Dr. Ryan Burge studies who is going to churchDr. Ryan Burge has a dual career, teaching Political Science at a university and serving as a pastor in an American Baptist church. A self-confessed data nerd, he pores over polling data in search of trends in religion. Recently he posted a column on “Four of the Most Dramatic Shifts in American Religion Over the Last 50 Years.” Things typically change slowly in religion surveys, he says, but these four trends “still blow my mind.”

I’ll provide a brief overview of Burge’s findings, and you can find more detail on his website. [https://bit.ly/PYchurchdata]

The Evangelical Surge (1983-2000)

Newsweek declares the year of the EvangelicalElection year fever is heating up, and already we’re seeing internet headlines about the powerful voting bloc of evangelicals. When Jimmy Carter—a Democrat—catapulted into the presidency in 1976, and spoke openly about his born-again faith, a Newsweek cover story pronounced that bicentennial year “The Year of the Evangelical.” Yet, as Burge points out, the real surge in the movement took place in 1983. In a single decade, the percentage of evangelicals shot upward to encompass three in ten American adults.

During that growth spurt, evangelical megachurches were springing up across the country, and Christian music was gaining airtime. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were regulars on television, talking as much about politics as theology. When the media wanted a soundbite from an evangelical, they turned to such prominent figures who already had sophisticated satellite uplinks and would offer a ready opinion on any subject.

By the year 2000, however, the percentage of evangelicals had declined to the same level as existed in 1983, and little has changed since then.

Who's Going to Church among Evangelicals

Young People Lose Their Religion (1991-1998)

Burge describes why the nones are not going to churchBurge’s second chart covers the next two of the four dramatic shifts. The year 1991 saw the beginning of a downward trend among 18- to 35-year-olds. The number in that age group who checked “Christian” when asked their religious affiliation began an abrupt decline, falling from 87 percent to 64 percent. Meanwhile the “Nones,” who had no religious affiliation, grew from 8 percent to around 30 percent. Noting the steep changes between 1991 and 1998, Burge says, “That’s an insane level of growth/decline in such a short period of time.”

Burge proposes several possible explanations. Politics became increasingly polarized, especially over culture war issues such as abortion, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage. The end of the Cold War lowered the barrier between God-fearing Americans and godless communists, even as a surge of immigrants gave exposure to other religions. In addition, the internet allowed young people to explore different faiths as well as listen to strident voices against all faith.

In a mirror image of the decline among Christians, the Nones experienced a fivefold increase in just three decades. Burge comments that “the rise of the ‘nones’ may be the most significant shift in American society over the last thirty years.” The trend inspired him to write a book about the phenomenon (The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going).

Who's Going to Church among young people

The Collapse of the Mainline (1975-1988)

Burge’s final chart depicts a dramatic decline within mainline Protestant churches, which include the United Methodist Church, PCUSA Presbyterian, Episcopalian, American Baptist, the United Church of Christ, and some Lutheran denominations. These tend to be more moderate theologically than evangelicals, and most allow women pastors and are open and affirming to same sex couples.

In the 1950s more than half of all Americans belonged to this group; now barely 10 percent do so. Tens of millions have left mainline denominations, many of them opting for an evangelical church not affiliated with a denomination.

Who's Going to Church in Mainline Tradition

Burge, an American Baptist pastor, has no sure explanation for the major shift. Nor does he dare to predict the future.

Will the non-affiliated Nones continue to increase or has their number peaked? Will the disaffected young return to church as they become parents? Will mainline denominations revive, or will evangelicals experience another surge (even as their largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, bleeds members)?

I’m neither a social scientist nor a prophet, so I leave these questions with you the reader. What do you think, and why does it matter?


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51 responses to “Who’s Going to Church?”

  1. Mia Evans says:

    I never took into account the fact that there was a steep change between 1991 and 1998 regarding church attendees. I want the what is the situation right now since it is already 2023, and the year is almost finished. This is something that I just really want to know because I actually plan on starting to work on my face and find a Bible-centered nondenominational church here in Fairfield, Ohio. I want to start my next year right and be better with the choices in my life because I am getting older and I do not want to waste any more of my time with the wrong decisions that are not godly or holy.

  2. Barbara says:

    Human nature hasn’t changed. The OT is filled with stories of God’s people prefering their own way intead of God’s. When Jesus walked here on earth, the Jewish elites had completely perverted God’s message. The NT warns us of false teachers because God knows where our tendency leads. But the church is God’s idea, He has chosen to work through her. Perhaps she is going through a pruning process. Even though painful, it is necessary. We have been very blessed to have found a church where God is worshipped, the Bible is preached and we are encouraged to love each other and our neighbors.

  3. Robin says:

    Christendom has been weighed in the scales, and Christianity has found wanting. I entered the Episcopal ministry at a time of supposed optimism. It was a false dawn. My major was philosophy, and my ongoing interest is religion and cognitive science. I can best describe myself now as a disengaged Christian. Here are some factors operating here and in Europe which have led to so many nones.

    WWI and WWII. If this was what Christendom was about, who really wants that.
    The Vietnam and Mideastern never ending wars have destroyed confidence in whatever spirit lay behind seeing the United States as a City Built upon a Hill.

    US foreign policy, from the very beginning, has been party to killing millions of civilians, from indigenous Americans to Central and South Americans, all of those in SE Asia, Iraq. Or anyone else who may threaten corporate profits.

    My biggest and overwhelming regret is the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.

