The Great Dechurching: What is at Stake?
AUGUST 26, 2023
by James Davis & Michael Graham
What Is at Stake?
In the United States, we are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshipers nation- wide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all. These are what we now call the dechurched. About 40 million adults in America today used to go to church but no longer do, which accounts for around 16 percent1 of our adult population. For the first time in the eight decades that Gallup has tracked American religious membership, more adults in the United States do not attend church than attend church.2 This is not a gradual shift; it is a jolting one.
There have been roughly three periods of rapid growth in religious adherence in the United States: the First Great Awakening (1730s–1740s), the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840), and the four decades following the Civil War (1870–1906).3 From 1700 to 1776, religious adherence grew in the US from 10 percent to 17 percent. Interestingly enough, and perhaps contrary to popular opinion, “Historians of American religion have long noted that the colonies did not exude universal piety. There was general agreement that in the colonial period no more than 10–20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church.”4 Finke and Stark estimate the national religious adherence rate to be 17 percent in 1776 with 3,228 congregations and an estimated 242,100 members.5
Rates of religious adherence rose significantly between 1776 and 1850, from 17 percent to 34 percent, primarily due to the Second Great Awakening that roughly spanned the fifty-year period from 1790 to 1840.6 Despite this rapid growth, the fastest period of growth in religious adherence was the twenty-five-year period after the Civil War.7
From 1870 to 1895, church attendance more than doubled, from 13.5 million people to 32.7 million,8 as the general population grew from 38.6 million9 to 69.6 million people.10 The net result was a 12 percent increase in churchgoers.11 Because this growth happened in the short span of only twenty-five years, it became the largest religious shift in the history of our country until now. What we have witnessed in the last twenty-five years is a religious shift about 1.25 times larger but going in the opposite direction. In that time, about 40 million people have stopped attending church. More people have left the church in the last twenty-five years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham crusades combined.12 Adding to the alarm is the fact that this phenomenon has rapidly increased since the mid-1990s.
The 1990s is when churchgoing in America really changed. As Ryan Burge writes, “The early 1990s was an inflection point for American religion. Between the early 1970s and 1990s, the share of Americans who had no religious affiliation had only risen two points. But from that point forward, the nones would grow by a percentage point or two nearly every year through the following three decades.”13 Here the term nones refers to those with no religious affiliation.
So, what happened? While there is room for nuance on the acceleration of dechurching in the 1990s, three factors cannot be overlooked. First, during the Cold War, the terms American and Christian were often used synonymously in our struggle against a nation that posed an existential threat to America’s way of life. President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” During this period, we added “In God We Trust” to our currency and “under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance. When the Soviet Union col- lapsed and that struggle ended, it became more culturally acceptable to be both American and non-Christian.
Figure 1.1. The Religious Affiliation of 18-to-35-Year-Olds
Second, there was fallout from an increasingly polarized religious Right. Under the influence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s challenge to the George Bush GOP, and Newt Gingrich’s uncompromising takeover of the House, Americans in the middle associated Christianity exclusively with these movements and began to let go of all of it. The formerly religious middle began to join the budding ranks of the nones.
Third, we cannot overstate the influence of the internet in driving the acceleration of dechurching in America. Even though the internet was slow and, according to the Census Bureau,14 only in 20 percent of American homes by 1997, students had access to the World Wide Web in schools. In 1994 the internet cafe was born, and the first internet connections in public libraries became available. For the first time, people could easily and regularly engage a wide range of worldviews very different from their own and collaborate in communities with others questioning their faith without the risk of social and familial opposition.
The size and scope of this shift away from church is unprecedented in our country. Dechurching is an epidemic and will impact both the institutions of our country and the very fabric of our society within our lifetime. This seismic shift in religious belief and church attendance is a new era in American history we call the Great Dechurching.
An important aim in our study was to find the last time some- one attended church more than once per year (fig. 1.2). Whatever the reason (and we will explore those reasons in depth), the numbers were staggering as we realized that most of the dechurching has happened in the last twenty-five years and is accelerating. At some point, the rate of dechurching will slow down, not necessarily because the underlying reasons have been mitigated, but simply because there won’t be enough people going to church regularly to sustain the rate of people leaving the church. The dechurched will give way to the unchurched—those who never attended church to begin with.