Sep 062017

PRRI has released its report on the state of religion in America.

“The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations. These are two of the major findings from this report, which is based on findings from PRRI’s 2016 American Values Atlas, the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted.”

The numbers are clear.

The church in America is rapidly aging and shrinking.

The question is…what do the numbers mean and can we reverse the trends?

There is a wealth of fascinating material in this report…well worth taking the time to read.


  66 Responses to “America’s Changing Religious Identity”

  1. Fascinating on so many levels. Thank you for posting this. A few things that strike me.

    Heh. Looking at the breakdown, the Orthodox Christians have beautiful symmetry. 50-50 male-female, and for political party setting aside the huge swath of independents, an even split between Rep and Dem parties.

    The way in which the GOP has captured white protestants is, well, it’s definitely A Thing. Not as heavily weighted as among Black Protestants, but still. (also, in terms of sheer numbers, White Prot GOPers would far outnumber Black Prot Dems.)

    So many more fascinating breakdowns. The bottom graph, with the three largest groups in each state, is also pretty remarkable. Was a bit surprised by the population of Idaho (from recent travels there… yes, the total eclipse was stunning), it was the only state other than Utah that had Mormon as the top 3.

    Finally, the comparison of general population vs LGBTQ population. Stands to reason that if you are rejected (and in some cases repudiated) by religious groups, you’d not be affiliated with them. It edges toward “water is wet” logic. But the contrast in the graphs is still remarkable.

    I kinda wonder how I would have answered my affiliation if I were to have participated in the study. Mainline protestant (Episcopal) or Unaffiliated? I suppose it’d depend on the way the question is posed. If it said how do you consider yourself now, I’d say unaffiliated. If put slightly differently, I’d say mainline protestant

  2. “The question is…what do the numbers mean and can we reverse the trends?”

    Do we care? I don’t care how many Christians are in America and I don’t care about the percentage … as long as those who claim to be Christians actually are.

    I have said it before, I think there are just as many Christians in this country today as there always has been. But in the past, a lot more folks made the claim for social and political reasons. Today, not as many feel compel to keep up a facade. Add to that we are a less homogeneous population, we have many more religions that shrink the percentage.

    As soon as we ask, can WE reverse the trend?, I begin to think of “pack a pew Sundays.” – Man’s efforts have caused the problem – if the holy spirit wants something else done he will do it without our prompting.

    *** Disclaimer — not trying to be contrary.

  3. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is sovereign in such matters.
    My question would be whether or not we are quenching and even grieving the Spirit by our own actions…

  4. If I “quench” the holy spirit – does that affect the salvation of the unbeliever next to me? Bill, the guy next to me is one of the elect, just not to a point of salvation yet – does the holy spirit give up on him due to my quenching?

    I don’t doubt the statistics in the study – I question the purpose … like selling the information to those who develop “church programs” or to those who do seminars.

  5. I have retired from dogmatic pronouncements on the mystery of election…but I do believe something or somethings have changed and it is evident in those numbers.

    Now, I may be working with confirmation bias…because if God hadn’t drafted me when He did, I sure as hell wouldn’t sign up willingly for what passes for the faith in some places today.

    I could have very easily become a very rude critic of Christianity…

  6. “can we reverse the trends?”

    Perhaps when we once again see ourselves as conduits of God’s Spirit: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ”

    God is the elector. But He elects through means.

  7. In my opinion, the numbers do matter… in a number of ways.

    As the denominations age and fail, there are fewer places for the remnant of faithful believers.

    As the structures age and fail, institutions – seminaries, mission organizations, social aid networks, publishing houses, etc., go down with them.

    Today, we can point at the “mainline denominations” with some degree of smugness (“we’re not like them”) but the figures show that the same fate is just around the corner for independents and evangelicals (broadly defined).

    The demographic curve indicates that this downward trend is not a constant, but is accelerating, owing to the age of the population.

    So, looking ahead 20 years or so… Where will clergy be trained, and where are the scholars who will train them? Where will the scholars do their training and work? Who will serve and lead the increasingly smaller congregations that cannot support a full-time pastor? How will the pastoral calling be defined when in just a few years over 70% of clergy will be bi-vocational? What will happen in the mission field as support is drastically reduced and the infrastructure is no longer in place to assist in practical ways? Who will publish the books?