    One could say that Karma has come, or more accurately that are lack of respect for the lives of other who bore no ill will against us, has come home and no lives anymore or worthy of any respect.

  4. Mia says:

    The church, in mimicking corporate operations, stunted its growth and opportunity to be the model for corporate leadership. Quiet quitting applies to more than work.

  5. Ken Dodge says:

    I have read all the comments and have observed a recurring theme — the hypocrisy of the “church.’ I can identify with w hat Deborah wrote. I pastored several hurches in various parts of the U S over 55 years. Did I ever see hypocrisy or encounter lack of appreciation? Did I ever see genuine love and compassion? Tests and trials? Of course. Was it worth the effort and/or criticism? Would I do it all over again if I hd THE CHOICE?

  6. Vicki says:

    Here’s what I do know about churches:
    I do know churches make mistakes
    I do know there are times when churches don’t minister and love well
    I do know that pastors fall and pastors fall deep and far
    I do know that pastors and teachers are flawed, broken, and are human, and make grave mistakes
    I do know that pastors, leaders, and teachers are held to a higher standard and will stand to account
    I do know people put pastors and leaders on pedestals where they don’t belong except Jesus
    I do know there are churches that think about money, programs, impressive lighting, high tech media, the best of the best kid’s programs, teen programs, and programs in general.

    I don’t think there’s really anything wrong or bad with programs. However, what is wrong and bad, is when the Holy Spirit is quenched.
    I believe you all know what I’m talking about and you have probably experienced the same thing as I have.
    There have been numerous times that I’ve had to go to pastors and talk to them about things that have hurt me, upset me or I disagree with. I want to make it right. I don’t want to do things wrong biblically around going to my brother or sister and resolving conflict, so it doesn’t continue to follow me into another church or where I leave the church completely.
    We all have our journey of faith, I may not like the faith walk someone else is making, it is their faith walk, and what they believe to be true may not be true for me. I struggled just like anybody else who struggles. When really what I want is for every person that I come into contact with to know the true, loving Savior.
    I do know one thing, after being a believer for 40 years, that I may only be a conduit for a time when I come into contact with people who have unbelief and then there will be somebody else in their path that brings them to know Jesus and may not be me.
    I think Jesus would want all of us to have a spiritual walk that we invite him into, in order for him to minister to us in ways that we will never get from a human. He loves us, he wants us to want him, he desires us to desire him, he wants to fill our cup with overflowing love, acceptance, understanding, and blessings.
    Someone said on here and I’m wondering out loud what the meaning of following Christ and not a religion really means?
    I will follow Jesus at any given moment and not religion. This is food for thought for me though; “Do I follow Jesus or do I follow religion?”
    I don’t see it as criticism regarding most of the comments that were made on these posts. I see it more as individuals sharing their own opinions of things and understanding that it is their opinions and their opinions only and we don’t have to believe it or adhere to it.
    I think I have come to realize that if you will, any organized religion is going to have faults and they are going to do things at times that we don’t agree with, and yet we have to figure out individually whether or not we can live in that faith community that we’re involved with or figure out what we can do to bring change if we can.
    All in all, I believe many times people are really hungry for Jesus and yet they rebel against him because if we really know Jesus, we live according to what Jesus teaches. I don’t know if any of you are like me, but I have rebelled against Jesus’ teachings out of a lack of humility and an overbearing amount of pride.
    How do you dispute the Word of God?
    I don’t think in general, people from different generations will shy away from religious thought and exploration. I believe we all have a God-hole that needs filled and I/we will need to figure this out individually.
    I’m not certain that it’s helpful for individuals to say that mega churches do not follow Jesus.
    I’m not sure any of us needs to kow-tow to an organization/leader. But, if I have good leadership, what would be the reason I wouldn’t want to submit? This is biblical you know. I choose being a servant, kneeling before the throne of grace, to receive what He wants to give me.
    I appreciate you all. Again, thank you for sharing. Please know my prayers will be offered up over your hurt from the church however that came to be.
    Father God in Heaven, I pray now for every person who is on this posting that you will minister to them with love, compassion, and grace. Jesus, help them to find reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness for the things that have been done to them and what they have now been doing to others because of the hurt that they have. Jehovah Rapha, you are the one who heals, and I pray that Jeremiah 30:17 washes over each person here, God says, “I will restore you to health and heal your wounds, declares the Lord.” I declare and decree that all your wounds, sufferings, and healings that need to happen will in fact occur in Jesus name, Amen.
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  7. Randall M Tucker says:

    Romans 10:17 Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God

    It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that we are drawn to Jesus.

    A prior post referenced KISS
    If the church (small c) is declining it is not complicated.
    There has been a decline in sound teaching and the work of the Holy Spirit.

    The shelves at Barns and Noble are packed with christian self help book, Some authors have cranked out over 100 Million books,
    Mega Churches preach prosperity. The gospel of salvation is void in many churches, Who do you say that I AM??

  8. Scott says:

    Thanks, Phillip, for once again bring to light a problem that plagues our society today and threatens to do ongoing damage to the relationships God has called us to invest in.

    My three boys have given up on church, preferring to do their own thing or feigning that they’re asleep when I tell them, “It’s time for church.” I don’t force them to go anymore. Instead, I go hoping the singing won’t be awful (it usually is), and that the sermon will be meaningful and speak to where I’m at now.

