Paul L. Caron

Sunday, April 4, 2021

U.S. Church Membership Falls Below 50% For First Time In Nearly A Century ... But Easter Teaches Us Not To Fear Religion's Decline

Gallup, U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time:

Americans' membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup's eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.


U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. As many Americans celebrate Easter and Passover this week, Gallup updates a 2019 analysis that examined the decline in church membership over the past 20 years.

David French (The Dispatch), A Resurrection Faith Retains Its Power, But Not the Power We Crave:

Easter reminds me not to fear religion’s decline.

There is so much pain and loss summed up in that green line [in the Gallup graph above]. It’s symbolic of the forces that have buffeted the church from without, including the rise of hostile secular ideologies that scorn traditional faith and seek to suppress its practice. But it’s more symbolic of the forces that have shredded it from within—of the scandals and abuses that have made a mockery of our professed beliefs. ...

[M]any Christians fear a seemingly inevitable secular future. There’s a deep anxiety for our children and grandchildren, and real alarm that the church may face deepening isolation and perhaps even persecution.

But that green line also reminds me of something else. It reminds me of Holy Week itself. In the Christian calendar, Easter is the culminating day of a week of observances, with each observance marking an increasingly grim reality. The arc of the week represents—in the world’s eyes—the total collapse of a public ministry and the end of a particular dream of an earthly messiah, of a revolutionary king. ...

Good Friday was not the end. Sunday came. But we forget how the resurrection manifested itself—not as a triumphant, superhero-style act of power, but instead as a quiet return, first to women who occupied a marginalized place in the Roman Empire and Jewish life. Even as the resurrected Christ expanded his circle of influence, it still remained small, and he left his Gospel in the hands of a tiny number of men and women who seemed stuck in the backwaters of the world.

Again, all of this is totally contrary to our innate sense of how we transform nations and exercise power. Christ figures are common in fiction, but even for those ultimately vulnerable enough to die and return, their return is typically a magnificent exercise of raw strength.

We simply cannot seem to resist the grab for power, and when we make that grab—Christ came and now Constantine can reign—we fail and fall. Think of this past year. One after another, institutions of Christian power have faced moments of reckoning and shame.

Easter, however, reminds us that death is a prelude to resurrection—to a very particular form of new life, a life designed to imitate the sacrifice that led to death. In the crucifixion story itself we see a model for how we’re to respond, a human example of the godly response to Christ’s sacrifice.

Catholics call him Saint Dismas. Protestants often refer to him as simply the “Good Thief.” But a better description of Dismas is found in the NIV version of Matthew 27. The men crucified alongside Jesus are called “rebels.” In context, this makes sense. Jesus, the alleged “King of the Jews,” was crucified right next to equivalent criminals—those who would rebel against the authority of Rome.

But in a moment of blinding clarity and miraculous faith, Dismas looks at Christ in his earthly weakness and perceives his eternal strength. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says. Which kingdom? The Kingdom that comes “not by might, nor by power” but by the Spirit of a living, resurrected God. ...

One can look back at the Gallup graph above and perceive a kind of institutional death in process. But the Christian faith is a resurrection faith. It is rooted in an eternal reality that not even death itself can prevail against the sovereignty and love of the Creator God. In rebirth, we change. We transform. Or, to put it another way, when it comes to the health and strength of the American church, Good Friday is in process. But fear not: We know that Sunday is on its way.

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