Last Sunday morning, my wife and I pulled up to a stoplight not far from our home and spotted our neighbors pulled alongside us. In a brief moment, we exchanged the prerequisite fun faces of surprise before the green light signaled our Subarus to resume highway speed.
For the next 10 minutes, we passed each other back and forth along a 10-mile, four-lane highway toward the California foothill town of Auburn. Coincidently, we both turned off the highway at the next stoplight.
“It would be fun if they were joining us this morning,” I said to my wife.
Three stoplights later, I drove our car into our church parking lot and then glanced back to see a blur of the neighbors’ car as they continued higher into the Gold Country hills.
I can’t say where they were headed, but according to a new Gallup poll, they were likely among most Americans not going to church.
The March poll brings startling news for the faithful. America’s membership in a church, synagogue or mosque has declined at least 1 percent each year — dropping from 70 percent in 1998 to an all-time low of 47 percent by 2020.
Before 1998, church membership had remained steady as far back as 1937.
So, in just 21 years, we had a whopping 23 percentage point decline — the sharpest in recorded American history.
Take just a moment to consider that polling word “membership.”
As a young man, I considered myself privileged to pastor a 200-member church. However, I rarely preached to more than 70 people. I quickly learned that membership doesn’t equal commitment, attendance or activity level.
In a not-so-subtle effort to resolve that discrepancy and boost our attendance, I’d sometimes ask neighbors, “If you went to church tomorrow, where would you go?”
They’d pause a moment before naming their preference — “Either the church I grew up in or the one down the street.”
However, according to the Gallup poll, the majority of people today would say, without hesitation, “I wouldn’t. I just wouldn’t.”
With more than 100 churches in America closing every week, where has our religion gone?
Besides the usual suspects of yard sales, the mall and sporting events, Shadi Hamid suggests a more disturbing answer to that question in a March 10 article in The Atlantic called “America Without God.” Hamid is a contributing writer for the literary and cultural magazine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Hamid’s article argues that there is “a suspicious connection between the decline in religious faith and today’s rising ideological intensity.”
He further suggests that our faith is a limited quantity. So as we’ve invested more energy into our political ideals, we’ve become less faithful to our places of worship.
And if that’s true, then we may have to consider faith as something we must budget. If that’s true, we are confronted with the question “Where do we spend it?”
Presently, we seem to be expending our faith coins on Red vs. Blue. Fascism vs. socialism. Progun vs. gun control. Fox News vs. CNN. Trump vs. Biden.
The Bible identifies our misspent faith in the very first commandment regarding idolatry. Exodus 20:3 says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Put simply, God should be the number one item in our faith budget. (Not to be followed by country.)
My working definition of idolatry is: “Excessive devotion to or reverence for some person or thing.”
I’m as guilty of squandering my faith as you are. Consider the amount of time we’ve spent advocating for our pet issue on social media versus the time spent volunteering at church or in prayer. No wonder Americans find their faith nearly bankrupt.
So, in the meantime, the faithful are left asking, “What do we do to save our churches?”
I believe it’s possible to do so. We simply have to reintroduce the priorities of passion and relevance. Next week, I’ll tell you how I think we can start down that road.