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Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The Realignment: Changing Dimensions of American Religious Practice

Over the past six months, a number of new studies on American religious behavior have been released. Here we are examining 10 of these recent reports. Moving forward, these findings will have implications for Jewish communal practice.

The overall findings suggest the following trend-lines:

  • Over the past decade, there has been an over decline in the number of Americans who identity as “Christian”, with the number of Americans describing themselves as secular or religious Nones continuing to increase. Today, about 3 in every ten Americans define themselves without religion.
  • New evidence paints a much more complicated picture than the traditional narrative of generationally driven disaffiliation. Young adults today have had entirely different religious and social experiences than previous generations did.
  • Gallup’s January Mood of the Nation survey confirmed the finding that Americans are largely satisfied with the way things are going in their personal life, despite their remarkable lack of satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. more generally. But particularly striking, those persons who attended church services were found to be more content with their lives than non-affiliated individuals.
  • Churches are moving back to in-person religious services, with various studies indicating that while significant numbers of worshippers are returning to their church communities, others remain on-line. The three studies cited here show different outcomes with regard to church attendance.
  • This Pew Study points to an overall decline in religious participation since the pandemic, and specifically references the continued decline of younger Americans engaging with religious practices.
  • With regard to religious educational programming, churches are reporting a much lower level of re-engagement by various constituencies.
  • Even though churches remain highly segregated, over the past two decades there have been marked shifts in the composition of America’s churches.
  • Giving to religious institutions during COVID, according to a study by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability increased, with some $15.5 billion being raised in 2020 or a 3.4% increase in giving.

If we were to extrapolate this data, we would see similar patterns forming within the Jewish communal and religious sectors.

Introduced below, in a more detailed fashion, are the specific findings from these different studies:

December ‘21 Pew Research Center Survey :

This report on the state of Christianity in America concluded that over the past decade, the Christian population has been declining steadily.  Today, 63% of Americans describe themselves as Christians, down from 75% just a decade ago. While the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths (6%) remained the same, the number of secular Americans is up by 10 percentage points from a decade ago.[1]

Among U.S. adults who say they attend religious services, 43% now report that their house of worship is currently open and holding services the same way it did before the Covid outbreak– up 14 percentage points in the last six months and 31 points since last March.[2]

Pew Study, March 2022:

About a third of U.S. adults (32%) in the new Pew survey say they typically go to religious services at least once or twice a month. Of these self-described regular attenders, two-thirds (67%) report that they actually have attended physically (in person) in the last month, while 57% say they have watched services online or on TV during that period.[3]

in a July 2020 survey, 18% of U.S. adults said that since the pandemic began, they had watched religious services online or on TV for the first time. Combining both forms of attendance, nearly nine-in-ten people who say they are regular attenders (88%) report that they have participated one way or the other in religious services this spring.[4]

Gallup Study on Personal Well-Being:

Gallup data indicate that 92% of those who attend church services weekly are satisfied, compared with 82% of those who attend less than monthly.[5] The difference is even more evident in terms of the percentage who report being very satisfied — 67% of those who attend weekly are very satisfied with their personal life, compared with 48% among those who are infrequent attenders. Weekly religious service attenders are, in fact, more likely to say they are very satisfied than are those who make $100,000 or more in annual household income.

Robert Putnam observed: “Something about religion seems to cause people to become more satisfied with their lives, and that ‘something’ turned out to be church friends. … Controlling for theology, church attendance, general sociability, and other demographic factors, gaining friends at church seems to make you both happier and nicer, and losing friends at church seems to have the opposite effects. Church friends produce happier, nicer people.”

University of Hartford Study on Religious Education:

While congregations (90%) in this report have already returned to face-to-face worship, religious education programming is still ‘far from normal.’  This third study conducted by the Hartford Institute involved 615 church responses, encompassing  31 Christian denominational groups. The report noted that the pandemic had caused a “major disruption” in their religious educational programming for half of the congregations surveyed.[6]

Southern Baptist Lifeway Study on Church Attendance:

This report provided additional insights concerning the “great return” to church functions in-person.

There has been a decline in congregational attendance, but it currently is not as severe as might be expected nor shared equally by all churches,” according to a November 2021 report from a research project called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.”

The median congregation has seen a 12% decline in attendance over the past two years, that report said. However, losses have been concentrated in smaller churches that offered no online worship options, researchers found.[7]

Despite a new variant wave of COVID-19, 97% of U.S. Protestant churches met in person during January 2022, while 3% say they did not gather for in-person services, according to this latest Lifeway Study, a project for the Southern Baptist Convention.[8]

More than 80% of churches responding said their attendance was ‘at least half of what it was prior to the pandemic’. The average U.S. Protestant congregation said attendance is 74% of what it was before COVID-19 closures. That would mean a quarter of churchgoers are still absent.[9]

An Episcopal Church and Ipsos Survey on the Place of Jesus in Christian Practice and Belief:

The study found that the global pandemic has negatively impacted participation in organized religion — or religious activity — and more people are finding spiritual fulfillment in nature. In addition, while the church has been a place of community and non-judgment, some Americans feel that churches that discuss racism and slavery are acting with the wrong intentions.[10]

When looking more closely at the data from this research, the study concluded that since the pandemic, participation in organized religion or religious activities has decreased for about 3 in 10 Americans (31%).

