Not Your Grandmothers' Church

When I was a child it seemed most people went to church on Sunday. Not only did most attend church, most who did attended most weeks. We got credit if we attended a church when we were on vacation. We wore Sunday clothes, which meant most months coat and tie. In the heat of the summer I wore a short sleeve shirt and a tie without a coat. It was as Christian as it was American to attend church this way. Builders and Boomers lived this way. We assumed America was mostly a Christian nation though, as good fundamentalists we secretly knew most of those who said they were Christians weren’t really Christians. (I say this to our shame.)


Less than half of Americans belong to a church or house of worship now. Just 30 years back that number was at 70%.

Somewhere between 25-30% say they attended a church service that week. Bob Smietana, in Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters, examines the “unprecedented transformation” underway in American religion.In American history the church has been (1) mostly white, (2) mostly a national culture, (3) mostly Protestant, (4) mostly run by men, (5) and mostly shaping a conservative Christian culture, and (6) mostly respectable and respected.

That’s your grandmothers’ church and America. “America’s grandparents go to church; their grandkids do not.”

The local Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches are filled on Sundays with white hairs. The local Episcopalian church in our village is struggling. Their attenders are all down here in Florida! I exaggerate, but not much.America is now multi-ethnic, pluralistic, and egalitarian. The fast-growing group, you guessed, is the one that answers “None” when asked on surveys about their religion.Age matters here. As the church shifts from the current generation propping up the church to the younger generation, those six items above are shifting dramatically.We are, Smietana observes, “in this reorganized religious landscape” right now. Things are changing.By 2060 only 43% of America will be white.The decline in American churches is mostly among white churches.

The “future of religion in America belongs to the Nones and the ‘Nons’ – Christians who are not white.” Smietana takes here from Mark Silk at The Religion News Service.Leave a commentYour grandmothers church built megachurches; you are not going to. By you I mean the current generation, whatever letter is the latest demographic. Church attendance is no longer the common path to a good life. Megachurches and the mainline “big-box” churches are/were white and they assumed people would be going to church when they built their buildings and formed their culture. That world is disappearing. (I do think Smietana could give more nuance if South vs. North were more into play.)In the disappearing church world “they often turn on one another,” and Bob Smietana has covered the SBC often. So he tells stories about one Baptist church, formerly pastored by someone named Jerry Sutton, and then about the Conservative Resurgence.The church is not disappearing because it has gotten liberal in its theology, though that narrative has been told for decades. Some sociologists, including Andrew Greeley, whose book with Houk I wrote about when it was published, have demonstrated beyond easy dismissals that the decline has more to do with birth rates.

To sustain a church one must have at least one birth for every death, and the American white churches increasingly have more dying than being born. Their birth rates have dropped. Significantly. At one point conservatives were gleeful about the decline of mainlines because they thought the mainline liberals would die off because of their liberal theology, while the conservatives would go from victory to victory because of their conservative theology.Until the numbers showed they were wrong. Numbers in the SBC are not easy to calculate but they are on the decline, more than 10% in the last 15 years (2006: 16.3 million; 2021: 14 million).Until the Houston Chronicle unmasked sordid stories in the SBC that rival the stories in the RCC. The aftermath has been a sickening display of a defensive posture toward the institution and a heartless disregard of victims.Bob’s finishing page for chapter one concludes that the SBC “was built for a world that no longer exists.” Nuance might say it is declining but not like the decline in the North.But your grandmothers’ church has all the signs of all but disappearing.



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