New research shows that Americans’ religiosity increasingly doesn’t line up with whether they officially belong to a congregation.
Earlier this year, Gallup reported that for the first time in the country’s history, fewer than half of Americans were members of a church or house of worship.
The news was covered widely, one of the biggest religious headlines so far this year. It resonated with many and seemed to indicate how dramatically the religious landscape has continued to shift.
Gallup has been asking survey respondents if they are a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque since the mid-1930s. Until 1990, that percentage stayed relatively stable around 70 percent. But from then on, it began to drop precipitously. By 2010, it was 61 percent, and eight years later it was at 50 percent. Then, in 2020, the poll indicated that just 47 percent of Americans were members of a religious body.
While the Gallup finding is certainly significant, the way that the survey firm poses the question doesn’t line up with how many Americans understand and practice their faith in the 21st century. For a growing number of churches, membership has been deemphasized (if not eliminated altogether) as they try to become more relevant to a younger generation that places less emphasis on attachment to institutions.
Along with fellow researchers, I wanted to understand how church membership intersects with other measurements of today’s religious faith and practice. We put a survey in the field that asked the same question that Gallup posed, “Do you happen to be a member of a church, synagogue, or mosque?” But we also asked a number of other questions that tapped into the various dimensions of the religious experience. The results indicate that membership is not a perfect proxy for an individual’s religiosity.
According to our survey of just over …