The Catholic Church is larger than any other single religious
institution in the United States, with over 17,000 parishes that serve a
large and diverse population. In spite of its size and influence, the
church in recent decades has faced a number of significant challenges,
from a decline in membership to a shortage of priests to continuing
revelations that some Catholic clergy sexually abused minors and (in
many cases) that their superiors covered up these actions.
Here are seven facts about American Catholics and their church:
1 There are roughly 51 million Catholic adults in the U.S., accounting for about one-fifth of the total U.S. adult population, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. That study found that the share of Americans who are Catholic declined from 24% in 2007 to 21% in 2014.
2 Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S.
Overall, 13% of all U.S. adults are former Catholics – people who say
they were raised in the faith, but now identify as religious “nones,” as
Protestants, or with another religion. By contrast, 2% of U.S. adults
are converts to Catholicism – people who now identify as Catholic after
having been raised in another religion (or no religion). This means that
there are 6.5 former Catholics in the U.S. for every convert to the
faith. No other religious group analyzed in the 2014 Religious Landscape Study has experienced anything close to this ratio of losses to gains via religious switching.
3 Catholics in the U.S. are racially and ethnically diverse.
Roughly six-in-ten Catholic adults are white, one-third are Latino, and
smaller shares identify as black, Asian American, or with other racial
and ethnic groups. The data also show that the share of U.S. Catholics
who are Latino has been growing, and suggest that this share is likely
to continue to grow. Indeed, among Catholic Millennials, there are about
as many Hispanics as whites. (For information on the demographic
characteristics of U.S. Catholics, including age, education, income and
more, see “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”)
4 Compared with some other religious groups, Catholics are fairly evenly dispersed throughout the country:
27% live in the South, 26% in the Northeast, 26% in the West, and 21%
of U.S. Catholics live in the Midwest. Since many American Hispanics are
Catholic, the continuing growth of this community as a share of the
U.S. population is gradually shifting the geographic center
of U.S. Catholicism from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and the
West. Indeed, three-quarters of Hispanic Catholics reside in the South
or West, while six-in-ten non-Hispanic Catholics live in the Northeast
or Midwest. Overall, the share of U.S. Catholic adults who reside in the
Northeast and the Midwest declined by 5 percentage points between 2007
and 2014 (from 53% to 48%), while the share of Catholics who live in the
South and West grew by an equal amount (from 47% to 52%).
5 Many U.S. Catholics say they want to see the church make significant changes. For
example, six-in-ten say they think the church should allow priests to
marry and allow women to become priests. And nearly half of U.S.
Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and
lesbian couples. Support for these kinds of changes is lower – though
still substantial – among Catholics who attend Mass regularly than it is
among those who attend Mass less often.
6 Politically, Catholic registered voters are evenly split between those who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party (47%) and those who favor the GOP (46%).
In their partisanship, U.S. Catholics are deeply divided along racial
and ethnic lines. Most Hispanic Catholics identify with or lean toward
the Democratic Party, while 54% of white Catholics today identify with
or lean toward the GOP.
7Large majorities of U.S. Catholics have admired Pope Francis throughout his tenure, but there are growing signs of discontent. In 2014, 54% of American Catholics gave Francis “excellent” or “good” marks for his handling of the church’s sex abuse scandal. But in a Pew Research Center poll conducted in September 2018 – shortly after recent reports about sex scandals in the U.S. Catholic Church – the share of Catholics saying this had fallen 23 points, to 31%. The recent survey also found that the pontiff’s overall approval rating among U.S. Catholics had dropped to 72%, down from 84% in January of this year.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Christian and
Jewish Americans prepare to celebrate Easter and Passover, respectively,
Gallup finds the percentage of Americans who report belonging to a
church, synagogue or mosque at an all-time low, averaging 50% in 2018.
U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976,
falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s.
The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a
20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change
occurring since the start of the current decade.
This article compares church membership data for the 1998-2000 and
2016-2018 periods, using combined data from multiple years to facilitate
subgroup analysis. On average, 69% of U.S. adults were members of a
church in 1998-2000, compared with 52% in 2016-2018.
The decline in church membership mostly reflects the fact that fewer
Americans than in the past now have any religious affiliation. However,
even those who do identify with a particular religion are less likely to
belong to a church or other place of worship than in the past.
Trend Toward No Religious Preference Key Factor in Declining Membership
Since the turn of the century, the percentage of U.S. adults with no
religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%.
Although some of those who do not identify with a religion
nevertheless indicate that they belong to a church, the vast majority of
nonreligious Americans do not. In 1998 through 2000, one in 10
Americans with no religious preference said they belonged to a church,
as did an average of 7% in the past three years.
