By Aaron Earls
Increasingly, the church has a reputation problem and it is affecting evangelism of those on the outside and retention of those who grew up on the inside.
According to recent surveys from both Gallup and Pew Research, more Americans than before have a negative opinion of church.
In the Gallup study, churches have an overall positive, but those numbers have been on a decline since the 1980s and a steep decline since the early 2000s.
Today, 36% of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion—an all-time low.
Another 36% say they have some confidence, while 29% say they have very little or none.
In 2018, the percentage who say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence dipped below 40% for the first time since Gallup began their study.
This is a significant change from 1973 to 1985 when confidence in the church topped confidence in all other institutions and organizations included in Gallup’s survey. Now, it ranks in the middle of the pack.
In the most recent survey, men are more likely than women to say they have very little to no confidence in the church (33% to 24%).
Young adults (18- to 34-year-olds) are the generation most likely to rate their confidence in the church as the lowest (35%).
Almost half of Americans who are politically liberal (46%) say they have very little to no confidence in the church, compared to 28% of moderates and 15% of conservatives.
Twice as many political independents (32%) and Democrats (35%) as Republicans (16%) express the lowest confidence in churches.
Fewer see the church as positive force
According to Pew Research’s study, 52% of Americans say churches and religious organizations have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country—down from 59% two years ago.
Today, around 3 in 10 (29%) say churches have a negative impact.
Similarly to the Gallup report, there is a significant partisan divide on the church’s cultural effect.
Almost 7 in 10 Republicans or those who lean politically toward the GOP (68%) say the church has a positive impact on the country’s direction, down slightly from 74% in 2010.
By contrast, only 38% of Democrats today say the church is a positive force. That’s a steep drop from 57% in 2010, and even 54% in 2015.
Now, Democrats are evenly divided over the church having a positive effect (38%) or a negative one (40%).
Negative impact on the church
Analysis of the General Social Survey finds many of those who have less confidence in the church today—men, young adults, and non-Republicans—are among the groups most likely to not attend church.
The reputation of the church among these groups is becoming a barrier to seeing them attend a church service and reaching them with the gospel.
A Lifeway Research survey found that among the 66% of young adults who say they regularly attended church as a teenager but stopped attending for at least a year between the ages of 18 to 22, one of the top reasons for dropping out was a political disagreement.
A quarter of young adults who dropped out of church (25%) say one of the reasons they stepped away from their congregation is because they disagreed with the church’s stance on political or social issues.
Among the young adults who stayed in church, 63% said they agreed with their church’s political perspective, while only 29% of those who dropped out said that was the case.
“The primary choice churches offer people is not political but the opportunity to follow Christ,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
“Neither conservative nor liberal politics keep young adults from church. But when a church communicates political views that differ from a young adult, that person is much less likely to walk that church’s aisle.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.