Participation in traditional houses of worship is in decline, but innovation and growth are happening elsewhere.
Image: Martin Parr / Magnum
Take a drive down Main Street of just about any major city in the country, and—with the housing market ground to a halt—you might pass morechurches for sale than homes. This phenomenon isn’t likely to change anytime soon; according to the author of a 2021 report on the future of religion in America, 30 percent of congregations are not likely to survive the next 20 years. Add in declining attendance and dwindling affiliation rates, and you’d be forgiven for concluding that American religion is heading toward extinction.
But the old metrics of success—attendance and affiliation, or, more colloquially, “butts, budgets, and buildings”—may no longer capture the state of American religion. Although participation in traditional religious settings (churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, etc.) is in decline, signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.
For centuries, houses of worship have been the center of their communities, where people met their friends and partners, where they raised their kids, where they found solace, where they broke bread, where they organized around important issues.
As Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell demonstrated in their 2010 book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, most Americans no longer orient their lives around houses of worship. And that loss is about more than just missing out on prayer services. It means that when people move to a new city, they have to work much harder to find new friends than previous generations did. When someone falls ill, they might not have a cadre of their fellow faithful to offer home-cooked meals and prayers for healing. This reorientation away from houses of worship is one of the factors that has led to the decline of a sense of community, the rise of social isolation, and the corresponding negative effects on public health, especially for older adults.
Religion has historically done four main “jobs.” First, it provides a framework for meaning-making, whether helping our ancient ancestors explain why it rained when it rained, or helping us today make sense of why bad things happen to good people. Second, religion offers rituals that enable us to mark time, process loss, and celebrate joys—from births to coming of age to family formation to death. Third, it creates and supports communities, allowing each of us to find a place of belonging. And finally, fueled by each of the first three, religion inspires us to take prophetic action—to partake in building a world that is more just, more kind, and more loving. Through the pursuit of these four jobs, religious folks might also experience a sense of wonder, discover some new truth about themselves or the world, or even have an encounter with the divine.
So rather than asking how many people went to church last Sunday morning, we should ask, “Where are Americans finding meaning in their lives? How are they marking the passing of sacred time? Where are they building pockets of vibrant communities? And what are they doing to answer the prophetic call, however it is that they hear it?”
There have never been more ways to answer these questions, even if fewer and fewer people are stepping into a sanctuary. People are meaning-making in one-on-one sessions with spiritual directors and chaplains. One in four Americans—across racial and religious (and nonreligious) backgrounds—has met with a chaplain in their lifetime, according to a recent survey that Gallup conducted for the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, of which one of us, Wendy, is a founder. Most find their time with chaplains valuable.
People are preparing for the end of life with the Shomer Collective, a group that helps people as they prepare for and navigate the end of life, offering wisdom from the Jewish tradition. Death doulas now work with people from a variety of backgrounds, giving hand massages, preparing food, and doing much more for dying people and their loved ones.
These spiritual offerings are not just for individuals. People are gathering in communities in new ways to celebrate Shabbat rituals with OneTable, and mourning the loss of their loved ones with the Dinner Party. They’re joining small groups through the New Wine Collective, a movement helping people build spiritual communities, and the Nearness, a platform for nurturing your spiritual life while discovering community online. And they’re pursuing faith-driven justice work with organizations such as the Faith Matters Network and Living Redemption.
Many theological schools aren’t yet training their students to reimagine how to serve people outside traditional religious contexts. Most are still preparing clergy to serve in congregations, a job with diminishing prospects these days. However, a growing number of groups, many of them led by seminary graduates, support spiritual leaders who are fostering new kinds of spirituality in their flocks.
The Glean Network, of which Elan is the founding director, has incubated more than 100 faith-rooted ventures over the past seven years through its partnership with Columbia Business School. Some of these programs focus on meaning-making, many on building communities, others on creative rituals, and still others on answering a prophetic call.
The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab brings chaplains traditionally siloed in the settings where they work—health care, the military, higher education, prisons—into a broader learning community. More than 4,000 chaplains belong to the Lab’s private Facebook group—what we believe to be the largest virtual gathering of chaplains in the world—sharing advice, insights, and improvisational rituals from around the globe. These networks and a growing number of others equip spiritual leaders from a broad range of faith traditions to do their best work, and challenge theological schools to make their education more responsive, expansive, accessible, and practical.
This swell of spiritual creativity comes at a time when Americans seem to need it most. We are more lonely, more divided, less hopeful, and less trusting than in previous decades. And while there is much to celebrate as these new offerings take shape, their growth comes alongside an unprecedented decline in religious affiliation, which does entail losing some things that are unlikely to be replaced by these creative efforts.
We are witnessing a tectonic shift in the landscape of American religious life. Putnam was right when he declared a decade ago that religious disaffiliation has “the potential for completely transforming American society.” But he also predicted that it “has the potential for just eliminating religion,” and we beg to differ. Before we conclude that this transformation is solely about decline, let’s make sure we’re looking in all the right places.