Our church caught fire [i] a few weeks ago.
The pastor and a few other leaders had just gotten out of a Monday night meeting when they found the sanctuary was filled with smoke and the entrance to the church was covered in flames. Fortunately, firefighters[ii] responded to the immediate 911 calls and saved the church, although significant damage remains. On the first Sunday after the fire, we gathered in the auditorium of a local school to sing, pray, give thanks, drink coffee and make plans for the future. The first major project was to write thank you notes for the local fire departments who came to the church’s rescue.
Our church was lucky. So many others are not.
We are in the midst of the so-called “Great Dechurching”—an unprecedented reshaping of the American religious landscape, where millions of Americans have given up on organized religion and in particular on Christianity. According to the Pew Research Center, about one in four Americans (28%) is a so-called “None”—someone who claims[iii] no particular religion. If current trends continue, as few as one third of Americans[iv] could call them themselves Christians by 2070—down from nearly 90% in the 1970s.
This decline in religious affiliation has come with another trend, one that’s often overlooked. Congregational life in America is disintegrating before our very eyes and it seems few people are noticing.
Here’s a piece of data that keeps me up at night. In 2000, not long after I began reporting on religion, the average congregation in America had a median attendance of 130 people. By 2020, according to[v] the Faith Communities Today study, the average congregation had 65 people. And that number has continued to decline.
Half the congregations in the United States have 65 people or less, and most of the congregation members in the churches are older, meaning those churches will continue to shrink. In 20 years or so, many of those congregations could cease to exist.
In short, it feels like many of the nation’s churches are on fire and might to burn to the ground—metaphorically speaking. But unlike our church, no one notices. Or if they do notice, it’s almost too late.
Most of the churches that could be lost are in small communities and in neighborhoods, where they play a vital role in the social fabric—offering places to gather, hosting tutoring programs, food pantries, AA meetings, resettling refugees, offering emergency aid, and in general being the place where people show up when life falls apart.
There are many people who think—perhaps with good reason—that closing down churches is a good thing. The leaders of America’s churches and other houses of worship, like those of almost every other institution—have often failed us in ways too numerous to mention. As a religion reporter, I spend an increasing amount of my time reporting those failings.
And yet those congregations are still irreplaceable to their communities. .
“The average American doesn’t realize all the things that churches do to make society less awful,” pastor and political scientist Ryan Burge, a professor at Eastern Illinois University one told me.
Burge was on to something. Organized religion at its best can make the world—and our lives—less awful. And it is at risk—a reality I explore in “Reorganized Religion,” a book about the changing religious landscape and why we should all care about it.
Organized religion is powerful because it is a tool for taking principles—like the idea that we should love our neighbors and care for those around us—and putting them into practice. In fact, the important religious word in America is the word “congregate.”
Week after week, houses of worship gather people together in congregations. They teach their people important lessons—telling them they are both beloved by God and deeply flawed and then showing them how to become better people. They help people look in the mirror, acknowledge their own failings, and then give them hope that they can start anew and make amends for those failings.
Brad Fulton, an Indiana University professor who studies nonprofits and civil society, calls churches and other houses of worship “schools of altruism,” teaching their congregations “to love and care for each other,” as the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently put it.[vi]
They can also be engines of social good. They collect money every week —and then they sent that money and those congregation members into the world to make it a better a place. And they have the phone number of church members—so they can call when things go wrong and help is needed. Even more importantly, those congregations and religious movements have built systems and institutions ready to respond to the world around them. They plan ahead to help those in need.
In that way, congregations create the organized kindness[vii] of strangers—a whole network of schools and hospitals and disaster relief programs and shelters and food pantries and other programs that benefit those around us.
Congregations can also build friendships, create community, and provide spaces for miracles. In the 1980s, author Anne Lamott, then a struggling writer and an alcoholic who had just found out she was pregnant and did not know what to do, wandered into a tiny Presbyterian church and found a welcome in that community which changed her life.
In a recent column[viii] for the Washington Post, Lamott summed up that experience: “That is how I got sober in 1986: People said, “Come on over. We will let you in.”
Our family had a similar experience when I was a teenager—a friend invited my brother to church, and then one by one, the rest of us followed. We found a community of friends. Almost every good thing of my life followed from that one simple invitation.
At a time when Americans are more isolated than ever, finding a community of friends is a rare gift, one that houses of worship specialize in.
There’s a great story in the New Testament book of Luke, where Jesus is teaching in a crowded house, with people lined up outside the door, waiting to get in. All of a sudden there is a commotion—some people have climbed up on the roof and lowered their friend, who is paralyzed, down into the house, in hopes that Jesus would heal him.
I used to joke that the meaning of that story is clear—never invite a preacher into your house or things will be get broken. While that may be true, there is a deeper meaning to this story—when life knocks us down, we need someone else to hold us up until we can be healed—a task that churches and other religious communities take on all the time.
The late Arvid Almquist, a preacher and philosophy professor, called [ix]this practice “surrogate faith,” which a church or community of friends “holds in escrow for those who have lost or never been able to find it in the first place.”
Life, he went on to say, has a way of paralyzing us at times—and we need others to lend a hand until we can get back on our feet. This is what congregations do all the time for their members and their neighbors. And it is the kind of social capital that is at risk as organized religion declines.
It is the kind of friendship and faith that I hope will endure.
[i] Bria Jones, “Lake Geneva church fire; community comes together,” (Fox6 Milwaukee, January 17, 2024). https://www.fox6now.com/news/lake-geneva-church-fire-community-comes-together
[ii] Jonathan Chang and Meghna Chakrabarti, “The Great The great dechurching’: Why so many Americans are leaving their churches,” (On Point, WBUR, January 24, 2024). https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2024/01/24/the-great-dechurching-why-so-many-americans-are-leaving-their-church
[iii] Gregory A. Smith, Patricia Tevington, Justin Nortey, Michael Roloto, Asta Kallo, and Beka A. Alper, “ Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They Are and What They Believe,” (Pew Research Center, January 24, 2024). https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2024/01/24/religious-nones-in-america-who-they-are-and-what-they-believe/
[iv] Bob Smietana, “Fewer than half of Americans may be Christian by 2070, according to new projections,” (Religion News Service, September 13, 2022) https://religionnews.com/2022/09/13/fewer-than-half-of-americans-may-be-christian-by-2070-according-to-new-projections/
[v] “Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview,” (Hartford Institute for Religion Research). https://faithcommunitiestoday
[vi] Drew Lindsay, “What Philanthropy and Nonprofits Lose as Religion Fades,” (The Chronicle of Philanthropy, December 12, 2023). https://www.philanthropy.com/article/what-philanthropy-and-nonprofits-lose-as-religion-fades
[vii] Bob Smietana, “The Organized Kindness of Strangers: Why We All Rely on It, and Why It’s in Danger,” (Christianity Today, January 5, 2023). https://www.christianitytoday.com/better-samaritan/2023/january/organized-kindness-of-strangers-why-we-all-rely-on-it-and-w.html
[viii] Anne Lamott, “Age makes the miracles easier to see,” (The Washington Post, January 17, 2024). https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2024/01/17/age–love-hate/
[ix] Arvid Almquist, Arvid Adell, “Stuff That Lasts 50 Years,” (Covenant Companion, January 2007).