    Where I’m at is where I never thought I’d be: I desperately NEED the church; I need to know that I’m not alone in my battle against sin, against selfishness, against self-righteousness, against wanting this life to work. In addition to my Sunday tradition, my church is now found on bike rides with unbelievers who favor abortion, the transgender movement, the influx of immigrants and illegals, the mission-oriented and works aligned. I ride with them, and we laugh and talk about life, and I’m able to share my story, my story of living a life for 30 years solely for myself and my own enjoyment, until an accident on my bike (funny, isn’t it?) nearly cost me my life, and then how the church told me to stay out of R-rated movies, saying that I’d be hell-bound if the rapture happened while I was in the theater.

    So, I listen to my Christian music alone, snatch scripture verses from devotionals and Our Daily Bread, and praise God for the vision he’s given me to pray for my boys, be the best father and husband I can be, work hard at what I love (the brain is an interesting organ!), and help out those I see around me.

    The church? It’s the life I try to live, inviting my unsaved friends on bike rides and sharing how Jesus loves me, that he died for my transgressions and failures, and that He has a plan for my life. That’s what I feel called to do.

  9. Verlene B White says:

    We have lost the truth that we are the Body of Christ here on earth and we are to be carrying out the work Jesus did—healing, teaching that the kingdom of God is right here among us, and that God the Father loves every one of us.
    Our food for the journey is the Body and Blood of Jesus received at Holy Communion to equip us for the work we are called to do—proclaim the Kingdom, heal the sick, bring the life of God to the downtrodden.
    In addition we are to hear the Word of God read and taught in sermons (and not just the preacher’s favorite passages!) And we are to remind one another that we, together, are the Body of Christ, dependent upon one another just as our physical bodies need all the parts to be functioning.
    These concepts of the early Church have not been taught enough and we are malnourished!

  10. Carl Bost says:

    I spent the first thirty years of my life as a “non-believing” believer. I wrongly understood Christianity as America’s default faith, and I believed that Jesus died for the sins of the world because God loves everybody. I hoped for universalism and justification by death, although I did not think in those terms at the time. The only time spent in church was for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. For the next thirty years, I entered a tumultuous relationship with the Biblical Jesus and was immediately thrust into a love-hate relationship with the Church. It is one thing to deal with legalism, antinomianism, Gnosticism, and mysticism as individuals, but something else altogether while looking for a church to call home. I thought orthodoxy would protect me from those evils, but in the end, I found my religious self more intolerable to my conscience than my non-believing self. Instead of looking in a mirror, I walked away. The bottom line, the problem is with me. In a single word, it is pride. It is the unfounded and unbiblical belief that I do not require others. My life can be summed up in another word: “frustrated.” Unable to cope with hurt, pain, and anger has cost me nearly everything I hold dear – except for Jesus. For a reason only He knows, He refuses to surrender me, so I move on in search of a Biblical orthopraxy that hopefully includes Gospel-oriented people who are compassionate, patient, and understanding.

  11. Big topic. Many issues. My narrow response addresses the drop off in church attendance in the young.

    The church has become too politically outspoken. Too hateful. It attacks anyone who doesn’t indulge in its sins of pride and self-righteousness but engages in other conduct it considers sinful: transgenderism, same sex marriage, and divorce.

    If Jesus came back today, I believe He would treat the church the way He did the Pharisees.

    Young people want no part of the Religious Right’s vitriol. Until Christians start striving to act like Jesus, the young will search for truth elsewhere.

    When in the Bible did Jesus walk up to a gay person and condemn them?

    Who was the first non-Jewish convert to “The Way?” Wasn’t it a eunuch? Why was he a eunuch? Was he transgender? We are not told. So the reason must not be important, but he was the first.

    If we want people to love God and His Son, Jesus, we must show His love to others.

  12. Jacqueline King says:

    Whatever happen to: “separation of church and state”?? I appreciate all the comments and think this subject is well worth the time to read and re-read these comments. BUT, for me, the most important comment is that we now emphasize “church” more than “Christ”. Maybe it’s time to also review the KISS prinicple.

  13. Lynette Hodge says:

    We have similar trends here in New Zealand. I am blessed to belong to a Presbyterian church which is multi- generational – a vital factor today – and evangelical. As an older person I struggle with the fact that 2 of our 3 children have not followed their early belief in Jesus. However, overall I think the Church (Christian’s) have made many huge mistakes over the years and we are reaping the effects. I am currently reading “Bullies and Saints” by John Dickson. It is both disturbing and reassuring! well worth a read. To move forward I believe we must be honest with where we have come from.
    The gates of Hades will not prevail over the Church!

  14. When Philip Yancey questioned the Religious Right’s emphasis on finding God’s candidate in his 1995 “The Jesus I Never Knew,” while I loved the rest of the book, I regarded those words as almost heresy.

    As a young Christian college grad, I’d earlier digested David Barton’s “America’s Godly Heritage,” with a miriad of quotes from the founding fathers, to the effect our nation was conceived out of a deeply-Christian belief system and they definitely wanted our religious convictions to guide public policy–but never a state church to run the show. Through many turns of events in my own life over the next two decades, I came to see the truth of the warnings Yancey and others have given that whenever “Christianity” has become too dominant in the political sphere throughout history, it has become a force unrecognizable from the early believers in the New Testament who loved even their enemies, forgave their persecutors, walked the extra mile, and lived such transformed lives among those who hated them that many of their detractors came to honestly admit some inexplicable power was at work among them. But instead, this politically dominant breed of “Christianity” becomes cruel and oppressive and has none of the underlying appeal of the meek version.

