Barna: Decades of decline in faith-life laced with hope

Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Michael F. Haverluck (

empty pews in church

The condition of America's spirituality has changed drastically over the past several decades, with surveys taking place since before the turn of the millennium indicating a fading faith – interspersed with some rays of hope.

After gathering survey data for trends over the last several decades across the United States, Barna Group conducted nearly 100,000 of its own surveys over more than 20 years. Barna found that today, a much smaller proportion of Americans are "practicing" Christians – those who identify as believers, have attended church at least once in the past month, and who strongly agree their faith is a very strong component of their daily lives.

"In 2000, 45% of all those sampled qualified as practicing Christians, [and] that share has consistently declined over the last 19 years," the latest Barna report revealed. "Now, just one in four Americans (25%) is a practicing Christian. In essence, the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000."

Falling away

Many former practicing Christians have devolved into non-practicing Christians, Barna reports, with many from the former category dropping into the non-Christian sector – consisting of those not identifying as Christian.

"Half of [practicing Christians] fell away from consistent faith engagement – essentially becoming non-practicing Christians (2000: 35% vs. 2020: 43%), while the other half moved into the non-Christian segment (2000: 20% vs. 2019: 30%)," Barna informed.

"This shift also contributed to the growth of the atheist/agnostic/none segment, which has nearly doubled in size during this same amount of time (2003: 11% vs. 2018: 21%)."

Barna president David Kinnaman made some key observations about the shift.

"[The 'practicing Christian' measure is unique in that it combines three variables: calling oneself a Christian, strongly prioritizing faith and regular church attendance," Barna's leader pointed out.

"Because each of those three factors have declined over the last 20 years among all adults, the net effect shows the major reshuffling of Americans spiritual lives. Monthly, committed churchgoers are now about half as common as they were two decades ago, [and] this shift has major repercussions for church leaders, as there is increased struggle to attract and retain the active segment of churchgoers."

Kinnaman pointed out that 25% (80 million) of Americans identifying as practicing Christians is typical of wealthy and educated societies.

What a difference 30 years makes …

From around the George H.W. Bush's administration until a little after the end of George W. Bush's last term a decade into the new millennium, church attendance remained relatively high, but dropped after the onset of the Obama administration.

"First, in the 1990s, weekly church attendance hovered around 43% of the sample – this general trend continued with some stability into the early 2000s, and then there was a discernible shift upward," Barna divulged. "During the period from 2005 to 2010, weekly church attendance edged upward, with the highwater mark occurring in 2009 – when nearly half Americans (48%) indicated weekly attendance."

The beginning of former President Barack Obama's second term marked a major exodus from church, the researchers discovered.

"Recently … Barna's data show a declining trend – especially after 2012, [when] weekly attendance declined significantly and has been hovering around three out of 10 adults attending since then," Barna researchers noted.

"In actual numbers, 36% fewer Americans attended church weekly in 2020 than in 1993. This change could be correlated to a number of reasons, including the growing number of Gen Z and Millennials making up the U.S. population, disputes about who gets to be a part of or lead the Church, past and current church scandals and perceptions of the Church's role in politics – to name a few."

Drops in those attending church appeared in every generation.

"Declines in church attendance took place among Elders (14 percentage points) and Boomers (13 percentage points), especially after 2012," Barna explained. "While Millennials and Gen X were just as likely to attend church at the beginning of the decade, Millennials have edged below Gen X in nearly every year since."

Anchored in the Bible, prayer

A segment of Americans that hasn't declined over the decades is Bible readers.

"Put simply, those who are committed to the spiritual practice of reading the Bible have stayed extremely consistent over the decades," researchers noted. "Despite some ups and downs over the years, nearly the same percent of U.S. adults today report reading their Bible weekly as did in 1993 (2020: 35% vs. 1993: 34%). The share of Americans who read the Bible at least several times a week has not changed significantly since 2011; however, there is a more dramatic shift among those who have never read a Bible – jumping a full 10 percentage points in the last eight years."

Prayer has remained mostly constant in America, as well.

"From 1996 to 2010, there was no statistical difference in the percentage of Americans who prayed, with the number hovering around 83%," Barna reported. "Over the last 10 years, however, there has still been a steady, if slow, decline, with just under seven in 10 Americans (69%) affirming they pray weekly."


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