America's dwindling congregations

Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why it Matters
Bob Smietana | Worthy Books, USA | 2022, 257 pp

Bob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service, which provides syndicated news stories to top American media outlets.

After decades of closely covering the religion beat, Smietana’s new book -- Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why it Matters -- provides an interesting account of the changes taking place in the rapidly-secularising United States.

Swiftly shrinking

The basic facts as laid out by the author are incontestable. Findings from Pew in 2021 show that 29 percent of Americans are "Nones" (having no religious identity), up from 16 percent fifteen years ago.

This year, Gallup found that less than half of Americans claim membership of a house of worship, down from about 70 percent in the 1990s.

All of the once-powerful Protestant mainline churches are haemorrhaging members. There were just 1.7 million Episcopalians in America as of 2019, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is down to about 4 million members and the main Presbyterian Church has just 1.2 million. Mormons now outnumber Methodists.

The pace of change is accelerating, and the author links this to the transformative change in America’s ethnic composition.

“Among the oldest Americans, the so-called Silent Generation born between 1928 and 1945, 84 percent identify as Christians, while half go to church or attend worship services once a week or more, according to Pew Research data,” Smietana writes.

“Millennials, on the other hand, are far less likely to identify as Christian (49 percent) or go to church weekly (22 percent). More than one-third (40 percent) claim no religion. In other words, America’s grandparents go to church; their grandkids do not. America’s grandparents are white and Christian; their grandkids are not.”

This racial shift is important to Smietana. Though there are more multi-racial congregations, this is mostly down to minority groups becoming part of predominantly white churches, whereas white Americans remain reluctant to join black churches.

He suggests that increased debate about race relations following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 are contributing to the difficulties which some churches are facing: they are pressured to take a stand on racial issues, but will inevitably lose members if they do so.

Larger, not closer

The "megachurch" phenomenon is addressed in some detail. In the past, most Americans worshipped as part of mid-sized congregations.

Now, the membership of many churches is dwindling and greying, as people who do still attend prefer megachurches, where by definition the social connections between congregants are weaker.

According to the 2020 Faith Communities Today study, the 10 percent of congregations with more than 250 attendees attract 60 percent of the churchgoers.

When combined with the evidence Smietana cites showing that almost half of Protestant churchgoers prefer a church filled with people of similar political views, it is easy to see how the social divisions threatening to rend America asunder are impacting American Protestantism as well.

Communal support

The reason why Smietana thinks this reorganisation of American religion matters for society as a whole is an interesting one.

He grew up in a non-practising Catholic family and became involved in a Protestant church as a young person. By his own admission, the regularity of his church attendance has varied throughout his life.

Yet he writes movingly about the important ways in which churches have helped him and his family throughout his life: the Episcopalian-funded scholarship which allowed his mother to train as a nurse, the marriage counselling which he and his wife accessed and the generous support his pastor and fellow churchgoers provided in the wake of his brother’s early death.

On a macro level, decades of reporting on religious developments have made clear just how important the role of churches is when it comes to providing charitable services, encouraging volunteering and facilitating the informal social support infrastructure which is essential in all societies, but which mostly goes overlooked by policymakers.

Pointing to evidence like the fact that more than 60 percent of America’s food banks are faith-based, Smietana quotes a professor of nonprofit management who explains that churches “have a great mechanism to bring people together. It is really hard to identify an organized secular equivalent. Loosely organised spirituality among people who have few ties to each other lacks precisely the organisation that can marshal thousands of key volunteers. They don’t congregate. And that is the key thing.”

Politics and morality

Social capital is a key issue here, and the co-author of American Grace, Professor David Campbell, is quoted explaining how unique the role of churches is in creating and sustaining communities that serve others.

Smietana’s analysis on this point is oddly limited, as he does not dwell extensively on the work of Campbell and his far more famous co-author, Professor Robert Putnam.

He appears to take it for granted -- as have others who have written on America’s secularisation, like the late Professor Ronald Inglehart -- that the conservative politics and social mores of the ‘Religious Right’ has put people off religion.

This ignores the widespread availability of theologically and politically liberal alternatives. For instance, Putnam and Campbell’s work showed that attendees of Jewish synagogues and African-American churches (both reliably liberal constituencies) were the most likely to hear political messages.

More to the point, it ignores the fact that many of the mainline Protestant churches which are collapsing have taken increasingly liberal positions on a host of issues from sexuality to race relations, without stemming the flow of people leaving their pews.

General malaise

Smietana is on firmer ground when highlighting the work of yet another sociologist, Josh Packard, whose work focuses on the religious attitudes of young Americans.

Packard’s findings suggest that the drop-off in religious practice is associated with a decline of institutional trust across the board, rather than being down to failings of Christian church leaders.

Even if one were to leave aside all such issues, the anecdotes and vignettes derived from the author’s reporting do little to suggest that deeply committed believers have been driven from their churches by exposure to great wrongdoing.

In one case, he describes how a former Methodist was put off attending her church due to the relaxation of its Covid policies as the pandemic went on.

Eventually, after a period of total non-attendance and at the prompting of her child, she and her family joined a different church where masks were mandatory, and where sermons were more about social justice and less about “making it to Heaven.”

Scandals involving Protestant pastors (including sexual abuse) occupy a surprisingly large part of what is essentially a book about Protestantism, in spite of the author’s nominally Catholic background.

Some controversies appear strangely under-reported compared to those which have occurred in the Catholic Church: all the stranger, given that media commentators frequently suggest that Catholicism should be refashioned in a Protestant image.

Had Smietana placed more focus on the Catholic Church in the United States, he would surely have been able to highlight high levels of disaffiliation which have been made to appear less significant by the influx of Hispanic immigrants.

That said however, his book is a good entry-level insight into the overall situation, and serves as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to look to American Protestantism as an example to be copied.

Its inherent religious and social individualism has played an important part in creating an existential crisis where people do not feel the need to belong to anything greater than themselves.

Not only have its racially divided pews failed to heal the country’s historical wounds, they have provided an opportunity for an ugly new Christian nationalism to develop in place of what should be Christian universalism. Houses of worship which emphasised the entertainment of services and the personal charisma of preachers are losing their audience, and proving instead to be houses built on sand.


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