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As U.S. church membership falls below 50%, some embrace new ways of reaching people

church decline
Posted at 11:03 AM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-01 14:03:28-04

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Churches, temples, and mosques are reopening their doors, but not all members are coming back. While some worshippers may prefer the convenience of online streaming, others stopped attending services altogether during the pandemic.

Now, religious leaders are working to retain membership face an uphill battle. For the first time in nearly a century, the number of Americans who reported belonging to a church, synagogue, or mosque dropped below 50% in Gallup's eight-decade trend.

U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937. It would remain near 70% for the next six decades before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.

These ongoing challenges were compounded during the pandemic.

"Oh, it was a wake-up call," said Miles McPherson, Pastor of the Rock Church in San Diego. "I think one of the things he [God] ‘accomplished’ was to show the churches how weak they were and what work they have to do.”

Already offering online services before the pandemic, McPherson's congregation was able to adapt quicker than most.

“Churches need to be flexible to be relevant," said McPherson. “The numbers online are going through the roof. I mean, our numbers online have gone 100 times, 200 times."

Able to reach people worldwide, McPherson says it’s a powerful tool, but he says in-person services are invaluable.

“People do need people. People just consuming online, it’s limited in what they can do. So, eventually, you want them going somewhere," said McPherson.

With church closures expected to accelerate, the Rock could serve as a model for what's working.

“Churches that are engaged in the community, that are addressing social issues," said McPherson. “There’s so much division in our country, and churches need to be careful, but diligent, to engage in those causes but keep the gospel central to their engagement."

While the Rock has become known for its upbeat and engaging services, McPherson says attracting new members goes beyond the lights and live music.

“I went from doing cocaine, smoking weed, hanging out, being in the NFL to, I’m reading the bible," McPherson remembers. "That’s what I share about, is how relevant the gospel is to your life, no matter what you’re going through.”

Gallup says the decline in membership is primarily due to the rise in Americans with no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

The growing population is referred to as religious 'nones', a diverse group made up of atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and those with no specific organized religion in particular. Millennials are increasingly driving its growth, according to the Pew Research Center.

While McPherson says they want people back in church physically, they'll continue embracing new ways of reaching people.

"Get the gospel to wherever they are, so it can help them wherever they are," McPherson said.