The book I co-authored with Tom Clegg, Missing in America, makes the following claim on page 175:
According to the latest research, 1 out of every 3 adults (33%) in America is unchurched. This means they haven’t attended a religious service of any type during the past 6 months. This represents approximately 73 million adults, plus roughly 27 million teens and children for a total of 100 million Americans.
That number alone would be the 13th largest country in the world!
That’s more people than live in 224 countries of the world!
Those statistics were from 2007. A pastor recently wrote to ask me what the numbers are for today. Good question.
The research group I cite above has not repeated its survey of how many people are unchurched in America, but others have done similar studies. One is particularly credible, drawing from several national studies. It’s a very readable volume named American Religion: Contemporary Trends by Mark Chaves.
– The U.S. ranks as one of the most pious and religious of any Western countries (page
– For most of the past 300 years, 35%-40% of the population has participated in church with some degree of regularity (p2)
– Despite what people SAY about weekly attendance, the true weekly rate is closer to 25% (p45). If we use lesser frequencies, more than 60% of American adults have attended a service at a religious congregation in the last year (p55).
– While it’s debatable whether the attendance is going down or remaining level, the data is unambiguous that overall church attendance is attendance not increasing (p47). More specifically, religious service attendance declined in the several decades leading up to 1990 and seems to have been essentially stable thereafter (p49).
– However, the percent who say they “never” attend church has risen steadily over the last 30 years as people shift from infrequent attendance to nonattendance (pp46, 48).
– Finally, the Protestant portion of the U.S. population is in decline, due to the rise in “nones” (no religious preference), decline of mainline denominations, and rise in the percent of recent immigrants claiming a religion other than Christian (pp17-24). The Protestant makeup was 62% in the early 1970s to just over 50% today (p24). If that trend continues, we will soon be a Protestant-minority country.
Back to the original question: how unchurched is the United States? It all depends on how you define “unchurched.” If 40% of America hasn’t attended a religious service in the last year, that’s 125 million unchurched people based on a total current population of about 312 million. (The original survey was based on those who hadn’t attended in the last 6 months, which if re-run, would predictably have identified an even higher number of unchurched people.)
My conclusion is that the original numbers at the top of this report are now higher:
According to the latest research, more than 1 out of every 3 adults (33%) in America is unchurched. This means they haven’t attended a religious service of any type during the past year. This represents some 125 million Americans.
That number alone would be the 10th largest country in the world!
That’s more people than live in 230 countries of the world (based on lists that name 242 different countries)
I welcome your thoughts especially in getting our arms around that big number: “125 million is more than….”
Coming soon is another book that draws from even more national surveys of American religion. The title is Leadership that Fits Your Church by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce. I’ll do a blog when it comes off the press.
For the visual learners – here's an infographic summary: