American Religion: Census and Singularity

Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI)* has released its eagerly awaited 2020 Census of American Religion and the results are eye-opening.

One of the key findings of the 2020 Religion Census – that white, conservative, Evangelical denominations had plateaued and were declining, while Mainline denominations have stabilized and begun a slight uptick – almost precisely parallels what we predicted in our earlier publication, The Religion Singularity.** Published in early 2017, in the International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, the paper projected that the number of Christians per Worship Center was entering a period of increasingly rapid decline driven in large part by defections from conservative Evangelical denominations, most to join the ranks of the Nones (meaning “none of the above” or unaffiliated).

According to the Religion Census the number of white Evangelical has dropped precipitously from 23% in 2016 to 14.5% in 2020, a decline of more than one-third in 14 years. The decline appears to be driven by an exodus of Millennials and GenZ-ers, some of whom are joining (or returning) to Mainline denominations, but the vast majority of whom, while still considering themselves to be Christians, are choosing not to affiliate with a denomination.

As a result of this massive departure of younger people from white conservative Evangelical denominations, they have begun to age rapidly. With an average age of 56, they are now older than any other affiliation: 19% older the average age of Americans at 47. 

On the otherhand, Mainline denominations have no reason to be cocky about any of this. The average age of most is still hovering just above 50 or 8.5% above the national average. And the percentage uptick in Mainline affiliation that began in 2017 maybe transitory, though perhaps not as steep when it resumes. The important thing to remember is that the overall average age of persons of all affiliations is rising at a significant rate, and an increase in affiliations as a percentage of population may not translate into a increase in actual membership. 

Indeed, in The Religion Singularity, though we allow that their may be minor hiccups and variations in the steepness of the trend, we projected an overall downward trend that would be pervasive and massive, destabilizing and transforming institutional Chrisitianity as we know it, rendering denominations, judicatories, and worship centers numerically and financially unsustainable in their current form by the end of this century (if not before). In fact, all of our paradigms have already begun to crumble into dust, and it will require clarity of vision, combined with frequent and rapid experimentation, in order to discover what the emerging paradigm will be, and for congregations to survive and thrive through these uncertain and turbulent times.

These are just a few of the revelations in PPRI’s 2020 Census of American Religion, and of the projections in The Religion Singularity. To learn more, you will have to read them for yourself. But it will be well worth the read.

*Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.

**Kenneth W. Howard (2019). “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” in International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Vol. 7, Issue 2.