    During this time I stumbled upon John MacArthur’s October? 1992 “A Radical Alternative to Political Activism,” in which he paralleled many similar points. And yet, while he’s pretty much the same teacher year after year, 25 years later he’d been recently influenced by the writings of some Christian British Parliamentarian from long ago and let loose a sermon of a more Right-Wing political slant about bringing one’s godly convictions into the political arena. Okay, I thought he had the right take on things in the 1992 version, but now a new influence came his way. I think just like all of us, his experiences and the influences in his life made some impression upon him that might be different from the influences that had shaped me to that point–he went from political hands-off to hands-on, and I went from hands-on to hands-off.

    As for another purely scriptural view, Christ instructed us to be salt and light in the world, and what that means may be a little unclear–although judging by the comments here, most of us have seen times, in our humble opinions and best understanding, that the Religious Right and/or Christians have been too salty or too aggressive in their fervor, taking pages out of The Adversary’s play book on how to handle those they disagree with, not using the divinely-appointed “weapons” like love and prayer and kindness to heap proverbial burning coals–not actual ones. Instead, they have done many vicious things, putting on bitterness and hostility like a garment, openly arguing and attacking in even the socio-political sphere. Christ warned that openly broadcasting some of the pearls of the faith can be a huge mistake, and he warned it will bring on a reaction, and I think we can all attest we’ve seen a reaction!

    I’ve been in a couple political marches, and I’ve seen and heard those with me on the “Christian” side of the ranks, who before they’re even rattled seem to have no clue about Christ and His ways (and I admit to struggle when rattled…) and so I’ve never doubted the testimony of those who say they were spit on and otherwise assaulted by, for instance, pro-life protestors, and I hope and pray their organizers have learned not to just swell their ranks with warm bodies–although I think I understand that the courts have largely put an end to gatherings that might work too much like a “sit in,” from the era of gangsters–an interpretation that seemed overbearing to those who claim they only wanted to speak for the innocents who have no voice, to save their lives–and that’s clearly another area!

    Like all things in this sphere, where Paul tells us we don’t battle with flesh and blood, and like so many things that touch each of our hearts and consciences differently and where we each have different backgrounds and understandings, the struggle is very real.

    About 8 years ago God arranged last minute that I could attend a convention in Richmond called “The Away Team,” where the point was that Christianity has lost too much of its appeal an alienated many thru our continual push for political influence, that as strangers and aliens in this world, we are the visiting team playing an away game and everything is unfairly arranged against us; the home team obviously opposes us, and we are disadvantaged in an unfamiliar stadium, the crowd (and the city) opposes us, and often even the referees, and we need to get back to the things that make Christianity attractive, like answering kindly when we’re insulted or bearing unjust suffering patiently, turning the other cheek when struck, loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us and returning cursing with blessings and kindness. However, on the second day, I sat in one forum where the leader encouraged us to push for power and influence [like we did in the 80s and 90s], and one young Christian college student was there who was like, ‘finally, this is what I’ve been needing to hear!’

    I guess those two hadn’t yet arrived at the same conclusion as many here. It took me some number of years and experiences to see things differently and arrive there, but two days at a conference hadn’t changed them.

    And I confess, I still don’t know how it is all supposed to work exactly. Woke and cancel cultures and the ACLU, etc. want to make sure Christians have no voice and that we capitulate totally to their system or pay the consequences. And yet, somehow, we are called to be salt and light and love them and influence whoever we can for eternity while we’re here.

    Going back 27 years, the Republican party has wanted to distance itself from an overly-Christian identification when they brought in Bob Dole. Overtly-Christian candidates come on the scene for every presidential election, with varying success. Not an evangelical, but having a platform with many conservative values; Trump came on the scene following financial and television success. I don’t think the Republican leadership wanted Trump as their candidate, based on things Trump said about back room meetings they’d had with him leading up to that in the last days before he was named their candidate in 2016–probably because of the controversial nature he brought with everything he was already doing. I don’t know all that has been said in support of Donald Trump from Christians, per se, as many here allude (I was equally shocked to see a coworker, a Baptist minister repeatedly defend and even laud Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal), but I can speak from personal experience and say there seemed to be a shortage of options in both 2016 and 2020, and I prayerfully had to make a choice, whether it was for a “better candidate” or “the lesser of two evils,” I’m not sure I’m qualified to say.

    I recently heard on NPR that a majority of Americans polled believe they will see a civil war within their lifetime. They talked about a format called “Speaking Circles,” where people at polar-opposite ends of the political spectrum, who believe their opponents are cold, unfeeling, totally irrational, beyond redemption, etc.; well they take these people and arrange for them to sit down and talk to each other and get to know each other’s backstories and their true desires for a better world as they understand it, about who they are as humans and how they want the best future for themselves, their families, and even for society as a whole. After these sessions they are questioned again about the opposition and have a much more humane understanding of who their opponents are, the polarized, caricatured view of them has been stripped away. While they still disagree about the correct solutions, they have begun to see a basis for working together with other rational humans wanting what is best.

    Again, I don’t have a clear answer for exactly how Christians are to be salt and light, exactly how far that is to extend and exactly what that’s supposed to look like–especially not an answer that will make everyone happy, but I hope I’m personally reaching the place God is guiding me right now, seeking to humbly walk thru life and be salt and light, to pray for the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent, and I only hope I have shed some light on the many facets of this difficult area that we may all learn to listen to each other and care about where others are in their walk, in their experiences, and in their struggles. Many here express they’ve been hurt in the struggle. I too believe I’ve been unfairly treated many times–and I pray I’ve not unwittingly hurt others the same number of times (or that they may be healed where I have hurt them)!

