New research finds a growing number of Americans no longer have a belief in God. How can churches respond to the cultural trends?
By Aaron Earls
Most Americans still believe in God, but that majority is shrinking. This presents churches with challenges and opportunities for ministry in the new religious landscape.
The latest Gallup survey finds 81% of Americans say they believe in God, down six percentage points from 2017 and the lowest level ever. Similarly, the General Social Survey (GSS) finds only half of Americans (50%) say they know God exists and have no doubts, down from 63% in 2006.
This can seem harrowing and overwhelming for churches and pastors still working their way out of the pandemic and dealing with fallout from inflation and other economic factors. But facing an increasingly atheistic culture is not unprecedented for the church. Even currently around the globe, Christianity is growing in nations with irreligious majorities.81% of Americans say they believe in God, down six percentage points from 2017 and the lowest level ever in Gallup's survey. Click To Tweet
But how should U.S. churches react to the cultural trends of fewer Americans who express a belief in God? Here are seven key responses.
1. Be open to conversations
Half of Americans (51%), including 60% of the religiously unaffiliated, say they’re curious as to why some people are so devoted to their faith, according to a recent Lifeway Research study. Two in 3 Americans (66%) say they’re at least open to having a conversation about faith with a friend. And 51% are even open to those conversations with a stranger. Even with a growing number of Americans no longer believing in God’s existence, most are still willing to have a conversation about faith and religion.
2. Recognize the opportunity
Previously, religion researchers spoke of the “nominals becoming the nones.” Those who simply held on to the label of Christian without the corresponding practices migrated away from the label to become religiously unaffiliated. Now, we may be seeing the nones becoming the not-at-alls. It’s not simply that they are unaffiliated. In addition to the religious practices they left behind, they now actively reject their previous religious beliefs.Previously, religion researchers spoke of the "nominals becoming the nones." Now we may be seeing the nones becoming the not-at-alls. — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
As fewer Americans say they believe in the existence of God, churches aren’t dealing with as many who are Christians in name only. Avenues for evangelism become much clearer when we realize exactly what people believe. There are obvious negative ramifications for a society becoming less likely to embrace belief in God, but the increased clarity can aid in evangelism.
3. Don’t make assumptions
While some people may be clearer on their religious beliefs, that doesn’t mean everyone will be. In their survey, Gallup also asked people’s thoughts on prayer. More than 2 in 5 Americans (42%) say God hears prayers and intervenes in response, including 28% of those who seldom or never attend religious services. As you have conversations with the unchurched, ask questions to find out if they’re a hardened atheist, a lapsed Christian, or somewhere in between.More than 2 in 5 Americans (42%) say God hears prayers and intervenes in response, including 28% of those who seldom or never attend religious services, according to Gallup. Click To Tweet
4. Brush up on apologetics
Pastor and church leaders may have assumed they could leave behind philosophy in college or seminary, but that may not be the case with the falling percentage of Americans who believe in God. This doesn’t mean pastors have to become skilled debaters overnight, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to know some classic arguments for God’s existence. Many of those who say they no longer believe have simply never been shown how belief in God is rational. Resources like the Apologetics Study Bible can offer ideas.
5. Serve in the community
Finding ways to serve those around you offers at least two benefits: You will probably encounter the unchurched, and you will be able to demonstrate how your faith compels you to love others. You could even offer service projects through your church. In a 2016 Lifeway Research study, most unchurched Americans said they’re likely to attend some activities sponsored by churches, particularly an event to help make the neighborhood safer (61%) and a community service project (51%). They said they’re less likely to show up for a worship service (34%) or a small group for people curious about God (26%).
6. Disciple kids and students
The dramatic drop in the percentage of Americans who believe in God is driven largely by younger generations, according to both Gallup and GSS. In Gallup’s survey, belief in God dropped 10 percentage points in the past five years among 18-29-year-olds (78% to 68%). In GSS, only 38% of 18-34-year-olds say they know God exists and have no doubts. For every other generational group, at least half express certainty in God’s existence. Lifeway Research found 66% of churchgoing teenagers stopped attending for at least a year as they reached young adulthood. Many never returned.Belief in God dropped 10 percentage points in the past five years among 18-29-year-olds (78% to 68%), per Gallup. Only 38% of 18-34-year-olds say they know God exists and have no doubts, according to GSS. Click To Tweet
Churches must work to disciple kids and students with this in mind. As they prepare to navigate the years of growing into their faith personally, help them know what they believe and why they believe it. As belief in God becomes less common among their peers, younger Christians need to be able to articulate and defend their faith.
7. Teach theology
As we work with the next generation, we shouldn’t ignore older generations. The entire church needs to better understand what the Bible says about God. As you encounter people who have rejected a belief in God, you will discover many who no longer believe in God are rejecting a god the Bible rejects as well. Their theological misunderstandings led them to turn away, not from the God of the Bible, but from a false representation of God. Spend time teaching theology to your congregation so they know exactly who God is and all He’s done for them.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.