    From my perspective, I’ve been in ministry for over 40 years and I could not have imagined back then the reality of today that this study shows so clearly. I might also say, most church bodies and organizations that I am familiar with are not looking to the future with creative imaginations addressing this reality… they are simply trying to survive. We’ve hit the iceberg and I think we need to be concerned with something more than rearranging the deck chairs as the band plays “Nearer My God to Thee”…

  8. A long time ago, I sent Michael a message that said that we would witness a “sea change” in American Christianity. Well, here we are. Evangelicalism fought the culture wars, and right now they have a pyrrhic victory. From where I stand, I see young people searching for a meaningful faith. They don’t know about the internecine discernment battles, eschatological battles, Calvinist vs Arminianism battles, and such, that Christian leaders fought while their flocks were running off and dying. And, they don’t care about the wars.

    Right now we are seeing so called aging White American conservatives breath their last breaths. Give the next generation of young faithful Christians a chance to change the world, and bring a new revival.

    I know it seems foolish but, I’m ever hopeful that if they get a chance they can breath new life into the faith. I just hope that the old guard doesn’t beat them down.

  9. MLD, “If I “quench” the holy spirit – does that affect the salvation of the unbeliever next to me? Bill, the guy next to me is one of the elect, just not to a point of salvation yet – does the holy spirit give up on him due to my quenching?”

    God knows His own, so maybe the point is not that you are driving someone away from God, but that YOU ARE doing it… there seems to be a fine and somewhat indefinable line between standing for God and standing between your fellow man and his search for God… love is in there somewhere – loving what God loves – we think, perhaps that God loves indiscriminately – He doesn’t, but His love is strong and always available…
    how do we convey that part of who we are? thinking… thinking… again…

  10. Looking at the stats I had a number of thoughts…

    Religious affiliation stats have always shown many more Christians than those who are involved with church. Numbers of people actually following Jesus is of more interest than affiliation. We know nominal Christianity is in fast decline. What about active Christianity?

    Interesting that they broke up some of the Christian segments by race, but not the unaffiliated.

    That Hindu gender gap is extreme, indicating a more unbalanced immigration gender gap than we have in Australia. (The one for Muslims is similar).

    Black protestants 58% female. I’m used to seeing a gender gap in church attendance (in Aust there are 3 women for every 2 men in church) but to see it show up in affiliation is a newer thing.

  11. I see nothing about mixed race individuals here and the percentage of those folks in the country. It makes no difference to me if your black, white, asian or any combination yet for some stupid reason people need to lump race, religion and politics in quantifiable discrete buckets. I agree with MLD, for what purpose? A new program to shift the trend in a different direction?

  12. Perhaps this study is just documenting Jesus’ words – Matthew 24:10-14

    10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

  13. MLD

    Maybe that verse in Matthew explains how the comma gets placed at the end of Luke 4:10


    (Apologies for the caps, copied and pasted)

  14. Rod Dreher states:

    “As a practical matter, I wish that the Nashville Statement had not articulated a stance on this issue, because I don’t want to alienate same-sex-attracted Christians who live chastely and affirm the Christian teaching on homosexuality, but who go about it from a somewhat different set of premises.”

    Is there a scripture that affirms innate homosexuality? What does “but who go about it from a somewhat different set of premises” mean exactly?

  15. Perhaps these statistics reveal another perspective…

    We are/were warned of an apostasy in describing the spiritual conditions in the last days, and that many would fall away and be deceived. It seems that that the Holy Spirit is being removed (He that restrains) The same HS who once called the masses to Salvation in the late 60’s-80’s has evaporated back to heaven as was planned, and now we see the opening of the floodgates of lawlessness.

    For the mystery of lawlessness already works. Only there is one who restrains now, until he is taken out of the way. (2Thess. 2:7) And then…

  16. #15,

    “Is there a scripture that affirms innate homosexuality?”

    Yes. Gal 5:16-24 speaks to it.

  17. Descended – I don’t understand your Luke 4 passage as you try to connect it to my Matt 24.

  18. Here you go – the question is asked how we can reverse the trend and the answer is out there.

  19. Maybe the Great Commission is the answer?

    Acts 1:8?


    OR have we done enough of that already?

  20. We need a complete reboot.

    The church is so entangled in culture wars and nationalism that the Gospel has been buried.

    What has been buried even deeper is the whole story of redemption…why we need it and how Christ provides it.

    In former days, cultural Christianity provided a basic understanding of the message to younger generations…that old, shaky, foundation is gone and has been for a long time.

    We need a rediscovery and promotion of the person and work of Jesus Christ without all cultural garbage.