    What if the problems we’re seeing are ‘just the way the world is,’ in a sense, in all its “perfect imperfections;” we are not God and are unable to adequately critique the world as a whole; nor, by the same token, can we adequately critique subsets of it. Is it possible to humble ourselves for a moment and realize we can’t even actually see the many failures and hurdles we’ve personally brought into the picture?

    Nevertheless, each one of us has some small amount of influence on the greater whole, and our railing against the machine is at once an act of rebellion, a cry for help, and our way of cursing the darkness and lighting a candle?

    May God grant us Serenity to accept the things we cannot change; Courage to change the things we can, and the Wisdom to know the difference; living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, and taking as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is–and not as we would have it, trusting He will make all things right if we surrender to His will, that we may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy in the next. Amen!

  15. Paul Dubuc says:

    I sympathize with the concerns of the “Nones”, but I have a problem with their rationale. Not all congregations, or even most, have the problems often given as reasons for leaving the church. Aside from that, real human relationships often involve conflict. In the church such relationships are intended take the form of a family. Families are where people can learn to handle personal conflicts while still maintaining a bond of love. It seem to me that many Nones want church without conflict and end up being a church of one in themselves, thinking they can chose their human relationships revolving around their own self-interest. Robert Bellah in his 1985 book “Habits of the Heart” called this “Shelaism”, coined by a woman by the name of Sheila who highly individualized her form of religion. While it may offer some relief from personal conflict, it’s also likely to end up being a very shallow existence full of personal regret.

  16. Angie Webb says:

    As a former Mormon who came to faith 20 years ago largely due to your book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” and then faithfully devoted my life to a relationship over religion philosophy, I am now one of the teetering Christians who does not attend church. Out of our five children, only one is still a believer. My husband (of 31 years) was so crushed under an abusive church leader that the flame has all but gone out. This is not the outcome I expected when we both plead with the Lord to never let go.

    I still find great comfort in your writings and was transported by your memoir. I read Buechner and Dillard and anyone who says it like it is but inspires faith. What I’m really missing is community. The internet has allowed everyone to scurry to the corner of like-minded people. No one knows their neighbors, myself included. And churches have become places where the once radically free in Christ find themselves re-burdened by “works” and feelings of shame.

    I have hope that the quiet seekers (who don’t fill out surveys or shout political and moral platitudes) will find each other. And mostly, that God won’t let me go.

  17. Kam Congleton says:

    The cross stands as stark evidence that God Himself is willing to walk through death, darkness and despair out of love for us. I pray we can learn to live with that kind of humility–and wherever we gather– in churches, homes, or coffee shops… Christ’s love will be present. Church is a Body, not a place .

  18. Nancy Brugh says:

    So many insightful comments here. I will add one more. Youth sports seems to have taken over Sunday mornings and afternoons.

  19. Tamara Trussell says:

    Ken Kemp hit many nails on the head. I want to point out the hypocrisy of the evangelical fundamentalist churches desire to become state churches is NO DIFFERENT than the Muslims who want SHARIA LAW. They are so similar in nature it is appalling. In addition, fascism is creeping into our politics via Christianity. I am so discouraged by these changes….

  20. Paul Mitchell says:

    Hmmm. For those of us who are old enough to remember, are these comments summarized in Pogo’s “We have met the enemy, and he is us” – ? We ARE the church- shall we abandon it, ignore it, let it die in our scorn and anger, give it over to those we decry? Or get back in the fight to make it whole? It is the body of Christ, and as Philip has written, for whatever His reasons to do so, Christ has placed Himself as the head of this palsied, erratic and defective body by which He reaches out to the world. Don’t hate your body!

    I have a very different view on ‘church’ in that I work with it, but I don’t depend on the organization, just proven members. In the OT God did not create a weekly day to meet. Only 3x a year were the males to come to Jerusalem for special days. Synagogues were man’s invention during the Exile, a good invention, too.

    So did all Hebrews kowtow to the will of leaders? There was a time when they did not. Judges 17:6– “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
    Decide godliness and faith in your own sight, but along with that freedom comes a TON of self-responsibility! It better be righteous, but you don’t need anyone to rule for you.

    So we come to the NT. Believe it or not, there is no command to meet on a specific day. Not even Sunday. Early Christians did, and it is a good tradition I observe, but we have no specific command. Hebrews 10:25? No. Easily misunderstood, but that deals with the long-foretold gathering of the faithful before the destruction of the Jewish economy. People have misapplied (my studied opinion) this passage and many come to get their weekly attendance ticket punched – sadly, a work, not real faith.

    Bottom line for me is that the criticisms in these replies are the same basically as in NT times. Domineering Pharisees, hucksters like the 7 sons of Sceva in Acts 19, religious politicians like the Sandedrin, Alexander the coppersmith that did Paul ‘much harm’, Hymanaeus and Philetus spread gangrenous talk, Demas loved the present world and deserted Paul. It isn’t going away, so we must learn to deal with it. I choose to ignore such negative attempts if I can’t quash them, and just do what is right in my own sight, my own (daily) studies, my own actions. It is not to say I am an island. I attend several groups but I look for the positive, confront the negative when such an action stands a chance, but always, always maintain my independence.

