IDEMA: Why is organized religion declining?

Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves is writing a new book on "the decline of American religion," but he has already reached this conclusion: "The burden of proof has shifted to those who want to claim that American religiosity is not declining."
Sep 25, 2013

Part of American religiosity is church attendance, which has declined for many denominations and many individual churches within those denominations. I will share some of my own observations about why this is happening.

(1) First of all, denominations such as my own, the Episcopal Church, have done a very poor job of recruiting talented young people to enter into the ministry. Moreover, seminarians usually come out of their training with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. With notoriously low salaries, newly minted clergy face the grim task of trying to pay off this debt. The Episcopal Church has the best-run pension plan among denominations in the United States (and perhaps the best pension plan per se). The pension fund has billions of dollars for a relatively small amount of people who tap into it, yet there is very little financial help for seminarians within the Episcopal Church.

(2) With a small talent pool of available clergy, especially young clergy, many small churches cannot find a minister to meet their needs. Moreover, the Episcopal pension fund — to use again an example I am familiar with — encourages clergy to jump from small churches to large churches and the office of bishop because the pension formula rewards higher salaries much more than years of service in one parish. Raises in churches are often simply cost-of-living increases. So, to receive a real jump in salary — which translates into thousands of dollars extra in pension benefits — clergy bail out of small churches in favor of those which pay more.

What is tragic here is that few clergy are dedicated enough to attempt to build up a small parish, which takes years. The rewards of having a high salary for seven years or so, whenever those years occur in a career — which results in a much larger pension — are simply too tempting to resist. So, large, rich churches can afford and find the best talent. And what a minister calls "a call from God" to switch churches is in reality the call of a higher salary.

Another downside of receiving large salaries in large churches is that too often the minister becomes afraid of saying anything controversial, which might then jeopardize his or her position. Thus, many "cardinal rectors," as we say in the Episcopal Church, suffer the fate of being considered boring in their sermons. They fail to relate the biblical lessons to what is going on in the culture, the world, or in people's lives. This leads to the unpardonable sin for a minister, being unable to relate and thus considered irrelevant. This is particularly sad if a minister is afraid to say what he or she really wants to say.

(3) Mainline churches are having a tough time keeping or attracting young people. Ministers often think that when young people have children, they will return to the fold. Dream on! Sometimes this happens, but in today's culture it often doesn't.

(4) Clergy sometimes have their own agendas, which they impose on a resisting congregation. This might be a political or social agenda (e.g., gay marriage) or an issue of churchmenship (e.g., the use of chanting and incense, and the type of music). In other words, sometimes there is a mismatch between a minister and his or her congregation. No one's fault, just a bad marriage.

(5) A church's decline sometimes happens due to crushing debt. If a church expands but then begins to lose members, for whatever reason, that church could be headed for real trouble.

(6) Personality clashes between clergy and their congregations often split apart a church, leading to its decline. When a church interviews candidates for its pastor, sometimes there is not enough time to get a real feel for the person. Moreover, a pastor's previous congregation may give a search committee glowing recommendations because it wants him or her to move on!

(7) Often clergy get so bogged down in administration, that they forget to keep reading books. With a filled-up calendar, they make few parish calls and thus fail to get into the home and see how the flock lives. Clergy get burned out because of countless committee meetings, and then lose their energy. A church may notice that its pastor is getting burned out, but the demands on his or time keep on coming, as if a committee cannot meet without its minister present! This expectation makes the clergy feel guilty when they skip a meeting.

(8) A church may resist change. The last words of a dying church are, "We have always done it this way." Trying to move a church into something new is so exhausting that clergy are often driven to drink! Or they resort to junk food and get overweight.

Other factors come into play in religious decline, such as demographics (e.g., being located in downtown Detroit in a formerly ethnic neighborhood), or an aging congregation dying off without replenishing the pews. I remember a church organist once saying to me on a Sunday morning, "A lot of wood out there." Yes, empty pews translate into empty coffers.

I have not exhausted this topic, but have simply listed some of the factors in religious decline. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a church today is the nature of our culture, which is highly narcissistic and more attuned to social media than what is said from the pulpit. We are increasingly becoming a non-reading public with little appreciation for the rich liturgies and classic music many mainline churches offer. 

Moreover, many people today are not looking for community, even though they might benefit from a loving community. They sit alone in front of their computers. And don't forget that women work today and both parents are exhausted on Sunday mornings. 

Many churches cannot find enough Sunday school teachers, which are usually women.

The key for a reversal, I believe, is recruiting talented people for ordination, especially young people. Then training them well, making their education affordable, and rewarding them for staying in small churches where there is the possibility of growth, and thus not encouraging people to jump ship for the high-paying positions. 

