Are You Losing Your Religion?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted November 25, 2019

R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” fittingly recorded near the start of the millennial generation in 1990, may end up being the defining theme song for this generation.

The Pew Research Center reports a seven-percent rise between 2009 and 2019 in the number of people who say they attend religious services “a few times a year or less.” According to the nonpartisan think tank, currently only “65 [percent] of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26 [percent], up from 17 [percent] in 2009.”

In the popular blog GetReligion, a tweet from political scientist and Baptist pastor Ryan J. Burge claims that it’s not merely millennials who are ditching weekly worship: People in their 50s are now 13 percent less likely to attend weekly services than they were several decades ago, while those in their 60s are 11 percent less likely to do so. 

In the same study, Burge also notes a roughly 22 percent increase in the number of aging baby boomers who say they attend church once a year or even less frequently.

The Pew report adds, “Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43 [percent] of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51 [percent] in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20 [percent]) are Catholic, down from 23 [percent] in 2009.” 

That latter statistic for adherents of the Roman Catholic faith is interesting given the large migration of people from dominantly Catholic nations in Central and South America in recent years to the United States. Such movement would suggest a growth in the number of Catholic adherents, yet a decline is recorded.

So what is the reason for this overall decay?

Still Wanting “Something Bigger”

In her article for The Washington Post, columnist Christine Emba—herself a millennial—seems to suggest several reasons for her generation, while at the same time bemoaning such declines in religious attendance: “We still want relationships and transcendence, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Our drive for those things isn’t likely to wane, despite how ambivalent we might feel about ancient liturgies or interminable coffee hours,” she writes. It makes sense that millennials are leaving church if they find religious traditions impersonal, irrelevant, and just plain boring. But religion was never supposed to be just form. True religion was always meant to be a relationship with God.

Another reason for the decline is our society’s increasingly consumer-driven mentality. We are so used to getting what we want easily and immediately. We are much more likely to be attracted to “convenient, low-commitment substitutes for faith and fellowship,” such as yoga and astrology, which Emba says won’t fully satisfy. “Few of these activities are as geared toward building deep relationships and communal support as the religious traditions the millennials are leaving behind.” As a consequence, traditions that result from those deep relationships, such as marriage, have declined as well. Emba concludes, “[T]he underlying needs and wants will continue to matter. What happens when sleeping, working and gaming more than our elders begins to make less sense? If we’re closing the church doors behind us, we’ll have to find somewhere else to tend to our spirits—and our hearts.”

What will the future hold if more and more religious organizations become extinct? Are we seeing the Bible’s prediction come true as “the love of many … grow cold”? (Matthew 24:12).

Good Reasons to Remain Active—or to Return

Indeed, the Bible is clear in saying that we need each other. Writing to an early congregation of believers, the author of the book of Hebrews admonishes them to meet regularly, “not forsaking the assembling of [themselves] together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as [they] see the Day approaching” (10:25). As we see these signs of the end of the age, how much more important is having a church family?

And though it’s decried by some as being passé, weekly worship has been proven to produce positive influences even in secular studies: It helps people to build community, find common interests, and pursue a united goal.

T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford University known for her studies on evangelical Christians, notes in a column for The New York Times both the concrete physical and emotional benefits to regular church attendance.

 “A study conducted in North Carolina found that frequent churchgoers had larger social networks, with more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts. And we know that social support is directly tied to better health,” Luhrmann writes. God designed our church family to be this way, a blessing. 

But perhaps those of us who’ve been disappointed by church have let the standard of weekly attendance fall short. How can we engage again in worship? Reclaim Your Faith, a four-part video series by Pastor Doug Batchelor, is a great way to examine these issues and explore pathways back to a vigorous relationship with God and His church.

Another useful resource for those who have been tempted to leave the church is Pastor Doug’s article “Staying with the Ship.” In it he writes, “Despite the many problems and the spiritual storms that threaten to capsize the vessel, I encourage you to stay with God’s church, because it is much safer than swimming with the sharks.”

Truly, “he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

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