Analyzing the decline in church attendance

Kids who grow up ‘in a continuously married home’ are more likely to go to church as young adults

By Deacon Bob Hunt

It’s impossible to keep up with the news, even the secular news, without occasionally coming across an article that addresses the decline in Christian faith and church attendance in the United States that has occurred over the last few decades.

The decline has become especially precipitous in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, from 2007 to 2021 the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78 percent to 63 percent. What is more, those who have abandoned the Christian faith have not abandoned it for Eastern, Muslim, Jewish, New Age, or more esoteric religious traditions. They have abandoned Christianity for nothing. Over the same years that Christians dropped 14 percentage points, the percentage of the population who identify as “nones” rose from 16 percent to 29 percent. To put it more starkly, in 2007, Christians in America outnumbered the religiously unaffiliated by 5-1. By 2021, that ratio had dropped to 2-1.

According to Pew, the decline among Catholics has leveled off, dropping from 24 percent of the population to 21 percent and holding. Among Protestants, however, the drop has been more significant, from 52 percent to 40 percent. This doesn’t mean Catholics can breathe a sigh of relief, however, for the number of Catholics who attend Mass weekly or “regularly” has declined over those same years, and almost four in 10 of those who today identify as religiously unaffiliated were raised Catholic. How did we fail them? Furthermore, a fair percentage of still-active Catholics confess that they are considering leaving the Church. How are we failing them?

Earlier this year, Communio, which calls itself “a nonprofit ministry that equips churches to evangelize through the renewal of healthy relationships, marriages, and the family,” published “A Nationwide Survey on Faith & Relationships.” Here is the money quote: Communio writes that “the collapse in marriage and the resulting decline of resident fatherhood may offer the best explanation for the decline in Christianity in the United States.” Communio surveyed 19,000 Sunday church attendees from 112 evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic churches. What did they find? Fully 80 percent of single young adults, those who have never married and are between the ages of 25-29, who attend church services regularly, “grew up in a continuously married home with both biological parents.” That figure jumps to almost nine out of 10 for men in the same age/marriage bracket. Children who grow up with married parents are considerably more likely to attend church services regularly as young adults. “Family decline,” Communio concludes, “appears to fuel faith decline.”

This is not good news in a society where fewer than half of adults under the age of 30 grew up in homes with married parents. According to Communio’s study, only 20 percent of those children are likely to attend church regularly as adults. (Full disclosure: I am one of those adults, though the loss of my father was due to death rather than divorce or my parents having never married). The survey also reports that most fathers who are not married to the mother(s) of their children don’t live with their children and interact with their children only weekly or less, and interactions decline significantly after the age of 2. This is bad news for kids, as those with absent fathers are more likely to suffer adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty, depression, violent crimes, or general struggles as adults. They also rarely attend church services.

But marriages don’t break up without first exhibiting warning signs. Marriage is hard work. Love is hard work. Communio’s survey found that 20 percent of married churchgoers struggle in their marriages, wives more so than husbands. The numbers are much worse for cohabitating couples and couples who don’t go to church. Yet even though the link between the decline in marriage and the decline in Christianity and church attendance seems clear, 85 percent of churches reported in the survey that they spend zero dollars annually on marriage ministries. Nothing. The Church is made up of families, and those families are largely made up of married men and women, yet the vast majority of churches spend nothing on ministries to help sustain marriages, heal marriages, and encourage more fulfilling marriages.

What is the answer for churches? Communio writes, “To evangelize fruitfully in the 21st century, we must reverse the declining number of marriages, improve marital health, and increase the effectiveness of fathers in those marriages.”

This survey is a valuable resource. It offers a window into the reasons for the decline in Christianity and church attendance but also some practical steps churches can take to reverse that decline. It is a wake-up call to churches to develop ministries targeting married couples, not only those who are struggling but also those who are doing well to help further their growth and fulfillment as a couple committed to Christ. We ought not waste this opportunity.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


Deacon Bob Hunt is a husband, father, grandfather, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.

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