Scott’s Column: Changing Religious Demographics in America Jan 4, 2024 | News This is part two of a series of reflections on the State of the Church in 2024. 2. Even thirty years ago Mainline Protestantism was grappling with decades of decline. Those developments are old news by now and not immediately relevant to the current state of the church, though I suspect that not everyone did the grief work they should have over the loss of what American Christianity had been in the middle twentieth century. For decades now there’s been abundant research on American religious trends–the rise of the Nones, more people identifying as “spiritual” but not “religious,” younger people skewing more liberal, particularly around LGBTQ issues, etc. The United Church of Christ responded to all of this with the God is Still Speaking campaign, which did effectively inspire many congregations to take notice and make changes. Though it isn’t clear that the campaign led to any significant influx of people to the denomination as was hoped. A dozen years ago it seemed clear what a congregation needed to do to be vital and relevant. You needed to be open and affirming. You needed to make use of new technologies–have a well-designed website, use social media, have some form of video of your worship on YouTube. You needed to be brand conscious and use the tools of marketing and design. You needed to curate a rich, hopefully seamless, easily accessible and understood experience for the visitor. You needed to be welcoming and hospitable. And largely congregations who did these things fared much better than those who didn’t. We did those things, which is why we experienced the growth we did in the first half of the teens. But, the biggest trends in American Christianity haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve gotten worse (there was an excellent series in the New York Times this year digging into the data). 25 years ago it already felt like we had experienced so much change and decline, but in the last 25 years, 40 million Americans who once went to church, don’t anymore. That’s fifteen percent of the country. In 1999 (about the time I was entering the profession) something like 70 percent of Americans were members of a faith community. Now around 40 percent are. In 2020 churches faced the greatest crisis they had in anyone’s memory. And most, even small ones, rose to the occasion, turning on a dime, and integrating new technologies and methods. Some did this better than others of course. Our congregation did quite well. We had great leadership and effective volunteers. We retained good engagement during lockdowns. Our livestream worship expanded our audience and brought in new weekly attendees. Financial giving remained strong; we even ran a capital campaign in the midst of the pandemic and raised more money than expected. We were actively involved in responding to the local reckoning for racial justice after the murders of George Floyd and James Scurlock. We also bounced back more quickly and better than most congregations. Jim Keck told me in 2022 that First Central’s attendance percentages compared to 2019 were the best of any church he’d heard of. This hasn’t been true for all churches. Earlier this year I read about one of our UCC churches who had 500 children involved in their programs pre-Covid. In 2023 they didn’t even have a children’s sermon in worship anymore because they don’t have any kids attending. These sorts of catastrophic collapses have occurred all over the country. Which is why I keep trying to get everyone to celebrate that we’ve come out of the pandemic with a growing children’s program. So, even for churches who made the right moves and who did well over the last quarter century, it is becoming clearer that what worked a dozen years ago is no longer sufficient in ensuring ongoing health and vitality. It’s also becoming clearer that the larger demographic trends are coming for all of us, and that almost no church is going to be able to rise above them or avoid their impacts. The institution of the church as we have recently experienced it–with the resources, staffing, programs, etc. we’ve been used to is fragile. Not long ago American Christians had to grieve the loss of the institution as it had appeared in the mid-twentieth century, we may now be at the beginning of the grieving process for how the church looked even a decade ago. NOTE: Since I wrote this, the UCC has released its annual statistical profile, rich in data about these trends, and with a series of reports on various aspects of contemporary church life. I think the report is worth your perusal.