The Story: A new survey finds that U.S. church membership has fallen below a majority for first time in nearly a century.
The Background: For the first time in 80 years of surveys, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent. A survey by Gallup finds that in 2020, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999.
When Gallup first measured church membership in 1937, it was 73 percent. It remained near 70 percent for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the millennium.
Gallup also asks Americans numerous questions each year about their religious attitudes and practices. Some trends emerged in an analysis of declining church membership across three-year aggregates: 1998–2000 (when church membership averaged 69 percent), 2008–10 (62 percent), and 2018–20 (49 percent).
The decline in church membership appears to be primarily a result of more Americans expressing no religious preference. For the past 20 years, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8 percent in 1998–2000 to 13 percent in 2008–10, and 21 percent in the past three years. This trend appears to account for more than half of the 20-point decline in church membership during the same time.
Most of the rest of the drop can be attributed to a decline in formal church membership among Americans who do have a religious preference. The decline in church membership, as Gallup notes, appears largely tied to population change. Those in older generations who were likely to be church members are being replaced in the U.S. adult population by younger people less likely to join institutions.
About 66 percent of traditionalists (U.S. adults born before 1946) belong to a church, compared with 58 percent of baby boomers, 50 percent of those in Generation X, and 36 percent of millennials. (The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.)
What It Means: As many American pastors can tell you, younger people are unclear on why they need to be a “member” of a church. Membership implies one belongs to an exclusive group not necessarily welcoming of others. Why then would a Christian need to be a “member” of a church?
To answer that question, we need to first answer another question: What exactly is the church? Is it a voluntary organization? Is it merely a group of people who share the same religious interests? The Bible uses several metaphors to describe the church, such as family (1 Tim. 5:1), household (Gal. 6:10), and temple (Eph. 2:19–22). But when thinking about the church as an institution in the American context, it can be helpful to think of an embassy.
As Christians, we have dual citizenship. We are ultimately monarchists since we are primarily citizens of the kingdom of God and submit our lives to the rule of King Jesus. But we also are citizens (or resident aliens) of an earthly nation-state, such as the United States.
A church is not the kingdom, for the kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36). Rather, the church is an outpost of the kingdom, or what we could call an embassy. An embassy is an institution that represents one nation in another nation.
As pastor-theologian Jonathan Leeman says, an embassy declares its home nation’s interests, and it protects the citizens of the home nation living in the host nation. A church is a real-life embassy, set in the present, that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church.
We can also say the church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to affirm and oversee one another’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
What then is a church member, and what is church membership? A church member, as Leeman adds, is “someone who walks through the embassy doors claiming to belong to the kingdom of Christ.” Members are also part of the embassy, among the officials who affirm and oversee others.
Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship, and submission to living this discipleship in the care of the church. In other words, church membership is all about a church taking specific responsibility for you, and you for the church.
Church membership is therefore necessary because it helps us obey essential commands found in Scripture. For example, the Bible says we should submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). The Bible also says to have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account (Heb. 13:17).
How do you know which leaders to submit to? How do Christian leaders know who should submit to them? And how do we know who such leaders are? How do the leaders know for which people God will hold them responsible?
The answer is that we freely choose to submit to a specific group of believers and leaders by making a public commitment. And we do all of that by becoming members of a church.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and coauthor of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an associate pastor at McLean Bible Church in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.