  21. have we done enough…? as long as this world is blessed with the presence of the Church, probably not 🙂

    sometimes we pew sitters have gotten the message that we’re not “called” by God, not “gifted” to share the Gospel… not good enough to do so until we learn the correct method – the one sanctioned by our church… dunno …
    maybe those among us, Believers with the manners of a Donald Trump out there ham-handedly talking about the Faith do more good than we know … dunno … thinking ….

  22. #21 Michael

    I hear my evangelical friends talk about “a revival” and I feel like saying, “A revival of what?” Equating the faith with culture – American, British or whatever – is part of the reason we are in the mess that we are today.

    This, however, brings up another issue. Christianity is rooted in history. How do we create a new expression of the faith without the cultural baggage yet bring along our history?

  23. My #20 was more in response to the always present “nothing to see here” voices when these numbers are posted. I would assume as long as there is one non-Christian in our country, then we still have work to do.

    I do think we should always be in a process of trying to recover New Testament Christianity. However, that expression of Christianity was also rooted in a sinful culture, so you have the second challenge of figuring out what is worth recovering.

  24. Duane,

    When I spoke with Dr. Packer I asked him the same question.
    He replied ; “Catechize, catechize, catechize!”

    We have better tools than we’ve ever had to do so…

  25. i think we have been focused on performance – do good and be blessed and man’s idea of doing good may be far from God’s, rather than learning more of Christ, which renews our whole thinking/perspective

    if i may, i say amen to Dr. Packer’s words to Michael

  26. #25 Michael


    #24 Josh

    One important area that is often ignored is simple basic pastoral care. I’m astonished how little is done these days. I’m talking about everything from engaging visitors to hospital visitation. I know that some pastors still do this, but it seems far fewer than in the past. Additionally, respect for the people we serve. My father-in-law died a few years ago. He attended a somewhat prominent Presbyterian Church in his city. We arrived for the appointment to arrange the funeral. The pastor arrived wearing cut-offs, t-shirt and flip-flops (he had never met us) and proceeded to say, “I not very good with these sort of services, what kind of funeral service do you want?” In the end, I had to arrange the Order of Service, hymns, etc. It was simply that the pastor did not have respect for the people he was called to serve. By the way, in sharing this story with friends, I was appalled to learn how many of them had similar experiences in their own churches.

  27. I go back to Dreher’s article;

    “The Trump factor: so many white Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump that they surrendered the ability to speak with moral credibility on anything having to do with sexuality
    That last one — the Trump factor — deserves some commentary. A couple of people in college ministry were at the table. They said that it is impossible to overstate how alienating the enthusiastic support their parents gave to Donald Trump was to their students. A number of college students have left the church entirely over it.

    “How is that possible?” I asked one of the campus ministers. “How do you decide to leave Christianity altogether over who your parents voted for? That makes no sense to me.”

    He said that in Evangelical circles, it’s common for college students to be skeptical at best of their parents’ theological views. For a lot of them, their parents’ backing of Donald Trump made everything they had been taught as kids about Christianity a lie. Their parents were the primary face of Evangelical Christianity to them, and to see this happen was shattering. They concluded that Christianity must be all about the economy, or tribalism, and so forth. One pastor said that a young man he ministers to in college posted a criticism of Trump on Facebook, and was cut off financially by his parents because of it.

    Listening to these pastors and laypeople talking about the Trump effect on younger Christians was quite sobering to me. An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.

    “But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.

    “I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”

    For almost 16 years now I’ve been saying we need to clean our own stalls first…that the world sees through our power grabs and sexual hypocrisy.
    The chickens are now coming home to roost…

  28. So the question – based on Jean’s Gospel article — Michael summarized on Facebook = “”Jean’s Gospel”: Even if you’ve screwed it all up, Jesus has done all things well for you… ”

    So why does this not apply to our failings in keeping the church strong and viable?

  29. MLD,

    The bible teaches both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

    I have no idea how the hell that tension works out practically.

    I just know I have to take care of my responsibilities.

  30. Duane,

    Pastoral care is considered grunt work in some circles.
    You leave it to the assistants…because the Sunday performance is what really matters.

    I’m way too cynical this morning…

  31. That is my question – do I have a responsibility to keep the church strong or keep myself strong (perhaps me and my family).?

  32. The country didn’t vote for trump because he was sexually moral. They voted for him because he was a better choice than crooked Hillary. If these votes disqualifies the voter to say anything about morals, we have to rethink if anyone who votes can speak on morals.

  33. Steve,

    The evangelical right spent all their capital “baptizing” Trump and trying to convince their followers that he was a baby Christian now.

