Religion in America is on the decline and has been dropping since the turn of the century. That's not an atheist's happy dream. It's the conclusion of researchers at Faith Communities Today (FACT), the multi-year study of American religion quarterbacked by the Hartford Seminary's Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The group released a preliminary look this week at results from a major survey done last year. For the bottom line, I really can't improve on their wording:
"The clear and consistent short-term direction is negative -- including worship attendance growth, spiritual vitality and sense of mission and purpose. And as suggested by the eight-year decline in financial health. . . . it is likely that the broader erosion of vitality dates to at least 2000. What makes this even more sobering is the fact that this pattern of decline, here shown for American congregations as a whole, also holds within each of FACT's four primary faith families -- old-line Protestantism, Evangelical Protestantism, Catholic and Orthodox, and Other World Religions with few exceptions."
You want numbers?
In 2005, 58 percent of the congregations surveyed said that worship attendance had gone up by at least 2 percent in the past five years. In 2008 that had dropped to 48 percent.
In 2005, 42 percent of congregations strongly agreed that they were spiritually vital and alive. In 2008 that was down to 35 percent.
In 2005, 41 percent of congregations strongly agreed that they had a clear mission and purpose. In 2008, that was down to 36 percent.
The pollsters push their conclusions beyond the health of religious institutions:
"Clearly the new century has brought a new period for slow, but general retreat for America's congregations. There are good reasons for believing the same is also true for individual religiosity in our country."
The methodology makes the results even more startling. The survey questionnaire was "completed by a key informant in each surveyed congregation, most typically the senior or sole clergy leader."
So it's the pastor or some other key member of the congregation who is reporting the lack of attendance and vitality and focus at a majority of the American houses of worship reached by this survey. To me, that adds some credibility to the results, After all, the people giving the answers have no incentive to denigrate the strength of their own institution.
Are there caveats? Of course. The pollsters admit that it's hard to gauge whether they have a truly representational sample. You can click here and read all the ways they say they've tried to slice 'n' dice their numbers to try to make them valid. Which means one might quibble with the absolute magnitude of the numbers. But because their methods have been consistent over time, it's harder to argue with the direction.
How are congregations reacting to the loss of vitality? Some are trying to change their style. In 2005, 9 percent of those surveyed reported the worship style had changed a great deal in the past five years. By 2008, that had hit 12 percent.
And change -- in some cases -- correlates with more people in the pews. For those congregations that turned to contemporary styles in the past five years, 64 percent reported a growth of more than 2 percent in attendance.
I've been watching poll numbers about religion for years, and I'm not the only one who has seen a sort of inverted bell curve in the results: People who believe strongly in the conservative or liberal form of religion stay active, while those in the murky middle show the steepest decline in religious participation. This survey shows that to be the case:
"Perhaps most notable of these are the strong relationship between clarity of mission and purpose and vitality, and the fact that vitality peaks at both the conservative and the liberal extreme of theological orientation."
If you are in favor of religious participation, you can look at this glass as being partly full. After all, there are significant minorities of congregations that report growth and vitality. Other polls show that the vast majority of Americans still say they believe in God, angels, heaven and hell -- even those who refuse to be pigeonholed in any particular faith tradition.
And that means it's not likely that the U.S. is speeding its way toward the relative secularization of some European nations. Rather, we seem to be splitting between a significant and assertive minority of truly fervent faithful who are strongly connected to their congregations and are not going away, and a majority of people with nominal faith at best, who have loose or no ties to traditional religious institutions.
Given the correlation between religion and recent American politics, that could be bad for the GOP. As Pew reported after last year's election, the more often a voter attended worship services, the more likely they were to vote for John McCain -- continuing a longstanding trend for Republican candidates.
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