The Decline of Religion and Its Influence on the Jewish Community

I teach a shabbat morning class in our synagogue, and I wrote this as an addendum to our discussion:


In light of our Shabbat morning discussion, I though I might reference some of the actual data and discussion on the decline of religion in the U.S., the rise of “nones” (those who do not affiliate with a religious group),  the decreasing number of self-identified Christians, the decreasing number of self-identifitied white Christians, the decreasing number of self-identified evangelical white Christians, and the diminishing numbers of those attending church services. I really enjoyed our session and appreciated the different points (as I always do– all of which got me to go over some materials I had not examined recently. Just take a look at the articles below for an overview.

Christian identification in the U.S. as a whole is in serious decline. Until recently, this decline was primarily taking place in mainline churches: e.g.  Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, American Baptist, UCC (United Churches of Christ), Disciples of Christ, as well as Catholic. Mainline churches are still declining at a faster rate than evangelical churches. But now the decline has started hitting Evangelical churches, particularly white ones: Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, and non-denominational. In 1988, white evangelical Christians comprised 22% of the U.S. population. In 2006, that number hit 23%. In 2015, that number was 17% and is probably at 16% by now—amounting to almost a 30% decline. The speed of this decline will accelerate as scores of millennials leave churches.

Megachurches are struggling as well. I can’t speak specifically about Southland, but megachurch attendance as a whole is well down (as you will see in some of the articles below). There’s virtually no way that membership in megachurches is holding steady (which is the best they could claim), because you can’t increase your numbers while the overall pool is in sharp decline. It’s only possible if you fudge the numbers, which, of course, many institutions do. For Christians (unlike for Jews), attendance is the most important factor in determining membership. And that number is clearly in decline in most churches, especially mega-churches. Smaller evangelical churches have much higher levels of commitment/attendance than mega-churches.  In that world, you will find many complaints that mega-churches are shrinking the numbers of those attending small churches, while at the same time megachurches are seeing a substantial drop-off in church attendance. Many evangelicals see mega-churches as places where those who have little commitment go because they can hide there. While mega-churches may offer wonderful amenities, numerous affinity groups, lots of excitement, and good social fellowship, mega-churches are certainly not stemming the overall decline in Christian self-idenitification or in evangelical Christian self-identification.

White Christianity is aging at a rapid rate. At the same time, millennials are leaving churches—both mainline and evangelical. Churches as a whole have not figured out how to attract young people.

Jewish self-identification is doing relatively better, as far as I can tell, but not synagogue attendance which is in decline. In terms of congregational life, Jews many of the same issues as Christians  Jews do not, however, define identity in terms of synagogue attendance, but have other markers. This gives us a distinct advantage over Christians who do not really see themselves as a *people* or as a culture. Other religious groups such as Buddhism and Islam are growing, though they are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population.

I’m not convinced that all this means the end of religion and certainly not of spirituality. Many who identify as “nones” have a spiritual outlook, but do not wish to affiliate with an organized religious movement. In the U.S. religious people follow the tradition of group identification through voluntary associations known as congregations. Congregations are one form of voluntary association that also includes garden clubs, rotary clubs, lions clubs, Masons, political parties, bridge clubs, farming associations, entrepreneur associations, bowling leagues, book clubs, PTAs, and so on. I apologize for having forgotten some key group. Robert Putnam and others have written about the decline of voluntary associations in the U.S., including the U.S., and this in turn has affected congregational life.

But who is to say that *congregations* are the defining element of religious life? Who is to say that voluntary associations will not make a comeback, as book clubs (for example) have done? Perhaps, congregations will themselves change form, or other structures will rise up to replace them. It’s possible that old structures simply can’t change, just as older for-profit corporations have found it impossible to adapt to transformative cultural and socio-economic changes. In other cases, some for-profit corporations do manage to negotiate transitions. We just don’t know, and we’ll have to see how events play out.

In other countries, congregations are not the sole or primary form for the expression of Jewish values, as other secular organizations and non-congregational modalities hold an equal or higher sway (including in Israel). Remember, there are synagogues (churches also) in other countries that do not depend on local contributions to maintain themselves. Not every synagogue has to have a membership list as a defining feature. Also a synagogue (or a church) does not necessarily require a building to exist and thrive. The self-funding membership model in a building has thrived in the U.S., but it’s not the only option out there. Perhaps some eclectic version of what we find globally will emerge, or a new structure altogether will suddenly take hold and assert itself as a vacuum opens.

I do suspect that “religion” will have a more marginal role in U.S. society than in the past, or it will restructure itself and take on a cast that we may regard as unrecognizable. Change is scary for most people, but it’s happening whether we like it or not. The best we can do is not surrender to despair, but to take of our own house, make religion more dynamic, meaningful and appealing, and keep trying to adapt. That’s difficult for us all. But we have no other choice.


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DR. LAURENCE H. KANT (LARRY KANT), MYSTIC SCHOLAR: Engaged Mysticism and Scholarship in the Pursuit of Wisdom; Discovering meaning in every issue and facet of life; Integrating scholarship, spirituality, mysticism, poetry, community, economics, and politics seamlessly. Historian of Religion: Ph.D., Yale University, 1993 (Department of Religious Studies); Exchange Scholar, Harvard University, Rabbinics, 1983-84; M.A., 1982, Yale, 1982 (Department of Religious Studies); M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School, 1981; B.A., Classics (Greek and Latin), Tufts University, 1978; Wayland High School (Wayland, MA), 1974. Served on the faculty of Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), York University (Toronto), and Lexington Theological Seminary (Lexington, KY). Works in many languages: Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, English, French, Italian, German, Modern Greek (some Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish). Holder of numerous honors and awards, including The Rome Prize in Classics (Prix de Rome) and Fellow of the American Academy of Rome.

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