LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — For nearly as long as we have been a country and tracked for the last 80 years, a majority of Americans have belonged to a house of worship. Whether that be a church, cathedral, synagogue, or mosque, Americans have overwhelmingly identified with an organized religion. Until 2020.
The newest Gallup poll shows 47% of Americans belong to a church, mosque, or synagogue, the first time membership has dropped below a majority.
It might be easy to attribute the decline to the strange and troubling year it was, with social unrest, a contentious presidential race, and a deadly global pandemic. But a closer look shows this milestone has been in the making for decades with membership starting a steep decline at the turn of the century. The decline cuts across all religions, all denomination, all races, and ages.
Several local faith leaders showed no surprise at the numbers when LEX 18's Nancy Cox spoke with them this Easter week.
"When we have seen different issues arise in our country such as racial disparities, poverty disparities - economic disparities, I would say - we see so many challenges, it seems as though churches have not stepped up to the plate," said the pastor of First Baptist Church Bracktown, Rodney McFarland, Jr.
Whether a symptom or a cause, many faith leaders say the trend is directly tied to the widening divide in the country.
Dr. Hershael York is the dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and pastor of Frankfort's Buck Run Baptist Church.
"I think that people who aren't as intentional in thinking through issues of morality, eternity, life and death, tend to not be as focused in a world view. And so, I think that is a divide even about living life and ultimately dying. So it's reflective of a divide that's happening in our nation in many ways."
Pastor Matt Falco of Maxwell Presbyterian Church in Lexington was not surprised by the poll but saddened.
"The church has frequently made mistakes in the past about how it goes about helping others and including people in the work it's trying to do. Sadly, it has excluded some folks from the life of a congregation."
Perhaps surprisingly, these three pastors all say financial support at their churches has never been better. And all agree that returning to the foundation of faith is the only tool places of worship have in trying to turn the trend.
Pastor Falco says it simply.
"When a church again becomes about the love of Christ, it begins to grow."