WHEN I WENT to church recently with a friend, we didn't attend her church because she doesn't have a church anymore. She was once a loyal member of a church but dropped her membership when she was disappointed by a change in leadership. Since then, she's attended various churches but never joined one. One might say she's church shopping, but the shopping has gone on so long that it's clear she has no intention of buying--of joining a church. She meets regularly with a small group for Bible study, and her children attend youth groups of various kinds, but she is not affiliated with a particular church.
My friend is not unusual. A set of 2010 Gallup polls revealed that while religious participation (at least self-reported participation) is on the rise, Americans are less likely to identify with a particular religious group. People do not belong to churches the way they once did, even when they show up for religious services.
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that in recent years new ways of relating to institutions have developed--ways that are fluid and hard to pin down. People develop "loose connections." At a time when many churches face declining membership, they must also grapple with the reality that even those who attend have a different idea of what participation means.
In the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that the U.S. lacked many institutions of the Old World, but that Americans were nevertheless a "nation of joiners." They created and enthusiastically participated in voluntary organizations, including churches. Americans were not constrained by duty or tradition to join churches, but they did. The reason, Tocqueville decided, was "self-interest properly understood." People saw the benefit of being connected. For 200 years, the voluntary nature of American religion has created a dynamic religious marketplace and produced vibrant religious congregations.
Voluntary church membership has been strong in American history, but it has never been stable. Church membership has waxed and waned over the years. It increased dramatically at two periods in particular. The first was in the mid-19th century, during the Second Great Awakening, when reformers like Charles Finney argued that Christian faith demands an individual commitment. A series of revivals led by Finney and a host of frontier preachers brought religion to ordinary people and sparked not only a massive renewal of religious piety but a spike in church membership, especially among Baptists and Methodists. Historians calculate that whereas in 1800 only one in six Americans was a church member, by 1850 that figure was one in three.
The other major growth period for church membership was during the baby-boom years following World War II. Many kinds of voluntary organizations flourished in this period, from parent-teacher associations to social clubs to service organizations. Historians argue that belonging to a church was a primary means of social belonging; church membership marked one's place in the community.
For mainline Protestants, the postwar religious boom led to a peak in church membership in the mid-1960s. With an increase in members came building programs, large staffs and the expansion of national denominations. For many, this model of church life is still the norm even though membership has been declining for almost 50 years.
The 1960s should not be taken as the historical norm, notes historian Mark Noll. He contrasts the mid-20thcentury model of membership with churches in the 19th century, whose primary income came from renting pews. Finney created a stir when he created a "free church" in New York City--a church no one had to pay to sit down in. Noll notes that denominations in the 19th century survived for years with just three or four staff members at the national level--not the hundreds that came to be employed by denominations in the 20th century. The rise of what Episcopal bishop Greg Rickel calls the "religious-industrial complex" is a phenomenon of the 20th century. …