America’s declining faith in pastors and churches

Religion holds powerful sway over people’s lives—but not always in ways we might expect. We typically imagine that the faithful check their brains at the church door and follow whatever dicta religious leaders offer. Maybe not.

While religious belief represents the greatest influence on how people voted in our recent presidential election, the opinion of their pastors mattered far less to them, according to research by Barna. A third of adults said their faith had “some” or “a lot” of influence on them. But less than half that total ascribed the same power to their pastor.

Like most surprises, this is unsurprising. In 2014 Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research conducted a survey to establish a baseline of religious belief in America. More than half of respondents agreed their pastor’s words had no real authority over their lives, even from the pulpit.

Whatever their personal beliefs, Americans’ faith in their pastors and churches has been in significant decline for decades. When the Gallup organization asked people to “rate the honesty and ethical standards” of various professionals in 2015, respondents placed clergy down at number 6. They fared better than bankers and lawyers, but nurses, pharmacists, medical doctors, high school teachers, and police officers were all considered more trustworthy and ethical than pastors and priests.

Not even half, just 45 percent, of respondents said clergy’s honesty and ethical standards were high or very high. The number has never been overwhelmingly high, but this is an all-time low. Gallup started asking the question back in 1977. Sixty-one percent rated clerical honesty and ethical standards high or very high then. It’s been as high as 67 percent (1985), but ever since the figure has trended down.

Pastors and priests look somewhat better than the institutions they represent. Confidence in organized religion has also been in decades-long decline. But it’s never been lower than right now, according to Gallup. While the “the church or organized religion” ranked higher than any other institution in 1973, it started to turn south in the middle 1980s, when for the first time confidence fell below 60 percent. The televangelism scandals of the era could explain the drop.


Through the 1990s institutional religion made a comeback, slowly and unsteadily again reaching 60 percent in 2001. That same year, trust in clergy at 64 percent was the highest it had been since 1985. Then the Catholic child sex abuse scandal hit in 2002. Trust in the clergy fell to 52 percent, and confidence in organized religion plummeted from 60 percent to just 45 percent. Today only 41 percent of Americans put much faith in institutional religion. That’s four points worse than when the sex abuse scandal hit.

“The church and organized religion is losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation’s culture,” says Lydia Saad of Gallup. For causes she points to the “self-inflicted wounds” of scandal, as well as the growing number of disaffiliated Americans. “[T]he nation is becoming less Christian and less religious, and those outside of Christianity naturally view the church with less respect.”

These have certainly had their effect, but there is a larger trend to factor.

In The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, historian George Marsden examines the decline of institutional religious authority and the rise of individual autonomy, beginning in the 1950s. “The meaning of life, everyone seemed to agree, could be found not by looking to tradition or to community, either past or present, but rather, by looking within,” says Marsden. “Individual development, individuality, and self-fulfillment should be the preeminent goals.”

Paradoxically, America witnessed a religious revival through the same period. As one marker, church attendance rose dramatically. But Marsden concludes this uptick in faith masks the privatized character of its expression. Robert Bellah, Phillip Hammond, Alan Wolfe and other social scientists observed the same shift. Religious authority is increasingly grounded in individual preference, not religious leaders or institutions.

That’s the new normal for American religion. When it comes to determining whether we’re “good Christians,” we rank following individual conscience higher than following the actual teachings of our churches, says Duke professor Mark Chaves. And just one in ten agrees the local church has any authority to say whether a person is or is not a Christian at all, according to Ligonier and LifeWay.

Americans are exceptionally religious. And our faith influences many aspects of our lives, including our politics. But we trust ourselves above our pastors and churches to determine what that faith is and means, which seems more particularly American than Christian.

Image: Alejandro Rdguez, mod.


    1. No doubt. It’s tricky because we’re all Americans, and we all absorb this kind of individualism through our culture. It serves us. I think we’ll need not to unlearn it, so much as channel it more beneficially.

  1. Great piece, Joel. And I agree that the factors you cited have contributed to this decline. However, I think there are reasons for this trend go deeper than those given.

    First, pastors / churches have watered down the Gospel in order to make it more palatable to an increasingly immoral generation. This has, in my view, contributed to a cult of “supermarket Christianity” that invites people to search for the most inviting and entertaining services, the most charismatic pastors, and the least accountability. For those who are shopping, they will seldom remain satisfied — thus ensuring an ongoing litany of shopping trips until they finally give up. For those who are merely seeking a church home that faithfully honors God, they are increasingly less likely to find contentment in such places and are more willing to seek other ways to express their faith, including home churches and para-Church organizations.

    Second, I have seen that even in churches that faithfully seek to honor God, there exists a pervasive, institutionalized judgmentalism that infects many of these churches to varying degrees. I have personally witnessed brothers and sisters in the faith who turn their noses up at people who don’t look right, don’t talk right, and don’t even smell right. Thus, the walking wounded who need the Church the most will never feel at home, and those who do such things to them will seldom learn to love unconditionally. Unwed mothers, drug addicts, convicted criminals, homeless people, and homosexuals need not apply. The Apostle Paul would no doubt find himself in such company and would never, ever be allowed to pastor such a church.

    Third, many churches have become irrelevant in their actions and their lack of action. It’s critical as believers that we share the Gospel, but how many hungry people do you know who will actually listen to someone talk about the love of Jesus while their belly is aching? Jesus, in Matthew 25:31-46, addresses this matter harshly. Churches are well known for their building programs and passing the plate to raise money for them. They strive to have nice facilities and great multimedia systems. All very nice. But how many use their resources to actively take-in unwed pregnant women and provide counseling services to the mentally ill? Or work together with neighboring churches to to provide food, clothing, shelter, rehab services and job training to homeless people? Or even visit elderly and sick people beyond an occasional parishioner who is suffering?

