Claire Forbes recently enjoyed a day in the park with her daughter and granddaughter, a picture of generational bonding. The family didn't know it, but they represent one of the nation's most significant religious trends: None of them belongs to a church.
Just 47% of Americans are members of a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a recent Gallup poll, a record low since Gallup began tracking the number in 1937 — and the first time the figure has dropped below 50%. The decline in members, at 70% as recently as the 1990s, spans all ages and all parts of the nation.
Forbes, a former Catholic, said she drifted from the church her family joined years ago largely because she never knew many people there or felt connected to it. Her daughter, Anne Vaske, was baptized and occasionally went to church growing up, but said she "was just never interested in religion." The baby she rocked in a stroller is likely to have even fewer ties to church.
"Having faith is important, but I don't think you need a church to have faith," said Forbes, a former Twin Cities resident who now lives on the East Coast.
The record low reflects both the growing ranks of Americans who don't identify with any religion and individuals who do identify with a specific faith but have chosen not to become formal members. It has created enormous challenges for faith leaders trying to navigate the new religious landscape.
Religious membership in the United States had hovered around 70% for the past eight decades, when Gallup first began asking whether people belonged to a house of worship. But it began tumbling 20 years ago.
The trend is fueled by available alternatives for people to engage in activities traditionally led by churches, such as exploring spiritual direction, volunteer opportunities and places to "make a difference,'' said the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, vice president for innovation at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
"For many years, church was the primary cultural and social space in people's lives," said Zscheile. "Now the church isn't that primary container for this work. People might go to SoulCycle, or volunteer at Surly Gives a Dam. Or find something online."
Catholics saw the sharpest decline in members, from 76% to 56% during the past 20 years. Protestants fell from 73% to 64% during the same period. The poll of 6,117 Americans did not include sufficient data on Jews and Muslims to measure related trends, Gallup said.
Young adults lead
Young adults are leading the way, with nearly two-thirds unaffiliated with a house of worship.
Likewise, 42% of baby boomers and 34% of adults born before 1946 aren't members, reflecting a slow and steady decline since 2000.
Betsy Brooks, 33, is among the millennials shaping the trend. She was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools but drifted away in college. Like many Minnesotans her age, she feels no urgency to return.
"I feel like you can have a spiritual relationship with God without the rules and structures of a church, of an institution," said Brooks, of Edina.
Dane Hannum, 26, said she has fond memories of attending church with her grandmother when she was young and appreciated the rituals. But she's not showing up on Sundays these days, explaining that many young people mistrust what churches stand for.
"I think there's a loss of faith in institutions in general," said Hannum, of Minneapolis. "I know a lot of people who had bad experiences [with a church]. Maybe the church teaching is anti-gay. Or maybe I'm in a category the church objects to. You don't know."
Another issue, said Hannum, was that she "never had a real religious experience that people describe."
That said, many millennials still embrace spiritual practices. Chris Pelosi, 31, said he no longer belongs to the Episcopal church he attended through much of college, but he still feels drawn to certain rituals. Before Christmas last year, he and his girlfriend placed an Advent wreath on their dining table and lit a candle each week. Instead of reciting the usual Advent prayers, they chose a poem or reading to accompany the ritual, making it "more personal."
While millennials lead the way in not joining churches, African Americans remain among those most likely to join.
Gallup reports that membership declines "are proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates. These groups tend to have among the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults."
The First Lutheran Church of Crystal reflects the demographics of a typical U.S. church today. The average age is about 60, and average Sunday attendance, pre-COVID-19, was 100 to 125. About a quarter to a third of members attend on weekends. Like many churches, it is staying afloat — even though its membership peaked decades ago.
The Rev. Colin Grangaard welcomed the congregation to worship last Sunday with some news. Standing at the altar, the pastor jokingly announced that the church just got 10 new members — a duck family occupying the church patio.
For faith leaders, however, membership is a serious issue. Grangaard said it's not just that churches are losing people — they're having a hard time figuring out how to attract new ones. Society has shifted so much that former tried-and-true paths to church membership aren't guaranteed.
People used to get married in church, hold funerals in church, get their children baptized at church, Grangaard said. Those milestone events brought a continual stream of visitors to church, both members and potential members, and made it relevant at all stages of life.
Likewise, everyday reminders of the church's presence are eroding, he said.
"I used to run into people at the grocery store, at the ballgame," said Grangaard, referring to his ministry in smaller communities. "Those are casual reminders that the church is here, and maybe you should come."
Bishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said he's well aware of Gallup's findings. The archdiocese lost about 10 to 15% of its members over the past decade, he said. The annual October count of folks in the pews now hovers around 300,000, he said, though membership is higher.
"We've had a steady decline for a number of years," said Cozzens. "Studies show young [Catholic] people disaffiliate starting at age 13, about the same time they get a cellphone. How do we compete with secular culture?"
It's an issue the archdiocese is exploring as it prepares for next year's synod assembly, a gathering of lay people and clergy who will make decisions about the church's direction. Among the assembly's priorities: a focus on evangelization and creating "missionary disciples" — spreading the word of God to nonbelievers.
"We're discussing how parishes become more welcoming places," said Cozzens. "How do you pass the faith on to young people?"
As religious leaders across all faiths grapple with such questions, some believe that even the term "member" is changing with the times.
"How do you decide what's a member anymore?" said the Rev. Susan Moss, a longtime leader in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. "Do you go by the traditional way? What about a person who isn't baptized but is there every Sunday? And sings in the choir and volunteers?"
The Gallup report offers some advice for faith leaders. It notes that previous polling showed sermons were the top reason that people attended church. Other priorities were spiritual programs for children and teens, volunteer opportunities and dynamic leaders.
"A focus on some of these factors may help local church leaders encourage people … to join," the Gallup report said.
Many Minnesota faith leaders believe it will take even more, and that religious communities need to experiment with new ways to be "church" in the 21st century.
"This isn't about death and resurrection," said Moss. "We're in uncharted waters."