Americans Shifting Religious Affiliations, Dropping Out


An extensive study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life documents trends in American religious affiliation—based on interviews with more than 35,000 adults.

Many of the trends have been reported before: mainline Protestant churches are in decline, nondenominational churches are on the upswing, and increasing numbers do not identify with any particular denomination.

The United States is becoming less Christian.

The main emphasis of the report, however, is how volatile the “marketplace” of religion is—and pardon our quotation of the phrase. Pew Forum director Luis Lugo likened the “American religious economy” to a dynamic, competitive marketplace, where “no one can stand still.”

Most tragic, however, are findings most of us already knew: the United States is becoming less Christian. The survey estimates the nation is 78 percent Christian now (down from an estimated 86% in 1990, according to this university study in New York) and will soon lose its status as Protestant by majority, with now only 51 percent aligning themselves with Protestantism.

Furthermore, more than a quarter of adults have left the faith they were raised in for “another religion or no religion at all,” with a quarter of those ages 18 to 29 claiming no affiliation with a religious institution. Penn State University sociologist Roger Finke, a survey consultant, explains that, “Right now, there is a dropping confidence in organized religion, especially in the traditional religious forms.”

Of the 12 or so percent of the American population who describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” half say faith is “at least somewhat” important to them; a third are atheist or agnostic.

Ten percent of all Protestants decline denominational affiliation, describing themselves as simply Protestants.

Ironically, the religious institution whose adherence rate has been stable is the same institution that has lost more members than any other group! The institution is the Roman Catholic Church, and the seeming contradiction is possible because, while 10 percent of the country describes itself as ex-Catholic, an influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America has kept the overall balance stable. Now, nearly half of all Catholics under 30 are Hispanic.

As for Protestants, such longstanding denominations as Methodist and Baptist are in decline, whereas nondenominational churches are gaining ground. Ten percent of all Protestants decline denominational affiliation, describing themselves as simply Protestants.

Other interesting tidbits were the group with the highest retention of childhood members (Hindus, at 84 percent); the group with the lowest retention of childhood members (Jehovah’s Witnesses, at 37 percent); and that more adults identified themselves as Buddhist than Muslim (though both were less than one percent of the population).

So what relevance do this study’s results have for Answers in Genesis, a nondenominational Christian ministry committed to upholding God’s Word?

First, it confirms what we’ve said for years now: the United States is becoming less Christian every day. Obviously, 78 percent is still high, but that number is based on a broad definition of what constitutes a Christian. Secular ideas and ideals continue to pervade more and more of society, leaving the church on the run.

Second, and most importantly, the fluidity of personal religious identification reminds us that people no longer stick with a religious tradition simply because they were raised in it. Rather, people are looking for answers and will follow whatever answers they can find. That is why the church continues to lose ground, though this fluidity also means there is more potential to reach the lost than perhaps ever before.

The mission of Answers in Genesis is to stand in this gap.

But if the church doesn’t have the answers to the questions this generation is asking, how can it reach the lost? If the church cannot compete with secular science’s explanations for why we are here, what purpose we have, what constitutes right and wrong, and where we are going, then what good is it (or so people will and do ask)? If the church can’t give answers for why the Bible is reliable and relevant to every person (and not just those born into a churchgoing family or those who feel “inclined” toward faith), then the church will be seen as increasingly irrelevant, and its message of salvation will be increasingly rejected.

The mission of Answers in Genesis is to stand in this gap and to be “a catalyst to bring reformation by reclaiming the foundations of our faith which are found in the Bible, from the very first verse.”

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