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Why Are Fewer Americans Involved In Organized Religion?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- In the weeks after the death of George Floyd, thousands of people flocked to the Sanctuary Covenant Church, an 18-year-old, multi-ethnic church in North Minneapolis, to volunteer. Ten months later, that Church's lead pastor many of those same people are continuing to stick around.

"They're constantly asking -- when are you guys re-opening because we want this to be our church," said Sanctuary's Rev. Edrin Williams. "That's a good problem to have."

Sanctuary is bucking the trend of overall declining church affiliation across the U.S. For the first time ever, Gallup found fewer than half (47%) of adults belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. That's down more than 20 points from the turn of the century.

So, what changed over that 20 years? Good Question.

"There's at least a couple of different factors," said Penny Edgell, a professor of sociology who studies religion and non-religion at the University of Minnesota.

She said one reason is that moderately religious or more liberal former church-goers have moved away.

"People began to associate organized religion with political stances they don't favor," said Edgell. "Or the idea, it's controversial, it's politicized.

Researchers used to point to the lifecycle patterns of religion as a way to explain how younger people reported fewer connections to religion – that young people would move away, but then return to religious organization once they were older and started families.

"It was true for many generations in this country, it's no longer true," said Edgell, pointing out people are getting married later and having children later. "So, what that means for a good 10 to 15 years of their lives, they haven't been involved in a religious institution, so they don't think to go back."

Then, there's the co-hort effect, where people who don't consider themselves religious are less likely to raise their children as religious.

According to the Pew Research, 16% of people considered themselves atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular." By 2019, that percentage jumped to 26%

Experts who follow religious trends believe that U.S. will remain a religious country, but these changes are here to stay.

"It's hard to see how it changes direction because this is driven by deep and long-term changed in demographics," Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the Duke Divinity School, who focuses on the social organization of religion.

Edgell said these trends can be seen in churches, synagogues and mosques.

Not all churches in the U.S. are seeing lower numbers. Mega-churches and multi-ethnic churches, like Sancutary, have grown over the last decade.

"We want to be a church that blesses north Minneapolis and the broader Twin Cities," said Rev. Williams. "That's who we are and there are so many people who are looking for a place like that to get involved."

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