Mainline denominations are in decline. That’s not a surprise. In the most recent American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) by Trinity College, the surprise is where the people have gone.
Like others, I’ve labored under the assumption that the United Methodist Church hemorrhaged members to new types of churches and new types of organized religious practices – nondenominational and emergent churches. People are leaving, but the truth is they are not leaving for other worship experiences. Something else is happening in America.
“Various Christian churches and groups gained 31 million adherents to total over 173 million but their combined numbers as a proportion of the population fell by 10 percent from 86.2 percent down to 76 percent over the past two decades.” (ARIS, pg. 3) Catholics and Baptists report gains over the past 20 years, but their percentage of the US population has decreased. Mainline churches (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) have lost over 3.5 million members since 1990, and our percentage of the US population has decreased from 18.7% to 12.9%. Generic Christians (the term ARIS uses for non-denominational, evangelical, and unspecified churches) grew by 6 million adherents, but their percentage of the population declined by .6% overall. Every religious group, whether reporting an increase or decline, commands a smaller percentage of the US population. Where are the people going?
The ARIS survey found that Americans are becoming less Christian altogether. The challenges we face as United Methodists do not come from other denominations, other worship styles (let’s get over that, please), new religious movements, or even from other world religions. Our greatest challenge is an American rejection of organized religion altogether. The ARIS study “shows that the non-theist and No Religion groups collectively known as “Nones” have gained almost 20 million adults since 1990 and risen from 8.2 to 15.0 percent of the total population. If we include those Americans who either don’t know their religious identification (0.9 percent) or refuse to answer our key question (4.1 percent), and who tend to somewhat resemble “Nones” in their social profile and beliefs, we can observe that in 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990.” (ARIS, pg. 3)
For years, mainline church leaders lamented the fact that members are leaving mainline pews for emergent and non-denominational churches. Many mainline churches have tried to become more like these churches to keep and attract members. According to the ARIS report, our focus doesn’t need to revolve around revamping worship styles to compete with other churches. Our focus needs to be on winning the rapidly growing number of Americans who are moving away from religion. One in five adults do not identify with religion of any kind. They are in the grocery line, on the golf course, at the movie theater – next to us everyday. It’s time to stop blaming other churches and worship styles. It’s time to get back in the fields – they are, and have always been, white for harvest.