Saturday at the Moderators’ Conference, the Rev. Dr. Tim Cargal led an afternoon workshop looking at the realities of church affiliation in the 21st century, including data points that contradict a number of preconceptions about congregational ministry in 2023.
Cargal, Associate Director for Ministry Leadership Development in the Office of the General Assembly, opened “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore: The Changing Religious Landscape in USA and PC(USA)” by telling in-person and Zoom attendees they would receive access to the presentation slide deck, including a slide containing citation footnotes for further exploration. The workshop’s title alludes to both “The Wizard of Oz” and Thomas Frank’s book “What’s The Matter with Kansas?”, a look at the reasons for Kansas’s political turn from progressive to conservative.
Throughout the presentation Cargal drew from published reports about religious community affiliation in the United States, including work by Gallup, Pew, EPIC (Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations) and the Survey Center on American Life. Digging into the data, he identified trends that predated the pandemic and ones it accelerated.
The data shows that congregational membership in the United States experienced “a high-water mark” in the years between 1940 and the end of the 20th century. Since 2000, the decline in membership across religious institutions is what Cargal described as “a regression to the mean … in historical terms, churches were overperforming in the middle of the last century.” That reality is important to keep in mind as one considers narratives of declining memberships and root causes.
And decline there certainly has been, much of it attributable to the trend of Christians in the late 20th century shifting to a category of “religiously unaffiliated” that continues today. Under one scenario of accelerated disaffiliation that Cargal mentioned, only one in three Americans will identify as Christian in 2070.
A major cause of religious disaffiliation is individualism and anti-institutionalism, Cargal said. Although many Gen-Xers were raised with some familiarity of religious institutions, Millennials and Gen-Zers increasingly have none. Baby Boomers often instilled their own anti-institutionalism in their children, a pattern that has continued over time. That’s true for churches, but also other groups such as the Kiwanis Club. “[Younger generations] do not form associations,” Cargal said. “They may form movements but those movements don’t form institutions.” Being unaffiliated is now a “stickier” identity than being Christian.
The disaffiliation trend holds up across conservative and liberal churches, and mainline and evangelical ones. Although mainline churches saw the largest decreases in church attendance during the pandemic, evangelical and Roman Catholic congregations also experienced significant decreases.
Cargal noted that the highly educated have been more frequent attendees of church in recent years, a story that rarely makes it into American media coverage. Other realities contradicting popular narratives include the increased attendance that many churches experienced during the pandemic, especially among Baby Boomers, and the sustained involvement of first-generation immigrants in their religious traditions. Another underreported demographic reality: the proportionally larger membership of people of color that is keeping the decline of Christianity in the overall population from being more precipitous.
Later in the workshop Cargal focused on individual congregations and those in the PC(USA). Mainline churches, including larger congregations, reported feeling especially stressed during the pandemic, with one likely cause a diminishing number of volunteers at a time when increased expectations of service were placed on churches. Even without the pandemic, the increasing number of disaffiliated Gen-X Americans now entering their peak volunteer years was always going to present a challenge to church ministry inside the sanctuary and in the wider community. One workshop attendee pointed out how this reality shows up throughout society, given that so much of the nation was built by and for Baby Boomers.
Cargal shared some data-based green shoots of hope “for people who have a more progressive interpretation of the Gospels,” including how the percentage of white American Christians identifying as mainline recently surpassed the percentage identifying as evangelical. As church members trend older, many Presbyterians are finding second careers in ministry or serving as ruling elders or deacons after retirement. As more women continue to serve as pastors, the church needs to address the gender pay gap that historically shows up in shifting workforce sectors.
Cargal said that as church and other institutions struggle for connection in an America increasingly defined by movements, the PC(USA) can find inspiration in its Book of Order, which calls for leaders who possess institutional and authenticity bona fides. The church can foster leaders who have a sense of the multiplicity inside worshiping communities by encouraging inquirers and candidates for ordained ministry to serve at congregations that are different than the ones they come from — whether that means larger or smaller congregations, rural or urban ones, churches in middle states like Kansas, on the coasts or along national borders.
One of Cargal’s last slides shared a hopeful data point and call to action about the openness of many “nones” (persons affiliating with no organized religion) to the existence of God:
“The primary challenge facing pastors, rabbis and imams is how to invite nonmembers into an authentic experience of God rather than persuade them to join or rejoin a religious organization,” wrote Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, reporting on a Gallup survey for the Religion News Service.
“Our hope is in that last sentence, living into it,” Cargal said.