    It was pure bull.

    Had they said that we don’t care whether he is a heathen, we like his policies, the offense would have been lessor.

  34. MLD,

    That’s a fair question…of course, the priority is that you start with yourself and your family…then worry about the family of God.

  35. Michael,

    I too was disgusted when the Focus on the Family guy (forgot his name) came out and called Trump a baby Christian. That definitely was an all time low in my opinion with the mixing of right wing politics and religion. It was a sham and disgusting. However with that said, maybe Trump is a baby Christian or just a really immature one. I’m not going to judge his salvation. If he claims he’s a Christian I’ll take his word and hope its true. He’s not a member in my church and last I heard if I’m not mistaken he was a member in the Presbyterian USA church which is way to liberal for me to affiliate with anyhow.

  36. I don’t think that a man should be called ”pastor” if he doesn’t pastor … If he defines his role in his church by his performance behind the pulpit, let him be honored with the title of teacher – unless he doesn’t teach. If he used the Book as a springboard for a performance, then call him reverend…

    I’ve said this before, I know…

  37. How does one keep himself strong in Christ without strengthening the Church? Christianity can not be hidden under a bushel.

  38. Josh – usually the big cry is “we are losing the millennials” – so what the heck can I do about that.
    Should I lobby to have their university teachers fired as they seem to have a big part in trying to break the student from their faith.

    Will that bring the millennials back when they see me protesting on campus?

  39. Duane – I agree on pastoral care. I will say though, if we go towards catechism and pastoral care, that will necessarily mean congregations that are made up of only a couple hundred people each. It’s wonderful, but numbers like the one in this report may continue to decline if we move towards smaller, more solid congregations.

    Now, it may very well build a stronger foundation for the next generation to build on, but we’ll have to keep ourselves from panicking over the numerical decline.

  40. 39 – Use should share your faith with them.

  41. 39 – Use should share your faith with them.

    I thought they already knew the faith and rejected it – isn’t that what is meant we are losing the millennials.

    I don’t think we decry that for the Jewish millennials — we never had them to lose.

  42. Share your faith with the Jewish millennials too. IN fact, if you have a connection there, all the more reason to share your faith.

  43. I speak to people about Jesus, church, faith almost every day with people who are in my house. I have 3 to 4 people everyday who pass through. They are all caught by my book collection – usually the baseball stuff catches their eye first (I purposely have it set that way) – but then they see the “faith books” and ask me about those – “are you a priest?”

    Then we talk a little – I ask them their faith background – it’s a mixed bag. Some share with me some books they have in common. One guy yesterday was looking and pointed out 5 or 6 books we had in common. I told him that his boss loves my collection of political biographies (about 150 strong) and his statement was “I have been trying to get him into the Christian books” I told him as he comes over more to borrow these books, I will work him towards some christian lite books like Tim Keller.

    I know I must live in a bubble compared to some of you but my town is about 40 – 50K and we have 60 churches in the city limits.

  44. Jean

    Ehhh, not really, unless witchcraft is also innate …?

    I would push back at your reply with Romans 1

  45. I always pry and prod. I have called 3 different people over the past couple of weeks to come clean up my palm trees. They each said they would come and none showed up. Today a guy knocks at my door asking if he could bid my trees. He said he was driving by and thought he would knock.
    I asked if anyone had sent him and he said no. I told him (and this is where I fish) “so it must have been God who sent you.” He replied – I have no doubt it was – and off we went speaking about Jesus.

    But you know – I don’t think I have ever converted anyone.

  46. Sounds great MLD – I was not implying that you don’t share your faith, just answering your generic question of “What should I do?”

    What you have described is strengthening you and the Church.

    For reference, I live in a town of 28,000 and have 219 churches.(probably a few more at thsi point)

  47. Josh – my point is that the report above is totally irrelevant and in the end is a marketing ploy.
    I can only speak to those in my path – I cannot do a thing about “problems in Christendom” – not a thing. Nobody can.

  48. 219 churches in the city limits of a town of 28,000? Wouldn’t that make the case that the report is a bunch of hooey? Doesn’t sound like any kind of lack of interest in Christianity to me.

  49. In San Jose, there are 841 churches listed in the yellow pages (includes JWs), serving a population of 1 million. Maybe our pastor is right that we are one of the least churched areas in the country.