    I maintain that the real reason the Church is declining is because they have become country clubs for their favored few rather than hospitals for the walking wounded in their community. The Salvation Army and Dr. Phil have become far more relevant than the institutional Church. Why? Because it’s much more comfortable to sip coffee with a fellow church member after Sunday services than to talk with and help a ratty looking, smelly visitor. It’s easier — and more expected — to write a check for a building program than to buy groceries for a neighbor who is struggling to feed their family.

    If we want the Church to become relevant again, then churches — their leaders and members — must commit to building God’s kingdom rather than their own. It truly is just that simple.

    1. I strongly agree with your second and third points, but I somewhat disagree with your first point. I think there is a fine line between watering down the gospel and making it relevant to today’s world. In 1 Peter chapter one for example, Peter did a great job of making ‘scripture’ relevant to his audience. Exactly where that line is seems to vary according to individual perception and interpretation of scripture and perhaps even one’s view of social mores. In my opinion if your 2nd and 3rd points fully into effect the first would be less relevant, not irrelevant but less relevant. Love will overcome a multitude of sins or watering down of scripture. Someone once said God will judge how much you love by how much you love those you like the least. Perhaps we should first apply that within our own congregations.

  2. I’m wondering if this is an unexpected consequence of a couple of generations emphasizing “a personal relationship with Christ” as the defining characteristic of religious faith. It sure seems “Me and Jesus” trumps “we are all members of one body.”

      1. I think “me and Jesus” taken to its fullest or in its fullest sense makes us cognizant that we are all one body, one family. I heard a speaker say one time, “prayer isn’t enough, praise isn’t enough, love isn’t enough, faith isn’t enough, you must submit, submit to God’s will for you.” That is a very high bar and all these years later I don’t think I have made it over it yet. I am still working on the first four and it seems to me love and faith are required to achieve submission.

  3. I think you need to zoom out with your graph to get a better understanding of American religiosity here. The Gallup surveys that you’ve cited go back to the 1930s, and you’ll find that church attendance and confidence during the Great Depression was actually pretty low, in the 40-percent range, as were most other gauges of social connectedness. At the end of World War II, church attendance went up in to the 60 percent range and stayed there until the early 1970s, and the reason was that the veterans were going to churches to retain a sense of community they’d had in the service, and (probably) because of their PTSD and a desire for a safe place. As the vets aged out, religiosity declined back to pre-war levels. It’s tempting to think of the high connectedness of the 50s and 60s as the “normal” we need to return to, but the phenomenon happened for reasons that cannot duplicated.

    Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000, Touchstone) has an excellent chapter on these trends.

  4. It is less a matter of scandal than it is of the overt politicization of the pulpit, amd the bible school ignorance of so many pastors.

    The Faithful are searchers for understanding.
    Sadly however, The Word has been drowned out of the glib recitation of Chapter and Verse.

    Organized Religion is doomed unless its guides recover The Spirit.

  5. I’m probably out of sync here with what’s wrong with our church. I’ve always believed that if the church is seeking the lost that God would work his will through His church. The old song says “Rescue the perishing, care for the dieing”. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon about salvation. It’s just not popular. It seems that there’s no lack of emphasis on church membership and very little on “seeking and saving those who are lost”. God doesn’t need our puny efforts. So why aren’t our churches more blessed by the Holy Spirit? “Seeking and saving” is worth thinking about as we stumble about with our many efforts or are we , quoting King James, being “spewed out”. I’m 84 and looking forward to having answers to many of these questions sooner rather than later. Maybe I’ll write a book. 🤒

  6. Hi Joel,
    Two questions:
    1. Where is the short post you mentioned at November 28, 2016 at 12:25 PM?
    2. Hasn’t the Church been in decline all over the globe for a very long time now? Maybe some incline when other nations decline, but nothing static?
    I ask because, although we do not know when the time of The Second Coming is, every day is one day closer…and as the days pass, on the whole, it is not going to get prettier. Sadly, the condition of His Church doesn’t surprise me.
    You can list a million reasons, all valid points, but I don’t think it’s supposed to get better. This is a realist rather than a pessimist speaking, btw!

    1. I’d challenge the assumption the church is in actual decline. Some nations go up while others go down, yes. But the trend has been toward substantial growth overall. See this report from Pew Research, especially the global comparison from 1910 to 2010 (link).

      1. Thank you for your response and the link, Joel.
        What I meant by “decline” was a decline in faith, per the title of the article, and not decline in numbers. That the numbers have increased, but our faith has declined is all the more ominous. And breaking down the Pew Research even further, I believe much of the increase in America is in “non denominational” churches….which my Priest accurately calls “multi-denominational”. In this perspective, perhaps my initial post makes more sense.


  7. Very good insights. I also think it’s also no small issue that feminism has changed even most of the more conservative churches.
    Books like “Why Men Hate Going to Church” and “The Church Impotent” as well as bloggers like Dalrock have many great insights on this.
    Men who care about results, tradition, risk taking, and building civilizations need not apply. As long as churches care more about maintaining the status quo with plenty of women’s and children’s programs, men will remain checked out and there will be little growth.
    I’ve been a member as well as a visitor to multiple churches, and almost none of these pastors (who are losing any remaining authority shown in the post) are men I can respect.
    So why do less and less people respect their church leadership? Are we all just disrespectful people, or have they lost any resemblance to a leader like say, Jim Harbaugh?

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