  21. Rev Roy says:

    I am with a “traditional” reformed and evangelical church in Durbanville, Cape Town.
    Covid hit all churches really hard, and once the bans were lifted we worked hard at encouraging the “meeting together of the saints” and “building up the body of Christ” through the local Church. We are known as Emmanuel Church and the sign outside on the building says “Emmanuel Church…. meets here”
    We have grown so much in the past year with a huge influx of young families in particular that if a graph were drawn – it would tell a different story. Praise the Lord.

  22. Judith W Hughes says:

    For myself, I stepped away from Catholicism in 2000 because of the church’s response to pedophilia amongst its clergy. About the time I was ready to embrace the religious community again, people with “deeply held religious beliefs” weaponized their Christian faith to spew hatred against selected others. I now identify with the Nones – as an Ethical Buddhist and atheist. I find great comfort in rejecting my early indoctrination and regaining my sense of wonder. I cannot be part of any system that tolerates hypocrisy, hatred and abuse.

  23. Larry says:

    A welcome subject to keep in our minds. I attend a small Anglican church that left the Episcopal church. We are unpolitical, and liturgical and our pastor has a full weekly schedule for us of opportunities for spiritual direction and Bible meditation. We don’t preach against anyone. Each sermon is a detailed homily on Scripture. But, how can we attract people without trying to be “attractive” in the superficial sense? Not everyone actually wants an intense spiritual growth, it seems.

  24. MKR says:

    The Book of Acts Chapter 2 describes about characteristics of the early Church which are still applicable today: Focus on (1) the apostles’ teaching, of Holy Scripture; (2)
    breaking of bread, meaning both Eucharist and occasional breakfast/lunch/dinner; (3) fellowship aka meaningful genuine relationships of caring, encouragement, service to one another; (4) prayer. Too many churches are turning worship into spectator entertainment. The Family and the Church are God’s creations to see that people are cared for on Earth and prepared for our ultimate Home in Heaven. Family (father/mother/children/family elders) and Church must restored for the good of all of us.

  25. Ken Kemp says:

    Thank you for sharing Dr. Burge’s findings. I can’t tell you how many of my peers (Philip – you and I are about the same age) “found Jesus” back in high school or college thanks to Calvary Chapel and the Jesus movement, Campus Crusade for Christ, Young Life, Youth for Christ or Inter-Varsity (among other similar evangelical youth “ministries”). They give witness to a genuine encounter with God and engagement with a rich, soulful community. They came from mainline churches, the Catholic Church, or atheistic/agnostic churchless homes. A friend invited them to youth group, and that changed everything. The migration from mainline to “evangelical” (of all sorts) back in those days was massive. These new converts attended Bible Schools and Christian colleges, read Christian books, went on mission trips, listened to Christian music, and watched Christian TV.

    Then came the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family and Bill Gothard and the Tea Party and a tidal wave of Jesus people lined up as Conservative, Republican, and somehow, by the time 2016 rolled around, convinced themselves that Donald Trump was God’s man.

    Here’s the thing. The center just doesn’t hold. Their kids read books. They witnessed the glaring hypocrisy from close range. Their fundamentalist Christian parents and teachers taught them “purity” and “integrity” and “maturity” and “Christ-likeness” – and then shamelessly supported a man and a movement that displays none of the above. The former president and his friends are the antithesis of it all. The children of the Jesus generation of the 60s, 70s, and 80s are not alone. A lot of us saw these remarkable trends documented by Dr. Burge.

    If Jesus remains in the equation for any of us, it’s the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, not the Jesus of Greg Locke or Paula White or Franklin Graham or Robert Jeffress.

  26. Steven says:

    What about the Catholics?

  27. Kathy says:

    I’m surprised Burge had no explanation for the collapse of attendance in mainline churches. I’ve read it started when these churches got too involved in left-wing politics at the expense of preaching about Christ. A similar decline is going on as well with evangelical churches and right-wing politics. We should not discount the effects of the church closings during the pandemic. Several friends on mine still watch services on TV rather than going in person and don’t have a good explanation for why except convenience.

  28. Bob Snodgrass says:

    “Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal why People are Done with the Church But Not Their Faith”
    Book by Ashleigh Hope and Josh Packard
    The above book talks about the “ phenomenon of the dones.” These are folks who still love Jesus but are done with the audience mentality of organized church. There are lots of us. We once held leadership positions or were considered the pillars of our local fellowships. The book articulates some of the reasons we are done.

  29. Vicky Benton says:

    Lots of negative comments here about Donald Trump. Part of the problem is Christians, for far too long, have believed that participation in civic life is not appropriate. Honestly, the secular community has taken over the arts, government, education, and many more areas. I do see a movement of Christians getting more involved in government policy, which is a blessing! From my vantage point, most of those are Catholics and
    Charismatics. Maybe one day, we will have a godly individual who will believe in a border, energy independence, and getting manufacturing jobs back here, etc. I was worried about Donald Trump being our president but his policies were outstanding. He did more to stop human trafficking than any president ever. He also did more to help the pro-life movement than any other president. Sorry, sometimes the truth is complicated.

  30. Cynthia Ann Storrs says:

    Agree with many of the comments, particularly the noxious effect of Christian nationalism. While I agree the point is to follow Christ, not a religion, Christ also created the church. It is the place for believers to be mutually encouraged and practicing their gifts to support one another. A follower of Christ was never meant to be a Lone Ranger (in truth, the walk is too difficult!). We need one another.