As such, there is an almost one-to-one correspondence between not
being religious and not belonging to a church. Consequently, the
11-point increase in no religious affiliation accounts for the majority
of the 17-point decline in church membership over the past two decades.
Fewer Religious Americans Are Church Members
Although there has been a steep increase in the proportion of
Americans who do not have a religious attachment, they remain a small
minority of the U.S. population. Three-quarters of Americans, 77%,
identify with some organized religion, though that is down from 90% in
1998 through 2000.
The still-sizable proportion of religious Americans also contribute
to declining church membership, as fewer in this group belong to a
church than did so two decades ago. At the turn of the century, 73% of
U.S. adults with a religious preference belonged to a church, compared
with 64% today.
Fewer Religious Americans Belong to a Church
Figures are the percentage who say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque
Have a religious preference
Do not have a religious preference
It is clear then, that the nature of Americans’ orientation to religion is changing, with fewer religious Americans finding membership in a church or other faith institution to be a necessary part of their religious experience.
Generational Change Helping Push the Decline in Church Membership
Religiosity is strongly related to age, with older Americans far more
likely than younger adults to be members of churches. However, church
membership has dropped among all generational groups over the past two
decades, with declines of roughly 10 percentage points among
traditionalists, baby boomers and Generation X.
Most millennials were too young to be polled in 1998-2000. Now that they have reached adulthood, their church membership rates are exceedingly low and appear to be a major factor in the drop in overall U.S. church membership. Just 42% of millennials are members of churches, on average. Changes in Church Membership by Generation, Over Time
Traditionalists (born in 1945 or before)
Baby boomers (born 1946-1964)
Generation X (born 1965-1979)
Millennials (born 1980-2000)
By comparison, 20 years ago, 62% of members of Generation X belonged to a church, when they were about the same age as millennials are today.
The low rates of church membership among millennials conform with the
generation’s weaker attachment to religion in general. On average, 68%
of millennials identify with a religion in the 2016-2018 church
membership surveys, while 29% do not. In all other generations, at least
79% have a religious affiliation, with correspondingly lower
percentages expressing no faith preference.
The percentage of millennials with no religion may be continuing to
grow, as an average of 33% in Gallup surveys conducted in 2019 to date
say they have no religious affiliation.
Not only are millennials less likely than older Americans to identify
with a religion, but millennials who are religious are significantly
less likely to belong to a church. Fifty-seven percent of religious
millennials belong to a church, compared with 65% or more in older
The lower rate of church membership among religious millennials
appears to be more a product of generational differences than of
life-stage effects. In 1998-2000, 68% of Generation X respondents were
church members when they were roughly the same age as today’s
Given that church membership, and religiosity in general, is greater
among older adults, the emergence of an increasingly secular generation
to replace far more religious older generations suggests the decline in
U.S. church membership overall will continue.
Membership Decline Steeper Among Catholics
Gallup has previously reported that church attendance has dropped more among Catholics
than among Protestants. Consistent with this, the decline in church
membership has been greater among Catholics. Twenty years ago, 76% of
Catholics belonged to a church; now, 63% do.
Meanwhile, 67% of Protestants, down from 73% in 1998-2000, are
members of a church. Much of the decline in Protestant membership is
attributable to the increasing percentage of Americans who simply
identify their religion as “Christian” rather than as a specific
Protestant denomination such as Baptist, Lutheran or Methodist. Gallup
classifies “Christian” respondents as Protestants but, as might be
expected, nondenominational Christians are less likely to belong to a
church (57%) than Americans who identify with a specific Protestant
There are insufficient cases to provide reliable estimates on church
membership among other religions, but the data suggest that membership
in a place of worship has been stable among Mormons (near 90% in both
time periods) and Jews (in the mid- to low 50% range in both time
periods) over the past two decades.
In contrast to the variable changes in church membership among
generational and faith subgroups, the declines have been fairly similar
among most other demographic subgroups. However, the rates have differed
by party identification, as Republicans show a relatively modest
decline in church membership of eight points since 1998-2000 (from 77%
to 69%). In contrast, Democrats show one of the largest subgroup
declines, of 23 points, from 71% to 48%.
Full data for subgroups are shown in a table at the bottom of the article.
The rate of U.S. church membership has declined sharply in the past
two decades after being relatively stable in the six decades before
that. A sharp increase in the proportion of the population with no
religious affiliation, a decline in church membership among those who do
have a religious preference, and low levels of church membership among
millennials are all contributing to the accelerating trend.
