When Jesus told a group of Pharisees about the futility of pouring new wine into old wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39), he was probably not thinking about the latest Pew Research Center data on church decline. But his words are an apt metaphor for what is happening today. As new generations of Millennials and Generation-Z Protestants and Roman Catholics have poured into our Silent-Generation and Baby-Boomer churches and denominations, the sides of these old and brittle institutions have burst open, and many people—particularly Millennials and Gen-Z’ers—have gushed out like, well, like new wine spilling out of old wineskins.
And they are gushing out in large numbers. According to Pew, Christians in 2019 “continue to be a swiftly dwindling demographic [in] America. They’re still the majority, but the U.S. is becoming a less-explicitly Christian country” (Carol Kuruvilla, “American Christians See a Rapid Decline in Numbers Over Past Decade: Study,” Huffington Post, October 17, 2019, and “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, October 17, 2019)
About two-thirds (65%) of U.S. adults identify as Christian, a share that has plummeted by 12 percentage points over the last decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated now constitute a quarter (26%) of the adult population, up from 17% in 2009. Overall, the trend toward religious disaffiliation documented in 2007 and 2014 continues apace.
These shifts are “broad-based,” evident across multiple demographic strata: whites, blacks, and Hispanics; men and women; in all regions of the country; and at every education level. And although dropping out of church is most pronounced among young adults, it is evident at all age groups.
Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses. About 43% of American adults currently say that they are Protestant, compared to 51% in 2009. White evangelical or “born-again” Protestants are now 16% of the adult population, down from 19% a decade ago. About 20% of American adults identify as Catholic, compared to 23% in 2009.
“The frequency at which American[s] say they attend religious services is also declining. Fifty-four percent now say that they attend services a few times a year or less often.” Meanwhile, the number of Americans who “say they ‘never’ attend worship services [has increased] (17% today vs. 11% in 2009).”
What’s driving people away from the church? Some are turned off by the Religious Right’s close association with the Republican Party and President Donald Trump (see Bonnie Kristian, “The Church Is Not the GOP Farm Team,” The Week, August 12, 2019; Daniel Burke, “Franklin Graham Wants the Nation to Pray for Trump on Sunday. But Other Christians Call It Propaganda,” CNN.com, May 31, 2019; and Diana Butler Bass, “The God of Love Had a Really Bad Week,” CNN.com, July 20, 2019).
Others are fleeing a virulent “Christian nationalism” which defends the “right” of Americans to buy military-style assault rifles, and insists that “mass shootings in America have little to do with [the easy availability of] guns, and everything to do with the lack of prayer in schools” and the failure of American culture to “align with Christianity and privileg[e] it in the public sphere” (Carol Kuruvilla, “How a Nationalistic Strain of Christianity Is Subtly Shaping America’s Gun Debate,” Huffington Post, August 6, 2019).
Then too, an interminable series of scandals in Protestant and Roman Catholic churches are demoralizing adherents and leading them to conclude that all religious institutions are morally compromised. Add to these factors the church’s seeming irrelevance to a pluralistic American society, and it is little wonder that most churches and denominations—including evangelical organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention—are experiencing membership and attendance declines (Travis Loller, “America’s Largest Evangelical Protestant Denomination Is Continuing to Lose Members,” Huffington Post, May 24, 2019).
But whatever is causing people to leave the church, America’s rising secularism “has not eased cultural conflict,” wrote Atlantic political analyst Peter Beinart. If anything, it has made “America’s partisan clashes more brutal. As Americans drop out of organized religion, they [don’t] stop viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” Rather, they “define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways” (“Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic, April 2017).
Beinart found it particularly ominous that “religious attendance among Republicans” is declining. “According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has tripled since 1990. This shift helped Donald Trump win the GOP nomination” in 2016, Beinart noted; religiously-unaffiliated Evangelicals now constitute the core of President Trump’s base, and have “embrace[d] Trump’s bleak view of America.”