Yes, money controls much of what goes on in organized religion, as in every other place, which has a corrupting influence on the church, thereby weakening it.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist


deuce liti

I hope I can help you here (please bear with me): The episcopal church and all other forms of false christianity are a part of what Revelation 18:2 calls "Babylon the great" the empire of false religion and the kings (political leaders) have "committed fornication with her." This means false religion has mixed in politics and to a greater extent the world, which "is passing away and so is its desire" (1john 15:17). God tells the people to "Get out of her (false religion), my people, if you do not want to share with her in her sins" (rev.18:4).

Organised religion is losing people today because the clergy class gives them absolutely nothing. They skin the sheep of their money and become as Jesus calls, "The hired man, who is no shepherd and to whom the sheep do not belong as his own, beholds the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and flees - and the wolf snatches them and scatters them - because he is a hired man and does not care for the sheep." (John 10:12).

Jesus warns his true followers about false religion saying. "By their fruits you will recognise them" (mat 7:16). They are not teaching the truth and living by God's standards. All they care about, as proved in this article, is filling seats (making money) and keeping those seats filled. You are not producing fine fruit because you do not have "the spirit of the truth" (john 14:17)

Organised religion thinks that because it's christian it can get away with anything. Jesus states, "not everyone saying to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will. Many will say to me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?' And yet I will confess to them: I never knew you! Get away from me you workers of lawlessness."
They are not taught to live by bible standards. The sheep of organised religion do not know the bible nor are taught it. They are taught traditions and "have made the word of God invalid because of your traditions. You hypocrites... This people honors me with their lips, yet their heart is far removed from me." (Mat. 15:6)

So the clergy go in debt to learn about God only to come out empty-handed. They can't get the youth because they don't instill the truth in their hearts. Sin is gone from religion with a "once saved always saved" tradition.

You can't keep them in Babylon forever.

Yes I used the word of God the way it was meant to: to understand God and live for him.


You think you're so different from the author of the article, but you're not... It's all the same. I know you automatically assume that anyone who disagrees with you doesn't 'know their bible', or doesn't have a 'real relationship' with god. That's egotistical garbage. Save yourself from it! It's such a pity anyone has to waste brain cells on this stuff... MOVE ON.

deuce liti

I understand that you are trapped in the vestibule of darkness where every door of hope that is pried open only reveals the true iniquities of man reflected through a broken mirror of regret tinged with the blood of animosity.

You have only seen the hypocrisy of false christianity and its failures to produce fine fruit (true christians).
Jesus said, "Broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it."

Only a small number of true christians will be visible. That is why you have only false religion as your reference.

To try to understand the sovereign creator of the universe is not a waste of brain cells. "The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. Wisdom and discipline are what mere fools have despised." (Proverbs 1:7)


Religion is brainwashing. I feel sorry for those who feel bound to the chains. deuce gives another brainwashed version of things...

The reason religion is declining is because it doesn't stand up to reason. No religious person will be honest enough with themselves to see this unless they are ready to lose their religion.

Get rid of the garbage and discover that life is so much richer without it.


Blasphemy!! "Garbage", "..brainwashing.." I'm proud to ask God to have mercy on your pitiful soul. As I've said before in this venue, one day you'll have to stand before God and explain why you said what you have. Are you ready? We aren't promised tomorrow.


If organized religions are declining, it is because they have abandoned their long held theological doctrines and beliefs, substituting left wing political causes and politics, like liberation theology, amnesty, anti-Second Amendment, and anti death penalty positions. To add insult to injury, their representatives take to the media to try to sell the substitution to a skeptical public.


Well said Vlad. The Presbyterian Church USA is currently in schism due to just this abandonment of traditional doctrines and beliefs. Left-leaning, liberal ideology is definitely having a negative impact on the church denominations nation-wide.


The Presbyterian Church USA is currently in schism because some of us (I am a 55 year long member and elder) because I believe in this old fashion notion that it is not my role as a Christian to judge, but rather to love and include ALL sinners ( that's you )in my life church and faith. I'll let God sort it all out in the end. I think that's what I heard in Sunday school. So we'll keep our female pastor, gay members, and the rest of all the ilk that get your panties in a knot.


Jesus was a leftist, non-conformist, sinner loving community organizer. He hung out with gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors and other losers his whole life. Therefore I conclude that religion is in decline because of Obamacare and gun control. Duh.


basically most people call them self a christian is fake, just by call them self such and is hiding from the truth, all see nowadays in big fancy churches because they have nice homes and would not be caught in a poor side of town, its all about money, what kind of car is your pastor driving, better than mine i bet, last time i went to a church, i was invited, went three times and pastor pulled us in to his office and needed us to commit certain percentage of my pay check to the church, i got up left and never went back, i was raised in religious back ground and still believe in god and miracles, what ever happened to small neighborhood church we always liked


Exactly why many have turned away from church, not God.

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