In the years since the pandemic began, church attendance among young people has suffered a major decline, hastening a problem for religious leaders that was already bleak to begin with. That’s the takeaway from a study released late last week from the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Chicago.
The researchers found that religious identity didn’t change very much over the past few years but church attendance took a sharp hit among people under 30 during the pandemic. Before COVID hit, 30% of people 18-29 said they didn’t attend religious services (which was already remarkably high); by the spring of 2022, that number had jumped to 43%.
It’s not surprising that liberals, singles, and young people shifted away from going to a religious service since that trend has been occurring for a while. What’s shocking is the speed of desertion and that fact that every single demographic is less likely to attend church now than before.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, 75 percent of Americans reported attending religious services at least once a year, including about one-quarter (26 percent) who attended regularly (at least a few times a month). By spring 2022, roughly two-thirds of the public reported attending religious services at least once a year.
Much of this decline in attendance was due to people completely abstaining from worship. The number of Americans who became completely disconnected from a place of worship increased significantly over the past few years. Before the pandemic, one in four Americans reported that they never attended religious services. By spring 2022, that share increased to 33 percent.
If you weren’t a regular churchgoer before the pandemic, then you almost certainly didn’t become one over the past few years. The pandemic seemed to take people with the weakest religious commitments and force their hand, and many of them decided they were just fine without church.
On one hand, this is disappointing because it shows how one of the most historically stable forms of community is rapidly disappearing (affiliate link). Once you’re out of school, how many places are there when you just gather together with people who aren’t your relatives? The superglue that once bound different people together isn’t as strong as it used to be.
On the other hand, many of the religious institutions we’re talking about won’t be missed. There’s a reason so many people want nothing to do with churches anymore. So many of them are anti-gay, anti-women, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-doubt, and anti-choice. During COVID, many chose selfishness over worshipers’ health, demanding that governments allow them to stay open (and spread the virus) than temporarily shut down and save lives. And, of course, their entire foundation is built on lies. Why would you want to voluntary participate in all that? Why would you subject your kids to that?
If church leaders are using their power and platforms to spread bigotry and ignorance in the name of God, then they deserve the blame when people who were on the fence decide they’re better off without organized religion in their lives.
Keep in mind that these numbers don’t say people stopped believing in God. That’s a separate issue. Many people still believe in a higher power, but they can do without the formality of a weekly service. They don’t need the baggage. They don’t want to be part of any group that effectively functions as an arm of the modern Republican Party.
Not all churches hold the same beliefs as the Catholic Church, evangelical megachurches, and Southern Baptist congregations, but the religious institutions that promote progressive values are nowhere near as widespread and don’t have the kind of money that would allow them to grow.
Most of this is me talking, not the researchers. They didn’t ask people why they left church. But they do point out that, if we’re trying to learn about people’s religious beliefs in the future, knowing their religious label is becoming a lot less important:
Increasingly, religious affiliation may tell us less about the full range of religious and spiritual experiences Americans have and the extent of their theological commitments. Past research has shown that Americans who regularly attend services are more likely to embrace the formal tenets of their faith and share similar cultural worldview as their coreligionists. Nearly every major religious tradition—with just two exceptions—has experienced a drop in worship attendance. This gap may also signal the rise of cultural religiosity—with identity linked to ethnic or cultural aspects of the tradition rather than specific religious beliefs or rituals.
It’s a fair point. If someone says they’re “Christian,” it’s almost meaningless without knowing more information. Even offering a denomination doesn’t necessary help anymore.
If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that a drop in church attendance doesn’t mean young people aren’t active in their communities in other ways. Anecdotally, they’re more engaged politically than I’ve ever seen, and they see campaigns and issues-oriented non-profit groups as far better ways to fight for and spread their values than church ever was. Even progressive religious leaders are using activism to spread their values than through the pulpit. We’re all better off because their moral compass doesn’t derive from a pulpit.