  31. Nicola says:

    My comment would mirror James comment. It’s not who is a ‘Christian ‘ but who is following Jesus, the two are vastly different. Most mega churches do not follow Jesus. They follow religion; the religion of money, manipulation, control and power. As for ‘Godless’ communists, the title may well be, but not the people, if you read Brother Andrew on the matter. If Christianity has proved false, which western evangelical Christianity has; being in love with power and money and idol worship (huge billboards!) it is better the young do leave such a dark place and find the truth. Love will come down all roads to find us. Christianity, Western Christianity needs to admit some very hard truths to itself. It has lied about the nature of God to force people into pews, and this has killed the church. Will it now look to the cross and begin to preach the message of the cross, which it has lost, or will it keep dividing into ‘groups,’ so it can point the finger and scapegoat, making it not the church at all, but the anti-Christ. God does not DO groups. He does humanity. That was the message of the cross and whole of scripture.

  32. David Wright says:

    Several things have and continue to distress me in the several streams of the Church. One is so many of us prefer and choose narcissists as leaders both in our churches and our nation. James Wilder in his book “The Pandora Problem: Facing Narcissism in Leaders and Ourselves” cited a study that concluded Canadian pastors were 3000% more likely to be narcissists than the general population. Evangelicals in the U.S, overwhelmingly voted for a man for president who is clearly a narcissist and are ready to do it again, no matter what crimes the man has committed. We have been repeatedly warned about fascism (Madeleine Albright and others). It seems the U.S. is teetering on the brink of fascism and most evangelicals and many in our congress don’t seem to either see it or care. Not good!

    Christianity was once about Jesus, but many in the social justice (mostly mainline?) stream of the church seem to have lost any meaningful Jesus and evangelicals seem to be increasingly rejecting much of what Jesus says (Russell Moore and others).

    If we and our religious leaders are fixated on politics or our own ministry or personal kingdoms, rather than on Jesus, Father and Holy Spirit, in what ways does it matter whether people are going to church or not?

    Where will all this wind up? I don’t know. But both the English church and nation were in bad shape prior to the Wesleyan revival. yet both were deeply changed for the better by that revival.

    Have we seen hints and precursors of deep spiritual revival in things like the recent Asbury awakening? I am praying for more.

  33. Dana Evans says:

    I totally agree with James Greengrass. So many people believe in Jesus but don’t go to church. I am one of them. I just couldn’t stomach the loving Christians following and preaching about such a hateful man in Donald Trump. I think he has singlehandedly been part of turning people away from church. How can you say you love everyone with the love of the Lord and then support so many racist viewpoints?! I couldn’t sit there every Sunday anymore and listen to it. I love Jesus with all my heart. I can’t support the church anymore. And it’s sad.

  34. Deborah says:

    I agree with many comments. It encourages me that I am not alone. My husband pastored churches for 35 years. I grew up in a conservative church of Christ. In college I ‘converted’ my fiancé and off we went, to convert the world. I now no longer attend any church. My family were tragically hurt in many ways by the very people we dedicated our lives to. We have two grown children with children of their own. Neither gather with other Christians and it is a subject they will not discuss. I feel at fault for making them follow man-made rules.
    Trump has devastated Christians. How do lovers of God approve of such an unrighteousness man? And when did Christians become so exclusive? Why aren’t churches open to everyone and I mean everyone. No judgements or assumptions. Just love. God’s Spirit lives in us all. We are made in His Image. Can’t we trust Our Spirit to change us all. I love the broken because I am broken. Jesus is my church.

  35. Ellen says:

    It make take something big to awaken people to following the way of Jesus again. American Christianity is deeply entangled with power and money, and seems to have completely missed Jesus’s way of creating community—in which anyone was truly welcome—and has become a mere “sin” management system while being utterly blind to our own. Imagine if Christians started confessing our greed and dark relationship with Mammon, and our lust for power and its dark marriage to politics? What if then, in repentance we began making restitution to the poor and others we’ve harmed (which will take a whole lot of painful honesty), and practiced serving and giving the way Jesus taught? Giving everything away? Sharing all things in common? Taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously? The very thought offends us. But we’d find our true identity in Christ again and it would communicate the gospel of Jesus very clearly.

  36. Scott Coyne says:

    My guess is Nones will continue to increase but at a slower pace, for 3 reasons. Most feel they’re moral people already, so church isn’t needed. I would add the vast majority don’t understand that their strong core beliefs originated from Judeo/Christian beliefs. Equality, care/valuing the poor, human rights, children valued, ethnic value and diversity…. None of these concepts and beliefs originated from other religions or enlightened groups but from Judeo/Christian beginnings. At least when understood correctly. But also, because the current mixture of faith and politics has created a minefield for even considering attending church. It’s assumed one must have certain strong political beliefs if they’re to attend church and if they don’t, they’ll be out of place at church. And the last thing someone wants on a weekend away from work is another difficult stress added. There are certainly other factors that just add more reasons to dismiss church. Ugly church history being the biggest in my opinion. If you view yourself as already moral in the areas that count, and you disagree with some of the largest political issues current Christians/churches emphasize, and those churches also have a very bad history of getting some issues terribly wrong in the past…where is there any motivation to even consider attending church or even identifying as a Chistian? I won’t bore you with what I think is the way out of this situation, but the first step requires a lot of Christian humility which I’m not perceiving much of at this time. Hopefully our Father in heaven won’t see the need to force us into humility in order to reflect him more accurately to the observing world.