  50. #48 – well… you could do what the O.T. Believers did and pray… like Moses or Jeremiah? or, come to think of it that library of yours may follow Noah’s example… just live the Faith and do it in your house and your front yard (i never did like palm trees much) 🙂

  51. Victor – you come out to a count of 1 church for each 1,100 people in the city – that doesn’t seem unchurched to me.

    My count would be 1 for each 800 – but Josh is at 1 for each 127 people

  52. The Dreher article dovetails well into an unforgettable image from last year: Jerry Falwell Jr. shaking hands with Donald Trump in front of a Playboy Magazine. This was beyond damaging to the Evangelicals and anyone close enough to get shrapnel (Orthodox, Catholics, Evangelicals like Moore who made it loudly known than they did not support Trump in the least), and for my money was the end of an era.

    As a political movement, conservative Christianity is done for now. That’s actually good news, if we can refocus on formation and discipleship instead of looking for magic bullets to Set Everything Right Again (Statements, revivalism, etc). But dang if that political power doesn’t appear tempting every time we look at it…

  53. Em, the point is that none of us are called to fix anything.
    Any teaching that suggest we are the keepers of a faithful church are the one’s who feed these pollsters and demographers.

    “you need to do a better job – let me tell you what the problem is and you go fix it.” I am sure that satan is behind such offerings.

  54. #40 Josh

    The decline has already happened, is now happening and will most likely continue to happen. As I’m seeing it, we will have smaller congregations not out of choice, but simply the reality of fewer people.

    Now here’s an interesting corollary – 20 years ago my friend Michael was on the staff of a church with 1300 in attendance. There were 8 full time staff members plus custodial staff. Today the same church has 300 in attendance with 6 full time staff and 2 part-time. If you reduced the staff to reflect the numbers you should actually only have 2 or maybe 3 full time staff.

    It is the same with the denominations. The headquarters have made marginal cuts in staff, but nothing that reflects the shrinking numbers on the ground. They have their heads in the sand. They see reports like this and simply choose not to see the reality of what’s happening. So, they cannot (or will not) be intentional about looking at the future or assessing what is going wrong at present.

    So, they say, “nothing is wrong” as churches and seminaries close and financial resources wither. As much as I hate to say it, much of the onus is on the clergy in what they do, and more importantly, what they don’t do.

  55. I don’t object to cutting staff to stay afloat — but how does cutting staff change the mass exodus of millennials?

  56. Descended,

    No thanks. Our doctrines of sin are so opposed as to make further discussion fruitless.

    I will remain with Paul, Luther and the doctrine of concupiscence.

  57. “219 churches in the city limits of a town of 28,000? Wouldn’t that make the case that the report is a bunch of hooey? Doesn’t sound like any kind of lack of interest in Christianity to me.”

    No – that is just evidence that I live in small town North Carolina. I think only like 36% are regular church attenders. It is a very small pie chopped up into tiny pieces. There were probably half as many churches in the ’50’s but all were full. Culture has changed. You make valid points about what that change actually means, but I do see it as an opportunity for evangelism.

  58. Josh, that was still probably 36% of the population in the 50a — half as many churches, twice as many people in each..
    Many today get their church off of other media and many are people who have immigrated from non Christian countries.
    This used to be a homogeneous country – not so much today.

    More non believers felt the pressure of society to go to church – Northeastern Episcopalians have always had very few believers – but that was how you kept up appearances, made business relations etc. Today, you can still get a job, get promotions and be allowed in the country club even if you self identify as a “nones” —- not in the 50s.

  59. #59 MLD

    “Northeastern Episcopalians have always had very few believers – but that was how you kept up appearances, made business relations etc.”

    I assume you speak from experience… knowledge… research? I think not.

  60. Yes

  61. #61 MLD

    I think you need a new comic book version of Church History…

  62. Duane, so the rumors are true – you do have a boy crush on me.
    Look, as much as you like to think so, your version is not always correct, like right now.

  63. #MLD

    It gets stranger and stranger with you… And, by the way, you are less than accurate.

  64. #54-are we, the Church, called to fix anything? I’m assuming that you refer to the world outside the Church walls… In that case I can agree. ☺
    not that we can’t fix anything outside the Church walls, if we have the means to do so. If we can help without short changing the Kingdom of God, I believe we should pitch in and help – fixing, in that sense isn’t forbidden – the key is always stewardship, I think

  65. I just noticed something in the report above – especially in light of the question “can we reverse the trends?”

    The first 2 points bring up the shrinking of the white Christian population. Do we need to reverse that trend? Wouldn’t it seem a bit racist to try to restock the American churches with a white population?

    A disturbing thought.

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