Church attendance down locally, but message of faith still resonates

Average annual attendance and membership trending down

For Jeff Graham growing up Catholic meant weekly attendance at St. Helen Church, a practice he and his wife, Sue, continued with their four kids at Ascension Church in Kettering.

“My wife and I are lifers,” said Graham, 67, who met Sue when they both attended the University of Dayton. “We went to a Catholic school. She went to Ascension and I went to St. Helen. It was our life. We didn’t know much about other churches. A lot of our lives revolved around knowing people in the parish.”

But a recent Gallup Poll shows that the way the Grahams were raised and how they raised their kids as far as weekly church attendance is becoming increasingly less common, and attendance hasn’t recovered to pre-COVID 19 levels.

A separate Gallup Poll found stark differences in church membership by millennials, defined as those born between 1981-1996, and older people, who were far more likely to report a religious affiliation.

“I feel the church has lost my generation, the millennials,” said the Rev. Scotty Robertson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Middletown. “I don’t know that we are making an effort to fully reach millennials.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The Rev. Tracy Paschke-Johannes, pastor of Wittenberg University in Springfield, said there is less societal pressure about the importance of attending church.

“I think you have a larger number of people that didn’t go to church when they were younger,” she said. “So when they get older and they have kids it just isn’t part of what they are doing.”

This newspaper interviewed 10 faith leaders, religion experts and people who attend church in the Dayton, Springfield and Butler County region. They expressed concern over the declines in church attendance, relief that they can reach people through streaming worship services, and a strong desire to deliver hope in a troubled world and to figure out how to reach younger people with messages of faith.

“People have so many competing options for their time, for their hearts. It’s getting harder and harder to compete, especially for families with children under the age of 18,” said the Rev. Kellie C. Kelly, minister at the Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Washington Twp.

Graham notes that his own children “don’t prioritize” church as he and his wife had hoped they would.

“For me at least once a week it is nice to go. There are people you know. There’s a message that you get from the readings. The pastor will give a homily that puts it all in perspective,” said Graham, of Kettering.

“You’re running around all week and it’s a chance to slow down and reflect and try to articulate to yourself, ‘What should I be doing? Am I doing the right things?’”

COVID-19 impact

Church attendance lags the pre-COVID pandemic era, capping a decade-long trend of fewer than 40% of U.S. adults saying they attended worship services at a church, synagogue, mosque or temple in the last seven days, according to the Gallup Poll released last summer.

Church attendance averaged 34% in 2019, declining to 30% last year, and ticking up to 31% in May, the Gallup Poll found.

The last time average annual church attendance reached 49% was 1958, according to an analysis of Gallup data dating to 1939, when attendance was 41%.

Three great periods of religious revival in the U.S. — in the mid-1770s, a 50-year period through 1840 and after the Civil War — were always followed by a lessening of religious fervor, said Jeremy Kimble, associate professor of theology at Cedarville University.

“But I don’t think in our history we have quite seen the decline that we are seeing presently,” Kimble said. “I think we are seeing a decline in faith overall because of world view realities in our country. And it’s also the church settling for status quo as opposed to being more assertive to reach those who are not yet reached.”

The Rev. Elmer S. Martin, pastor of Greater Allen AME Church in Dayton, said Sunday services average 125-130 people now compared to about 200 prior to the pandemic.

Greater Allen was one of many churches nationwide that began streaming their services during the worst of the pandemic in 2020 before vaccines were available.

Martin said in-person attendance is ticking up, and he continues to require face masks at church, “but we also have a lot of people watching on Facebook and YouTube.”

“It helps because you’ve got people watching worldwide,” Martin said.

In May 2020 28% of those surveyed nationwide had attended services remotely in the last seven days and 3% in person, Gallup found. By May 2023 those figures had flipped, with 26% attending in person and 5% remotely, according to the Gallup Poll. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed did not attend services.

“It is not clear if the pandemic is the cause of the reduced attendance or if the decline is a continuation of trends that were already in motion,” wrote Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones on the polling company’s website. “However, the temporary closure of churches and ongoing COVID-19 avoidance activities did get many Americans out of the habit of attending religious services weekly.”

He said average annual attendance rates since 2020 are lower for every major subgroup except groups that already had low attendance rates, primarily adults with no religious affiliation and political liberals. Church attendance dropped to 40% from 44% for Protestants and to 30% from 37% for Catholics, the nation’s two largest faith groups.