Other findings from this report included:

  • The majority of Americans (84%) believe Jesus is an important spiritual figure and want their children to grow up in a world where everyone is treated equally (86%).
  • Christians describe themselves as being giving (57%), compassionate (56%), loving (55%), respectful (50%) and friendly (49%), while non-Christians associate Christians with characteristics like hypocrisy (50%), being judgmental (49%), self-righteousness (46%), and arrogance (32%).
  • Younger Americans are more likely to say they are not religious (Gen Z 24% and Millennials 28%) than their older counterparts (Gen X 18% and Baby Boomers 12%).
  • Contrary to popular narrative, only 1 in 10 (11%) Americans believe that the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were associated with organized religion. A majority, 63% of Americans, do not think the events are associated with religion, and 25% don’t know/refused.[11]
  • Members of smaller congregations donate more money to their house of worship than members of larger congregations.

National Congregations Study:

In a new report featuring findings from this latest congregational study, the data points to the changing memberships of American churches. When the survey was first fielded, fully 71% of Americans congregations were predominately white and non-Hispanic. Over the next two decades, that figure fell nearly 20 percentage points to 53%.[12]  Other findings include:

  • Worship services today are more likely to be informal and feature expressive activities like hand raising than they were in the past.
  • Women increasingly hold leadership roles in their churches. The latest wave of the survey (conducted from 2018 to 2019) found that 14% of U.S. congregations are led by women. Nearly 9 in 10 houses of worship now allow women to serve on their governing boards.
  • Members of politically liberal congregations are much more likely than members of politically conservative congregations to say their church would publicly endorse political candidates if legal prohibitions on that practice disappeared.
  • More than half of U.S. congregations (54%) allow openly gay and lesbian people to become church members. That figure has increased substantially in recent years.

The Survey Center on American Life of the American Enterprise Institute:

 This new study on religious disaffiliation patterns focuses on generation Z young adults: [13]

The story of religious change in America, especially religious disaffiliation, is often cast as the result of independent decisions made by a rising generation living by a different set of values.  But new evidence paints a much more complicated picture than the traditional narrative of generationally driven disaffiliation. Young adults today have had entirely different religious and social experiences than previous generations did. The parents of millennials and Generation Z did less to encourage regular participation in formal worship services and model religious behaviors in their children than had previous generations. Many childhood religious activities that were once common, such as saying grace, have become more of the exception than the norm.

Without robust religious experiences to draw on, Americans feel less connected to the traditions and beliefs of their parents’ faith. There is little evidence to suggest that Americans who have disaffiliated will ever return. First, the age at which Americans choose to give up their families’ religion—most well before they turn 18—suggests that they have not established a deeply rooted commitment to a set of religious beliefs and practices. Disaffiliated Americans express significant skepticism about the societal benefits of religion, even more than those who have never identified with a religious tradition.

Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability:

This December analysis of church and nonprofit giving during COVID offers new insights into pandemic giving:

Giving in 2020 totaled $15.5 billion despite the coronavirus pandemic. With nearly three-quarters of affiliated churches and nonprofits having reported giving at the same rate or higher for the first three quarters of 2021, optimism for giving in 2022 among these ministries is high, a new survey shows.

The ECFA report showed that while cash giving to member churches dipped slightly amid the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020, giving to other types of ministries increased.[14]

Churches held almost even in their cash giving when you compare 2020 to 2019. Specifically, during the 2020 pandemic year, they received slightly less (-1.2%) cash giving than in 2019. …However, for all other ECFA members, cash giving did better. It increased in 2020 even more than it increased in 2019. During 2020, ECFA’s ministry members received 3.4% more cash giving than in 2019.[15]

New Data on Teens and Religious Engagement:[16]

 As a sociologist of education and religion, I (Ilana Horwitz) followed the lives of 3,290 teenagers from 2003 to 2012 using survey and interview data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, and then linking those data to the National Student Clearinghouse in 2016. I studied the relationship between teenagers’ religious upbringing and its influence on their education: their school grades, which colleges they attend and how much higher education they complete. My research focused on Christian denominations because they are the most prevalent in the United States.[17]

What religion offers teenagers varies by social class. Those raised by professional-class parents, for example, do not experience much in the way of an educational advantage from being religious. In some ways, religion even constrains teenagers’ educational opportunities (especially girls’) by shaping their academic ambitions after graduation; they are less likely to consider a selective college as they prioritize life goals such as parenthood, altruism and service to God rather than a prestigious career.

However, teenage boys from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as moderately religious or nonreligious boys.

End Notes:

On these pages and elsewhere, I have joined others in exploring in a more nuanced form the transformative character of the Jewish eco-system. The data presented here confirms on a broader scale these major shifts and changes taking place within the American religious orbit. As with all moments of disruption, we are likely to experience in this post-pandemic era the full structural and operational realities resulting from these emerging patterns of behavior and practice.

[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/22/more-houses-of-worship-are-returning-to-normal-operations-but-in-person-attendance-is-unchanged-since-fall/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/389510/religion-wellbeing-update.aspx

[6] https://www.hartfordinternational.edu/news-events/news/survey-religious-education-hit-hard-pandemic

[7] https://www.deseret.com/faith/2022/3/8/22960469/what-the-pandemic-has-done-to-churches-covid-19-virtual-worship-church-attendance

[8]

https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2022/mar/2/church-openings-approach-pre-pandemic-levels-atten/

[9] Ibid.

[10] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/publicaffairs/new-poll-confirms-jesus-remains-important-spiritual-figure-but-pandemic-had-effect-on-religious-activity/

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://sites.duke.edu/ncsweb/

[13] https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/generation-z-and-the-future-of-faith-in-america/

[14] https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hspart=blender&hsimp=yhs-002&p=church+pandemic+survey+results%2C+2022&type=3862719144

[15] https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hspart=blender&hsimp=yhs-002&p=church+pandemic+survey+results%2C+2022&type=3862719144

[16]https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/15/opinion/religion-school-success.htm

[17] Ilana M. Horwitz is an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Tulane University and the author of “God, Grades, and Graduation.”

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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