Curt Smith: Falling church membership should be societal concern

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Curt SmithThe accompanying chart shows two decades of declining American religious body membership rates. The decline actually goes back eight decades. This accelerating decline, perhaps fueled in part by the pandemic, is not good news.

Church attendance brings many benefits to individuals and society. These are well documented by academics at diverse think tanks such as Heritage, Pew and Brookings and by scholars such as Bradford Wilcox and Patrick Fagan.

Regular participation in religious services has been shown to improve:

◗ health, wellness and longevity across all socio-economic categories.

◗ marital stability and satisfaction across all categories.

◗ the more subjective but still important happiness indicators.

◗ the lives of children, from boosting school performance, to resisting drug and alcohol abuse, to overcoming poverty via workplace and professional success.

Moreover, children in church-going homes are far less likely to be abused or neglected.

This is a simple summary of benefits to individual faith community adherents. But declining church membership also means fewer churches with fewer resources. So there is an impact on the larger society as well.

Estimating the social, economic and spiritual impact of faith communities is an art, not a science, and a relatively new art at that.

A 2016 study published by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation estimated the economic impact of all American congregations at $1.2 trillion. A 2011 study estimated a midsize church (about 400 members) contributed more than $500,000 in assistance annually. This same analysis concluded one large, urban church in Philadelphia provided $6 million in assistance annually.

Services range from addiction recovery (130,000 or so providers in American churches alone), job training and placement, direct assistance from cash to diapers, mental health counseling, marriage preservation and pre-marriage counseling, spiritual guidance, food pantries, homeless shelters, rent assistance, bereavement counseling, elder care and more.

These services are typically provided by volunteers or professional staff working well below market rates who see a human being in need, not a number in a line or a vote to be harvested. As a Christian, of course, I believe there are eternal implications of this trend line. But here we focus on the temporal alone.

God help us if this trend continues and is not reversed by the faith community’s extraordinary success in helping us navigate the pandemic and the cultural crosswinds that come from growing secularization.

Let’s pray and work together to strengthen Indiana’s 10,000-plus active houses of worship as we come out of a challenging time.•

__________

Smith is chairman of the Indiana Family Institute and author of “Deicide: Why Eliminating The Deity is Destroying America.” Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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13 thoughts on “Curt Smith: Falling church membership should be societal concern

  1. Here the quote from Gallup on that “eight decade” decline:

    “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.”

    Doesn’t seem like an accident that the numbers have gone down the more and more that the Church gets involved in politics. Maybe people have stopped going to church because they are disgusted with the hypocrisy of Christian leaders who traded their principles for power and influence.

    Churches are supposed to be pro life institutions, but they refuse to wear masks and believe heavily in vaccine conspiracy theories. There are numerous cases of churches being the places where coronavirus is spread. It might be that the most dangerous place in America to be in the next couple of months is inside the local church. How is that pro life?

    My born-again teen daughter can see the hypocrisy and tells us it makes it hard to be a Christian. Maybe Curt Smith can’t see it because he depends on people being angry to donate to the Indiana Family Institute.

    https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

    1. Excellent points by Joe B. The conflation of the church with politics and church with business is absolutely a factor in the most recent times. Many churches gladly took PPP funding as a not for profit, tax exempt entity that is a very slippery slope and frankly really turned me off. Pre-Covid, I had been a regular church goer for the last 9 years.

      The hypocrisy of the church, lack of modern view and acknowledgement of topics such as LGBTQ, gay marriage, and gender equality puts the church at odds younger demographics. Let’s face facts, you can have a relationship with God without being a member of a church.

  2. I am a member of a Church. I love my pastor. I believe in God. I believe that Christ is my Savior. Having said that. I’m disgusted by christian leadership involvement in politics. This is the worst side of christianity in line with the Spanish Inquisition, and the colonization of South America (convert the natives and kill the ones who refuse).

    Yes, as a christian, I’m really disgusted by church involvement in politics. (anti mask, anti vaccine, embrace Trump, pro-conspiracy theory). These guys have checked their brains at the door to the church !

  3. Excellent points by Joe B. The conflation of the church with politics and church with business is absolutely a factor in the most recent times. Many churches gladly took PPP funding as a not for profit, tax exempt entity that is a very slippery slope and frankly really turned me off. Pre-Covid, I had been a regular church goer for the last 9 years.

    The hypocrisy of the church, lack of modern view and acknowledgement of topics such as LGBTQ, gay marriage, and gender equality puts the church at odds younger demographics. Let’s face facts, you can have a relationship with God without being a member of a church.

    1. Quote: “The hypocrisy of the church, lack of modern view and acknowledgement of topics such as LGBTQ, gay marriage, and gender equality puts the church at odds younger demographics.”

      Right, James; the church should follow the societal whims de jour of those in the “younger demographic” with “a modern view,” rather than timeless Biblical truths.

    2. Yes, the timeless Biblical truth of helping the less fortunate. The silence from religious folks at how Stephen Miller handled immigrants … is damning.

      But the church followed the societal whims de jour instead of speaking strongly that, judges be damned, it was not appropriate to treat human beings that way.

  4. I would respectfully ask that Mr. Smith and other evangelical Christian leaders check their egos and long-held hypocrisies for the source of falling attendance. Jesus states it pretty plainly: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Yet the Ralph Reed’s and Pat Robertson’s of the world made it pretty clear that opposition – not compassion, empathy or love – toward people who are “different” should be the order of the day. I deeply love Jesus and my faith, but it’s not hard to see why a large chunk of our citizenry feel judged and isolated by the church, and it’s heartbreaking.

    1. We should all feel judged and find ourselves wanting, Eric, for we are…even you in your self-anointed perfection.

  5. It had been 64 years since I was baptized and a member of the United Methodist Church until 2019. I had a prayer request for the migrants one Sunday morning for only God has an answer. “Not so they said, turn ‘em around”. That’s the answer. My God and I love all… Gay, straight or otherwise. “Not so they say. It’s a sin”. So is wearing clothing woven by more than one fabric says the Bible. And of course there is that little Catholic sexual abuse issue. But what really incensed me the most is so-called Christian evangelical conservative right alliance that sucked up and followed one of the most evil, immoral and opportunistic con man most of us have witnessed in our times, DJT. I do just fine praying in my house, my car, my yard, my garage and wherever else I need because I know He is always there.

    1. Yawn.

      You did well to leave The United Methodist Church. Tim O. They abandoned Biblical truths years ago.

      As to your silly comment about Donald Trump, can you name one man who has done more to advance The Right to Life in recent times? You know, if a person doesn’t have his God-given Right to Life protected by those in a position to protect it if that person is too small or helpless to do so, all other rights are moot points. If you’d spend more time focusing on what DJT did as President than his obnoxious tweets, you might have a clearer understanding of the man…actions speak louder than words’ always have, always will.

      BHO was a man of soothing words but demonic actions with his not-so-subtle racism that set back race relations in this country at least one full generation…and if you aren’t paying attention to what the current, dementia-addled President is doing, you’ll soon learn that you can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.

    2. Bob, please list the specific actions that Obama did that were racist.

      I agree he set race relations back … but not for his actions. Turns out a whole lot of people just couldn’t handle the idea of a Black man as President, and they also can’t handle a woman as President, either. But we are all created equal, right?

      And I’m really struggling to square Trump’s respect for right to life with how he treated the less fortunate at the border, or the desire to repeal the ACA with no replacement.

      “We talk about life inside the womb being a gift from God. Well, life outside the womb is a gift from God, too“ – Senior Pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church in Dallas

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