Written by Bill Whitt
May 20, 2024

Is Church Decline Over?

New surveys show the percentage of "Nones" has stopped rising. Do these new findings mean it is time to start celebrating?

New surveys show the rise of the “Nones” may be coming to an end, but it’s not all good news. This month, the Cooperative Election Study published new findings, showing that 36 percent of people now identify as atheist (6 percent), agnostic (6 percent) or “nothing in particular” (24 percent). These groups together comprise the “Nones.”

  • Most importantly, they found that the percentage of “Nones” has stopped rising and has held steady since 2021. This is in marked contrast to the rapid increase we had observed beforehand. For example, the percentage of “Nones” has risen by 14 percentage points in the last 15 years.
  • This is not a fluke or an outlier in one survey. The General Social Survey showed a similar rise in “Nones” from 6 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 2021, followed by a leveling off and even slight reversal. Pew’s data also backs this up.

Do these new findings mean it is time to start celebrating? In the days ahead, you may see stories about this in the news, so let me attempt to bring some perspective and nuance to you now. In this week’s newsletter, I’ll attempt to dive deep into the new findings and tell you how they apply to our work in church renewal.

Five Perspectives on the end of church decline
Perspective 1. Nominal No More
  • To explain why the decline in religiosity has stopped, it is helpful to think about why the decline happened in the first place. In his Substack, Ryan Burge hypothesized that those who were only marginally attached to the Church began disaffiliating and switching their answer to “nothing in particular” over the decades. Christians who were Christians in name only have largely left the Church.
  • If this is true, it makes sense that we are now beginning to run out of nominal Christians. We are left with a dedicated core group of true believers — an energized base we can build up, as we focus on the next chapter!
Perspective 2. Other Religions are growing
  • Just because the number of “Nones” has stopped rising, that does not mean Christianity has stopped losing followers. Many people are not “Nones” but also not Christians, so we shouldn’t proclaim “mission accomplished” prematurely!
  • The Cooperative Election Study shows, for example, that 4 percent of Gen Z reported they are Muslims, which is much higher than the average across all ages (1 percent). The decline in the number of “Nones” may be, in part, because other religions are growing.
Perspective 3. Aging Generations will have a huge impact
  • Younger generations have a much higher percentage of “Nones,” and as they age, religiosity will decline further. While the Silent Generation has 21 percent “Nones” and Boomers have 28 percent, Gen X is 34 percent, Millennials are 42 percent, and Gen Z is 42 percent.
  • As the older generations pass away and younger generations rise up, the trend line indicates that the percentage of “Nones” will likely begin increasing again simply because of time passing. In this sense, the decline in religiosity is likely not done, but simply paused.
Perspective 4. More People Will be “never-churched”
  • Because of all these changes, we can expect that we will encounter more and more people in our communities who have no experience with church at all. These “never-churched” people may lack a basic understanding of the biblical narrative and Judeo-Christian values.
  • Wise preachers will adapt to this change in their context. We will need to start our teaching a few rungs farther down the ladder, making sure we do not use insider language that guests will not understand.
Perspective 5. Your Backyard is now a mission field!
  • These data points should give our outreach efforts a new urgency. We can no longer assume that most people in our communities are Christians. As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matt. 9:37).
  • Let’s join together in praying that God would raise up workers to go out into this harvest field. Then, let’s be the answer to our own prayer by sharing the Good News and stirring up a passion for evangelism in our churches!

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