U.S.'s #1 Religion Loses Ground

Macnamara piece, Protestants losing numbers, Sharon Olson
It is a sign of the times: Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists worshipping together in Valley, Nebraska. As CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports, not enough of them are around any longer to support a church of their own faith.

"There's more strength in numbers," says Cindy Matteo, a Methodist. "We can do more as a group. We can reach out to more people."

But finding more members could be a long reach. A University of Chicago research center study says the number of Americans who still identify themselves as Protestants is dropping to a historic low.

"They're very close to falling below 50 percent, which would be the first time in American history that the majority of Americans are not Protestant," says Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center.

Though the elderly are more apt to practice the oldtime religion, in the last decade, nearly 10 percent of younger adults who were raised as Protestants, now identify with no religion at all.

"I think people are working longer hours - they're working weekends and it comes to Sunday and they're like, 'Wow, I've got a day off,'" says Sharon Olson, a Methodist. "It's so sad, but true."

Today, the aggressive and phenomenal growth of Christian mega-churches is one reason Protestant declines weren't even more dramatic than they are. Hoping to inspire and multiply their congregations, they offer everything from ritual to recreation and rock 'n' roll. But critics say these churches often dilute the message traditional denominations live by.

"They're allowing themselves to be watered down," says Pastor Carl Ratcliff. "They're not presenting a clear picture of the gospel."

Valley Nebraska's First Methodist is closed and researchers say more churches will lock their doors as the Protestant majority melts away.

"America is becoming a much more diverse society - a society with perhaps no majority, no majority religion, no majority ethnic racial group within a few decades," says Smith.

For generations, churches stood on separate corners. But with declining numbers, many have had to explore their similarities - rather than their differences - to survive.