  37. MKR says:

    Corrupt practices by church leaders has caused the collapse of the Church. Pedophile priests. Charismatic millionaire TV Evangelists capitalizing on poor folks’ donations. Mega church founders e.g. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, James McDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel. And incompetent proud unholy pastors at many local churches. Who needs instruction in holiness from any of these individuals?

  38. Laurie says:

    I believe that many factors have led to the decline in church affiliation as well as disassociation from the current day label of Christianity. I believe the first, most influential factor is the church’s embrace of partisan politics. The angry, vengeful, intolerant, inflexible, closed minded, self righteous “Christians” have pushed away those of us who do not want to be associated with that group of people who we view as not practicing what they preach. The second biggest factor I see is the attitude that unless one ascribes to a very narrowly defined, “I have all the answers, and you are dead wrong” form of religion, you cannot be a good person, a good American, and your voice must be silenced, your rights denied. We have come to the point where some of these folks don’t just speak OF God, but FOR God…as though though they are the omniscient One. I am a lifelong Christian who struggles mightily to avoid joining the ranks of a “None”!

  39. James Greengrass says:

    Here in Canada sociologist Reg Bibby has been tracking these same trends for the past few decades. We’re in a similar situation here in the Great White North, although “Christian Nationalism” never took hold here in the way that it did in the USA.

    I think a better (although harder to answer) question than “Who is Going to Church?” would be “Who is Following Jesus?”. The data makes it clear that the two are not necessarily the same thing.

  40. Miriam Ayala says:

    I can only speak of my experience as a Jesus Revolution born again follower of Christ and how my friends also wanted to attend non-denominational churches back in 1974 it was very organic and we went where the spirit of the Lord was leading, mostly in house churches and tent meetings in Long Island New York.
    We were college grads but the cultural turmoils had us go to our knees searching for a high power . We raised our boys in the faith and as they moved on in life and attended these anti-Christ Colleges they questioned their walk and stands with God. 2 out of 3 sons attend church with there families today and the churches are conforming to current culture wars and woke mentality.
    I serve and love a powerful God of the Bible who did mighty miracles thru the centuries and we all have to come before Him with our hearts inline with His! So I stay before the Lord praying for my family because His promises are yea and amen for us followers of the King who’s Kingdom will certainly be coming soon:)

  41. Darlene Hixon says:

    Once again Philip…thank you for bringing this reality to your blog for pondering, prayer and continued attention. I am the 70’s convert during the Jesus revolution. I’m a committed follower of Jesus and I love His church. I find myself mystified at this season in my life (late 60’s) that my friends find themselves uncommitted to a particular body of believers (church). There are so many questions that I have about the disenchantment with church.
    Perhaps it will take a “crash” such as we see the real estate market demonstrate before the real value of church is discovered again. It seems that some of the “nones” in my life decided that church and religion was more of a social club of religious people, instead of Jesus followers and decided that it was irrelevant to them. Maybe my generation got tired of it too. Are we in a “church crash”?

  42. Joe Pop says:

    He limits the shift of Young People Lose Their Religion to 1991-1998, yet the data in the graph shows the trend continuing at least to 2018. I suspect that the trend is continuing, if not actually accelerating, because of the continued culture wars and the hypocrisy of the Evangelical Church embracing Donald Trump. Is it important? I believe so. I think the trend will continue and what we are seeing is the last gasps of an Evangelical Church trying to hold on to political power at the cost of Jesus’ message of hope and mercy. Maybe something new will be born from the ashes.

  43. Mike Mueller says:

    Not surprising that the young folks are not drawn to religion. I believe that the message of Jesus Christ has been lost. Pastors don’t speak Jesus. They are more involved in keeping pace with the world and not offending anyone to keep their attendance up.
    The message Jesus brings is Hope, deliverance, and renewal through truth.

  44. George Benard Fanning says:

    Very interesting data!

  45. Joan Houston says:

    An interesting commentary on American society. I wonder if church leaders have been so busy building their churches that they have forgotten to love God with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength and to follow Jesus from day to day with all their heart.

  46. Darin says:

    I think the mixing of politics and religion has a great deal to do with it. The embrace of Trump by such a large percentage of American Christians is thoroughly depressing and heartbreaking. I’m not at all surprised by the current statistics.

  47. Rodney Otto says:

    I am a LCMS Lutheran pastor with 1 son who goes to church and 3 sons who don”t. I focused on church growth serving a rural, small town large church with school and a large suburb church that asked me to leave and decimated the congregation and hurt my family. In retrospect I focused too much on church growth and too little about love. One son said it well: Dad, if you preach one more sermon on the Great Commission I won’t come back. He has not except for special occasions and has his own version of Christianity that fits nowhere. We discuss it a lot.

  48. As a woman of similar age and background to Philip Yancy, of whom I am a great fan of his writing, I will make my comment. I now attend an open unaffiliated evangelical church that preaches Jesus and God’s love first and foremost.I am the oldest person there, as most attendees are in the 20-40 age group, many have come from the chuches mentioned in the article. We want to hear about the love and compassion of the gospel, to have our wounds healed and learn how to love and serve one another with the same compassion. We dont want the rant from the pulpit about the evils of everyone else and how they need to be legislated against. We want an inclusive society that welcomes all in the name of Jesus.

  49. Charles Stearns says:

    Well, I am glad that the gospel is still the gospel no matter what the United States state of the gospel looks like. If we falter with it he has some rocks ready to rake it up.

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