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Xandrani said…
Church attendance is in decline because people are realising the truth more and more that God doesn't exist.

You can't fight the truth. You can spread propaganda (creationism in schools) but in the long run truth will inevitably prevail.

Religion has always relied on violence and propaganda to stay afloat. It is therefore freedom of speech, better education (except creationism in US) and laws against violence that have been the biggest elements in the decline in church numbers.
John said…
What is truth? I would agree only that church attendance is declining because people are losing hope in the existence of God.

By the way, one shouldn't confuse the fiction of Creationism with the essentials of Judeo-Christian faith. Creationism and the effort by the state to enforce its acceptance are creatures of the Christian Taliban and have nothing to do with God or the belief in God.


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