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Unchurched America Has Changed Little in 20 Years

Unchurched America Has Changed Little in 20 Years

by Michael Lindsay


PRINCETON, NJ -- Approximately two in five adults (44%) are considered to be "unchurched" in America today, a percentage which has changed little over the last two decades. The number of Americans who are without a church membership or have not attended regular services within the last six months -- 44%, according to a 1998 Gallup poll -- is the same percentage recorded a decade earlier in 1988, and is only slightly higher than the percentage of the population recorded in 1978 (41%).

In general, the unchurched are more likely to be men (50%, compared with 39% of women), and less than 30 years of age (49%). People living in the West also have a greater propensity to be unchurched; 52% fall into this category. People living in the South, as well as those who live in rural environments, are more apt either to be members of a church or to attend a religious service aside from special occasions.

Race represents one of the areas of sharpest divergence on the matter of church participation. Almost one in two whites (45%) are classified as unchurched, but the figure drops to below one in three (32%) among blacks in this country. However, the greatest divergence appears among ideological subcultures of the American population. Whereas 55% of liberals in this country dissociate themselves from a church, only 35% of conservatives fall into the same category.

Gallup findings on the percentage of Americans in this country who are classified as "unchurched" are based on two primary questions that have been asked over the past three decades. First, Gallup asks respondents, "Are you, yourself, a member of a church or synagogue?" A second question is then asked: "Apart from weddings, funerals, or special holidays such as Christmas, Easter, or Yom Kippur, have you attended the church or synagogue of your choice in the past six months, or not?" In order for an individual to be regarded as "churched," the person must respond affirmatively to both questions. All others -- meaning those who answer negatively to either or both questions -- are considered to be "unchurched."

A full review of the spiritual pulse of the nation is available in Gallup's newest publication,Surveying the Religious Landscape(Morehouse, 1999) by George H. Gallup, Jr., and D. Michael Lindsay. It is available for purchase through the Gallup website or at your local bookstore.

Detailed Findings
Demographic profile of the "unchurched." Note: The unchurched are defined as those who are not members of a church, or who have not attended services in the previous six months other than for special religious holidays, weddings, funerals, or the like.

  Percentage of people who are "unchurched"
National 44
Male 50
Female 39
Whites 45
Non-whites 37
Blacks 32
18-29 years 49
30-49 years 44
50-64 years 42
65 and older 40
Region of the country
East 47
Midwest 41
South 39
West 52
College 40
High school or less 49
Conservatives 35
Moderates 47
Liberals 55

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