Beinart asked why “cultural conservatives” who leave the church end up “redraw[ing] the boundaries of identity—de-emphasizing morality and religion, and emphasizing race and nation.” Maybe it’s because of the positive “values that churches instill in their adherents,” he guessed. Or perhaps “religion builds habits and networks that help people weather national traumas, and retain their faith [in] the system.”
But not all young people are leaving the church, Huffington Post journalist Eve Fairbanks noted; some are being drawn to the church. In particular, increasing numbers of young American women say that they are being called to the religious life, as nuns (Eve Fairbanks, “Behold, the Millennial Nuns,” Huffington Post, July 11, 2019).
After 50 years of decline, Fairbanks wrote, the number of women discerning the religious life [has begun to] increas[e] substantially.” In a recent Georgetown University poll, “13 percent of [young] women reported that they are consider[ing] becoming Catholic sister[s].” These aspiring sisters are younger and more diverse than the old ones.” And they “want to join an order that [will require] them to wear a habit.”
According to Fairbanks, many young people today are rejecting liberal churches and forms of worship, and they are not responding to priests and pastors who try to lure them back into the church by trying to act “hip,” or “relevant.” Instead, they are turning to traditional liturgies and churches with their “smells and bells” and their old-fashioned gilded altars, and they are favoring religious leaders who display a strict and authentic demeanor. And they “are more likely than their elders to [embrace traditional church doctrines about] heaven and hell, miracles, and angels—and to assert that their faith is the ‘one true path to eternal life.’”
Fairbanks interviewed several young women who had “moved into ‘discernment houses’ established for women who want to know what it’s like to be a nun. There, young women live with almost none of their possessions, four-to-a-bedroom. They work ordinary day jobs, [and] spend time with [the] nuns at night.”
Fairbanks also interviewed a number of established nuns—“women who had spent [decades] as Catholic sisters”—to see if they “had experienced the life [they were] seeking. The women stressed just how unready they had been for their transition [to religious] life.” One said that she misses ordinary activities like grocery-shopping—“the small, autonomous act of going to the supermarket ‘to look at all the things and decide’” what she wanted. Another said that “she receives an allowance of $85 a month for essentials: ‘socks, shoes, shampoo, toothpaste’ [and] a few outings to the movies.” In order to take a yoga class, she has to write an essay to her superior, explaining how it would benefit her.”
The women described “layers of hierarchy:” Their “elect[ed] ‘superiors’ exert [significant control] over their lives. The[y] can assign you to retrain to be[come] a nurse even if you already hold a law degree, or move you from one city to another. When [one] sister’s family members [bought] her a new [bicycle], she was required to ask her provincial superior if she could accept it.” Another sister had held a responsible position as “the elections officer for Portland, Oregon” before entering her religious community; yet as a sister, she had to ask permission just to “‘buy an ice cream.’”
“Within each [religious] community, [the] commitment to group decision-making is intense,” Fairbanks reported; lengthy meetings [are held—even] to ‘discern’ [what] brand of toilet paper” to buy. And “part of joining a religious community is being judged ‘a good fit’ by the [other] sisters.” In effect, one “submit[s herself] to a 24/7/365 performance evaluation, not just [of her] work, but [of her] entire life.”
It’s hard to know what to make of all this, or if the increase in the number of people “discerning the religious life,” is real. In the end, many of the young women Fairbanks had interviewed decided that the religious life was not for them. Some decided that they wanted to marry and have children. Others found the focus on total obedience, and the loss of independence and privacy, to be difficult. “Sometimes,” Fairbanks concluded, “what looks like a way out of a problem [for a young woman] can actually be a doubling-down on it.”
I don’t know if old wineskins that have burst open can be patched, or if spilled wine can be reclaimed and recycled. I rather doubt it. And I don’t know if those who have left the church will ever come back. I rather doubt that, too.
But the implications of this shift are evident. The ability of churches “to bring diverse people together [and] break down partisan barriers” has eroded—which “threatens to further undermine trust and make our [life together] more [troubled and] divisive” (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Daniel Cox, “The Christian Right Is Helping Drive Liberals Away From Religion,” FiveThirtyEight.com, September 18, 2019).
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.