The challenge is clear for churches, which depend on loyal and active
members to keep them open and thriving. How do they find ways to
convince some of the unaffiliated religious adults in society to make a
commitment to a particular house of worship of their chosen faith?
Roughly one in four U.S. adults are religious but not members of a
church, synagogue or mosque.
Church leaders must also grapple with the generational slide away
from religion. Millennials are much less likely than their elders to
indicate a religious preference, and presumably the nearly one-third of
millennials without a religious preference are unlikely to ever join a
church. But the roughly two-thirds of millennials who do express a
religious preference may one day be convinced to join, perhaps as more
get established in their lives, including having families, which can be
an impetus to becoming a part of a faith community.
In addition to the ongoing trends toward declining religiosity,
Americans who are religious may also be changing their relationship to
churches. They may not see a need to, or have a desire to, belong to a
church and participate in a community of people with similar religious
These trends are not just numbers, but play out in the reality that
thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year. Religious Americans in
the future will likely be faced with fewer options for places of
worship, and likely less convenient ones, which could accelerate the
decline in membership even more.
If your church is at all engaging the middle class, the upper middle
class, or a suburban demographic, an interesting trend is developing.
The middle class is shrinking, but as this New York Times report shows, it’s shrinking (in part) because more of the middle class is becoming upper class. Both US and Canadian personal disposable incomes are at all time highs.
There are simply more affluent people than there were decades ago,
which may in part explain why so many “average’ people indulge their
obsessions with granite counter tops, designer homes and decent cars,
even without being mega-wealthy.
Naturally, this leaves a huge theological void about ministry to and
with the poor, but it helps explain what’s actually happening in the
suburbs and increasingly with the re-urbanization of many cities as the
affluent move back downtown. Please…I’m not arguing things should be this way. I’m simply showing that this seems to be what’s happening.
And again…people with money have options. Technology options. Travel
options. Options for their kids. And, arguably, that affluence may be
one of the factors moving them further away from a committed engagement
to the mission of the local church. It’s perhaps fuelling some of the
reasons outlined below.
2. Higher focus on Kids’ Activities
A growing number of kids are playing sports. And a growing number of kids are playing on teams that require travel.
Many of those sports happen on weekends. And affluent parents are choosing sports over church.
More and more families of various ages travel for leisure, even if
it’s just out of town to go camping or to a friend’s place for the
weekend or a weekend at the lake.
And when people are out of town, they tend to not be in church.
4. Blended and Single Parent Families
Fortunately, more and more blended families and single parent families are finding a home in church.
So how does this translate into attendance patterns?
Church leaders need to remember that when custody is shared in a
family situation, ‘perfect’ attendance for a kid or teen might be 26
Sundays a year.
Similarly, while the affluent might not be in church because of access
to reliable transportation, single parents (who, not always, but often,
struggle more financially) might not be in church because they lackaccess to reliable transportation.
So here’s the strange twist. People who have a car are often not in church because they have a car. People who want to be in church are often not in church because they don’t have a car or because it’s not their ‘weekend’ for church.
Sadly, people who want to get to church simply can’t.
People are looking less to churches and leaders to help them grow spiritually, and more to other options.
We live in a era in which no parent makes a visit to a doctor’s
office without having first googled the symptoms of a child’s illness
and a recommended course of treatment. Just ask any family physician.
It drives them nuts. (Google, doctors will tell you, is not a complete
replacement for medical school.)
Similarly, when was the last time you bought a car without completely researching it online?
In an age where we have access to everything, more and more people
are self-directing their spirituality…for better or for worse.
Similarly, another characteristics of the post-modern mind is a declining trust of and reliance on institutions.
The church in many people’s minds is seen as an institution.
I don’t actually believe that’s what a church is. I think it’s a
movement…not an institution. But many churches behave like an
institution, and the post-modern mind instinctively moves away from it
as a result.
8. Failure to see a Direct Benefit
People always make time for the things they value most. If they’re not making time for church, that tells you something.
Even among people who say their love the church and who say they love your church,
if declining attendance is an issue, chances are it’s because they
don’t see a direct benefit. They don’t see the value in being there week
That could be because there isn’t much value (gut check). Or it could be because there is value that they simply don’t see.
Either way, failure to see a direct benefit always results in declining engagement.
I’ll talk about this more in the podcast interviews and in the next posts, but when someone merely attends church, the likelihood of showing up regularly or even engaging their faith decreases over time.
At our church, I find our most engaged people—people who serve, give,
invite and who are in a community group—are our most frequent
More and more as a leader, I value engagement over attendance.