COVID exacerbated a long term trend in declining religious practice, said Mike Schafer, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which covers 19 southwest and western Ohio counties. Regular Sunday Mass attendance in those counties declined 19% in 2021 from what it was pre-pandemic. Last year attendance increased 6% from 2021 and data still being compiled indicates it is up again this year, but Schafer said attendance is still below what it was before the pandemic.

As the Catholic church also struggles with having too few priests, a recent reorganization put parishes into families of churches overseen by a single pastor. Despite that and a reduction in the total number of Masses celebrated Rev. Kyle Schnippel said attendance has held steady or risen slightly at the five Catholic churches where he is pastor in Dayton, Huber Heights, Vandalia and Tipp City.

He and others interviewed said they are glad that people are attending worship services remotely rather than not at all, but add that being at church in person adds so much more because it is an opportunity to be with those who share the faith, to pray and sing together, receive communion, and participate in social gatherings after services.

“Streaming is great if you can’t get there. It can help you stay connected to a community,” said Crystal Sullivan, executive director of campus ministry at the University of Dayton. “It’s good that we are streaming but streaming doesn’t replace in-person participation in the life of a community.”

She said about 850 people attend the four weekend Massesat U.D.’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, which is nearly back to pre-pandemic attendance levels.

When a faith community gathers they can see themselves as part of a whole, said Sullivan.

“That whole that is bigger than us teaches us. We observe the action of God, the presence of God in ways that we might not see on our own. We receive support and encouragement in faith and in life,” Sullivan said. “We develop friendships, have the opportunity to participate as a community in action, in service to the world, in prayerful support of what is happening in the world.”

Kelly said church also can be an antidote to loneliness.

“We come together to remember that we are not alone. That reminder is both a comfort and a responsibility that we are for each other,” Kelly said. “We come to worship in order to be reminded of that, in order to be reminded of our highest aspirations.”

Younger people less likely to belong

Gallup found a continued decline the the percentage of U.S. adults saying they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. It dropped to 47% in 2020, the first time it was below 50% since 1937, when the polling company first measured it and when church membership was 73%, according to a 2021 Gallup Poll.

Older people were the most likely to report a religious affiliation.

“Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials,” Gallup’s Jones wrote. “The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Rabbi Leibel Agar of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Dayton said average attendance during Saturday sabbath services is 15-25, and walk-ins are not allowed due to security concerns.

“Typically what I’ve seen is the membership going down because we are a senior population and people have (died),” he said.

Those interviewed said drawing millennials to church is challenging for a variety of reasons:

  • Some were not raised to go to church or chose to stop going as adults.
  • They are troubled by the way some churches hid and mishandled sex abuse cases involving clergy.
  • They may disagree with the position some churches take on hot button issues like LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights, birth control and women in the clergy.
  • They may not see the relevance of church or God in their lives.

“They are looking for, ‘Where do we find meaning? Where do we find purpose?’ (We have to) dig deeper into this sense (that) Jesus Christ is a purpose for their life,” Schnippel said. “How do I show to our young people that that purpose is actually goodness and beauty and truth when they see so much chaos around them in the world we are in?”

Paschke-Johannes said young adults have “a lot of communal trauma,” having grown up in a time of mass shootings and school lockdown drills, COVID-19 and loss of lives, the political and social upheaval of 2020 and the Jan. 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by people trying to overturn the election of Joe Biden as president.

“They have not had a peaceful collective memory,” Paschke-Johannes said. “What I find with young people is they are looking for hope and a promise of good news amidst all of that.”

She and Sullivan both said some students are hungry for faith traditions and rituals.

“They love communion. And Lessons and Carols (for Advent and Christmas) is a huge tradition at Wittenberg and they love to be part of that,” Paschke-Johannes said. “I will use anointing oil in prayers and explain it is a thousand-year-old prayer that people have used for healing. And they are absolutely enthralled by that.”

Those interviewed also talked about how people, both young and old, are attracted to the good works that many churches are involved in, like food pantries or helping people experiencing homelessness.

Robertson’s church has a decades-old day care, allows community groups to use space in the church and during the pandemic has provided families with household cleaning supplies and thermometers, helped people get tested for COVID and hosted two vaccination clinics.

“My goal is to help people become mature disciples,” Robertson said. “If you look at what’s wrong in the world it is not that we need more church attendance. It’s that we need more people living like Jesus. We need to be loving each other more. We need to be caring for each other more.”

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