New data from the 2020 Census of American Religion by Public Religion Research Institute reveals a changing religious landscape that bucks some of the most recent doom-and-gloom headlines pronouncing the impending end of religious affiliation in America.
Decade-long decline continues
Despite the many positive findings, the continued decline among white evangelical Protestants stands out.
In 2006, about 23% of the U.S. population identified as white evangelical Protestants. During the past 14 years, that figure has declined every year except for 2014, falling to 14.5% in 2020.
Surprising decline in unaffiliated
Much has been written about the rise of the “nones” (the religiously unaffiliated), although that rise peaked in 2018 at 25.5% and has been steadily declining over the past two years to settle in at 23.3% in 2020.
Some have noted a correlation between the decline of evangelicalism and the rise of the unaffiliated, but this new data suggests a different narrative. It appears that people aren’t leaving faith altogether when they leave their evangelical churches. Some people are moving into another religious stream.
Rise among white mainline protestants
There is an encouraging trend for religious movements (such as The United Methodist Church) that have been historically identified as mainline Protestants.
For the first decade of this research, PRRI showed white mainline Protestants mirroring the decline of white evangelical Protestants. The percentage dropped from 17.8% of the U.S. population in 2006 to 12.8% by 2016. This group has had a precipitous rise, recovering almost all of that loss in the past four years to reach 16.4% of the U.S. population in 2020.
Increase in religious diversity
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One of the biggest trends is an increase in religious diversity across the board.
More Americans are living alongside people from various religious traditions. This is most pronounced in urban areas. Religious diversity is lowest in rural areas, particularly in the southern part of the United States, with southern Louisiana and south Florida being marked exceptions.
That religious diversity changes across ethnicities, with Black Americans having the largest percentage (72%) to identify as Christians and Asian/Pacific Islanders exhibiting the most religious diversity with 29% identifying as one of the survey’s “other world religions.”
Although Catholicism comprises less than 20% of all other ethnicities, among Hispanic Americans, 50% identify as Catholic.
Most dramatic among young adults
All of these trends are most dramatic among adults ages 18-29. The difference is stark, with 22% of adults 65 and older identifying as evangelical Protestant, while a mere 7% of young adults identify as evangelical Protestant.
The diversity is striking as well. In the U.S., religious subsets such as “other world religions” (primarily Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) that barely register among older adults have reached 5% of 18- to 29-year-olds.
These trends contribute to white evangelical Protestants having the highest median age (56) with the “other” category — Buddhist (36) Hindu (36), and Muslim (33) — having the lowest median age.
The median age of white mainline Protestants and Jewish Americans also has been creeping down.
The differences stretch beyond religious affiliation. The ideological differences between the current older and younger generations have been well documented. On the whole, young adults are ideologically more progressive than older generations. That is echoed in this study, which finds the “religious makeup of Democrats generally resembles that of younger Americans ages 18-29.”
Those insights continue to be a guide toward reaching and communicating with millennials.
Inferences point toward openness
The data here suggests that the open, welcoming message of many of the mainline denominations are striking a chord with Americans who are looking for a faith that echoes the increasing diversity in their cities and workplaces. Especially among young adults, a message of openness in mind, in heart and in orientation to the world echoes their experience and is allowing the world of faith to become accessible in new ways through mainline Christianity.
Although the evangelical approach is still a significant part of the religious landscape in America, its message is not resonating the way it did even 10 years ago. Rather, the evangelism that appears to be most effective is the form being practiced in many mainline denominations that have shifted focus from a spiritual message to one of working for justice, feeding the sick and welcoming all the world into that life of service.
The bottom line? Stay the course. Be UMC. Keep being the place that leans into having open hearts, open minds and open doors. Keep focusing on seeing all the people Christ calls the church to reach.
Jeremy Steele is the associate pastor at Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, California, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book All the Best Questions, at his website: JeremyWords.com.