TURES COLUMN: America’s Struggles With Church Attendance Predate Even The 1960s

Published 9:30 am Saturday, May 18, 2024

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In preparing my lesson for our Sunday school group, I came across a survey table that was the most shocking I’ve ever seen in all my years of analyzing data, running the numbers, and conducting statistical tests.  For those who worry about religious life in America, you need to see that our problems long predate every excuse we’ve ever given, from the 1960s, our educational institution, a court case, or any particular political leader.  And it is going to take a lot more than a simplistically stated solution for what’s become a global phenomenon.

If you’ve studied the issue of religious life in America, you’re probably not surprised by polls that show the declining percentage of those who feel that religious life is judged to be “very important” in our own lives, falling from the upper 60s to the upper 40s.

There are those surveys where the pollsters ask “Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society.  Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, here to each one…a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little…”  When it comes to religious institutions, those saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence have fallen from 68 percent in 1975 to 44% in 2012.  Remember that this is how people feel about churches, temples, mosques, or synagogues, not what they believe.

But the most shocking came when I researched church attendance.  When asked by Gallup for self-reported religious attendance in the past seven days (including virtually during the pandemic), it is 29% today.  But in no time, since the 1940s, has it ever been higher than 49% (and that was once in the late 1950s.)  It’s been pretty steady for decades at 40% until about 2016.  And remember, this is what people are telling the pollsters, who aren’t demanding proof of going.  We may talk the talk, but precious few are walking the walk.

I can’t count how many times someone has told me that our declining faith in God is the fault of the 1960s.  Or it’s the fault of divorce (higher in the 1950s than the 1920s, by the way).  Maybe someone blames the courts for taking God out of public school (but did not cover church attendance).  Or perhaps we could point the finger at Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama or Trump, or even Biden.  The data shows it’s not the fault of any one politician.

When you look at religion in the world, you can clearly see this decline of seeing oneself as a religious person as being more of a global phenomenon.  For those reporting data, only Italy, Ukraine, Poland, and Serbia top America’s relatively low levels.  For Canada, Australia, France, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Japan, and the rest, it’s much lower than our faith.  No U.S. Supreme Court, or American politician or educational institution can account for this finding.

I’m sure some will be quick to dismiss these numbers, who distrust every poll and cling to a myopic view of religious life in the world.  Others will cling to their narrow pet theories of the problem and solution, which wouldn’t reverse the trend even if they could wave a wand and dismiss what they think is the reason why.  For them, the world will remain flat.

As for the rest of us who still believe, and want to share this faith with others, it’s time to look in the mirror and realize the global and national scope of the issue.  It’s time to lead by serving others and being a force for solutions to what ails society, and what our belief systems encourage us to do, instead of engaging in division and political fights which seem only like to exacerbate this crisis of faith.  Let’s work together to be the inspiration that solves this very longstanding concern.